A Florida man was surfing alone at the Boynton Inlet when he saw the captain go over, clawing at the boat’s Bimini top before falling into a frothy sea the color of steel.
The captain was in the water and the boat, with eight charter passengers aboard, bobbed precariously Sunday in powerful waves heaved at South Florida from a deepening coastal storm off the Carolinas.
Burt Garnsey was surfing alone at the Boynton Inlet when he saw the Starfish Scuba captain go over, clawing at the boat’s Bimini top before falling into a frothy sea the color of steel. Garnsey looked to the bridge of the 34-foot vessel. The wheel was unmanned.
“I just started paddling toward the boat,” said Garnsey, an experienced mariner whose family has worked on the water for three generations. “It was still sideways.”
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The low pressure system barreling up the East Coast sent down high surf that battered beaches and pushed brackish Intracoastal water up storm drains, flooding coastal streets during high tides in a seepage of water that could last at least through Tuesday.
Waves that towered over surfers’ heads at Lake Worth Beach closed the pier Sunday and Monday, but not before a few pieces of the removable decking were punched out by the waves, said Doug Yoakum, manager of Lake Worth Beach Ocean Rescue. He estimated wave faces were 10-feet high Monday — the biggest swell of the season, he said.
It was also the first significant cool front of the season, leaving Palm Beach International Airport with a chilly high of 65 degrees Sunday — a reading that set a record cold high for the day. Fort Lauderdale reached just 62 degrees Sunday, also breaking a record. Miami topped out at 65, tying its record cold high for the day set in 1901.
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Dangers on the growing swells off Boynton
At dawn Sunday, Starfish Scuba co-owner Maggie Birdwell, as well as at least three other charter operators, checked the waves at the narrow Boynton Inlet and deemed it safe for a morning trip. Two- to three-foot swells with 30 seconds in between, was Birdwell’s assessment.
“It was definitely doable,” she said. “But as anyone on the water knows, conditions can change really quick.”
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Bruce Cyr, captain of the 65-foot Lady K in Lantana, agreed with the swell size and left the Boynton Inlet with a fishing charter at about 8:15 a.m. By then, the waves had built to 5 feet. Three hours later when he navigated back through the narrow inlet, they were higher still.
“Surfers are looking for the biggest sets. We’re looking for the calm in between,” he said.
Garnsey, 51, was eyeing the horizon at about 10:30 a.m. when the Starfish came into view, got whacked by a wave that turned it parallel to the whitewater, and then another that threw Starfish Captain Bradley Williams off the bridge.
A group of Jet Skiers were able to reach Williams, who injured his shoulder in the fall.
Garnsey bellied in a wave toward the boat. Concerned it would capsize with no one on the bridge, he climbed up on the dive platform, undid the leash that attaches him to his surfboard and ran to the wheel.
“My adrenaline was just pumping,” said Garnsey, whose family owns the Boynton Beach-based Sea Mist III fishing charters, which was also out Sunday.
Scuba diver Steven Joffee, who was aboard the Starfish on Sunday, said the waves didn’t seem overwhelming to him and that they look worse on a video being shared of the incident on social media than they actually were. Joffee said no one on the boat was hurt.
“It was certainly a little scary once the captain went overboard,” said Joffee, of Salt Lake City. “The crew jumped into action immediately.”
Unbeknownst to Garnsey, a dive master with Starfish Scuba had grabbed the wheel on a lower deck, but Birdwell said the crew was happy to let Garnsey take over to navigate the 130-foot wide Boynton Inlet.
The inlet is known for its treacherous sand bars and dog-legged approach — a challenge for even experienced boaters.
“Everything worked out. Everyone’s OK,” said Garnsey, who found his hand-hewn board washed up on the beach later that day. “We’re lucky.”
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.