Rescue at Sea: A Skipper Overboard in the Black of Night

July 7, 2022Noelle Wiehe
runaway boat

The US Coast Guard’s 45-foot response boat-medium is a workhorse for the rescue agency. US Coast Guard photo.

The crew of the Fiona Leone didn’t know it, but they were riding a runaway boat into the black of night.

A crewman on board the fishing vessel awoke at 3:47 a.m. on Sunday, July 3, to find the engine running, roughly 12 nautical miles south of Panama City, Florida. The skipper wasn’t at the helm because he’d gone overboard into the Gulf of Mexico, with the boat on autopilot.

A mayday call from the Fiona Leone went out on Channel 16, the marine distress frequency. A crewman told US Coast Guard watchstanders in Alabama that the missing mariner was last seen wearing blue shorts and no life vest. And then he added he “was unable to operate the vessel,” Public Affairs Specialist 3rd Class Riley Perkofski told Coffee or Die Magazine in an email message from his 8th District headquarters in New Orleans.

But there was a glimmer of good news. Perkofski said the sea surrounding the Fiona Leone was relatively calm on Sunday, with waves cresting at roughly 12 inches. That gave the skipper a puncher’s chance at surviving the night.

runaway boat skipper overboard
An HC-144 fixed-wing Ocean Sentry sits under the Milky Way on the tarmac at Air Station Cape Cod Aug. 8, 2021. The Ocean Sentry is a medium-range, twin-engined turboprop aircraft used in search and rescue and maritime patrol missions. US Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Jonathon Harper.

Watchstanders in Mobile scrambled crews on board an HC-144 Ocean Sentry medium-range surveillance aircraft from Alabama and a 45-foot response boat-medium out of Panama City to race to the fishing boat. 

The Protector-class cutter Diamondback diverted course to join the maritime dragnet for the missing man, and Alabama authorities broadcast an emergency message to all civilian ships at sea to scan the waves for the skipper.

The message was received by the crew of New Beginnings, a 52-foot chartered fishing boat that had slipped out of Capt. Anderson’s Marina in Panama City Beach earlier. 

Commanded by Brandon Barfield, it carried nine passengers — junior hockey players and their dads from Nashville, Tennessee — who began squinting at the waves, trying to tell the difference between the moonglow shimmering across the sea and a swimmer trying to survive the night.

At 5:46 a.m., dawn began to spread across the sky, and they kept looking. And a little more than an hour later, one of the passengers thought he saw something. 

runaway boat skipper overboard
The US Coast Guard cutter Diamondback, right, moors alongside the cutter Kingfisher at Sector Jacksonville in Atlantic Beach, Florida, on April 13, 2013. US Coast Guard photo.

“They thought it was a buoy to begin with, and it ended up being the guy, so they pulled over and picked him up,” the vessel’s owner, Justin Steele, told Coffee or Die Magazine.

The Coast Guard’s Perkofski said New Beginnings fished out the missing mariner, who was “alive, with no injuries.” The crew relayed the rescue over Channel 16, and watchstanders ordered Station Panama City’s boat to rendezvous with the charter vessel.

The Coast Guard crew then returned the man to the Fiona Leone so he could steer it back to port. Authorities reported that he was in good condition.

“To survive in the water without a life jacket as the captain did is difficult for anyone to accomplish,” US Coast Guard Capt. Cassie Kitchen, a Sector Mobile search and rescue mission coordinator, said in a prepared statement.

Kitchen urged mariners to always wear life jackets, use kill switches to stop runaway boats, and maintain the right radio equipment to contact rescuers in an emergency.

Read Next: Did Oregon First Responders Help Recover a Shipwrecked Spanish Galleon?

Noelle Wiehe
Noelle Wiehe

Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.

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