Published on MadMariner.com (http://www.madmariner.com)
'It Got Bad Real Fast'
By James Elkin

For almost two decades, Tim Sperling and Tom Henry sailed the sport-fishing waters off Florida, sometimes together on business, sometimes for pleasure, and always as mariners who knew the local tides and nasty currents of Jupiter's inlet as well as any other charter boat crew in the area.

In September, heading back from a sail-fishing trip with several passengers, Henry, 61, was at the helm of the Waterdog, a 48-foot Garlington fishing boat, and Sperling, who captains his own boat, was helping out as first mate. A tropical storm far offshore churned 10-foot swells near the inlet's approach.

What happened next was a rare incident, pitching one man from the flybridge into the sea as the boat rolled perilously. Rarer still, the incident was captured by a photographer, providing an object lesson to boaters everywhere of the dangers presented by rough seas, even to an experienced crew. 

The heavy ground sea that day had already made putting out tricky, forcing the crew of the Waterdog to time its exit between groups of waves running through the narrow, virtually unmarked Jupiter inlet, but both men were experienced captains who had navigated the channel thousands of times. Henry, in particular, was known up and down the East Coast as an able, courteous, dapper and experienced charter captain. Both men knew that run back home was almost always easier.

This time, however, it proved disastrous.

The wave knocked 
Henry off balance and slammed him head into the side of the boat before 
washing him overboard.: STUART BROWNING / ZUMA PRESSSTUART BROWNING / ZUMA PRESSThe wave knocked Henry off balance and slammed his head into the side of the boat before washing him overboard. See sidebar for more about these photos and why we published them.

As the Waterdog approached the final leg of its trip – perhaps a football field away from land after a half day of luckless fishing – a rogue wave slammed into the boat as if from nowhere.

The boat, carrying its crew and five passengers at about 15 knots, had ridden up on a tailing wave that had built higher coming over a sandbar and then seemed almost to move ahead of the boat and tilt downward, almost pitchpoling the vessel when the full force of the wave plowed into it. The wave nearly rolled the Waterdog to port while also jerking the bow hard to starboard. The wave almost washed over the bow, nearly capsizing the vessel and flooding the cockpit with water, Sperling recalled in a recent telephone interview.

Then the wave, or perhaps one that followed, knocked Henry off balance and slammed his head into the side of the boat before washing him overboard.

It was the kind of accident that any boater, new or seasoned, is susceptible to, offering proof that the sea can overpower even the most experienced of mariners in seconds.


The crash of the wave had knocked Sperling down, washed equipment into the water and causing the boat to heel over so far that the tuna tower nearly dipped into the water, Sperling said. In the confusion that followed, Sperling, 54, said he did not even know that his friend had been thrown overboard at first.

As Sperling fought to bring the vessel under control, he looked up, saw another wave rolling their way, and called out a warning to Captain Henry – but it was too late.

"I yelled, 'Hey, here comes another one,' and he was gone," Sperling said.

After taking control of the wheel, Sperling found that the throttles were wide open, a circumstance that may have prevented the boat from being swamped by powering it over the waves that followed the first big one, Sperling said.

Sperling got on the VHF radio, put out a distress call and began searching the waters. The Jupiter Beach lifeguards had also seen the accident and went into action. The waves were so big, and there was so much white water, that Sperling could not see his friend.

Within 15 minutes, rescuers found Henry in the water. He was alive, but unconscious. The blow to the ship's rail had broken his neck, authorities said. He was transported to St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach, where he died three days later.

The passengers – a Texas couple with two boys, ages 7 and 4, and the boys' 72-year-old grandmother – were fortunate. Sperling said a bunch of cushions in the cabin helped soften the blow when they were tossed around by the wave. No one else was hurt.



A spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says the cause of the fatal accident is still under investigation. Yet the 400-foot-wide Jupiter Inlet has long been known as one of Florida's more treacherous channels to the Atlantic. Shifting sands, known as shoaling, combine with tidal currents and heavy surf to make the passage difficult to navigate without local expertise. The Jupiter Courier reports that 10 people have drowned since 1998 in boating and swimming accidents in the Jupiter Inlet.

At the time of the Waterdog's accident, tropical storms were steaming around the Atlantic: Hurricane Earl, a category 2 storm with 105 mph winds, had steamed up the coast off the Carolinas, while tropical storm Fiona was brewing over Bermuda. The storm systems created unsettled weather along large parts of the East Coast, including the Jupiter Inlet, authorities said.

"Those waves were exceptionally high that day," Sperling said. "It laid (the boat) right down on its side. It came as close as it could get to capsizing without capsizing."

The boat was not damaged, Sperling said. Its hatches, including the hold for fish, all remained sealed, avoiding a bigger calamity.


Henry, who had previously been a fighter pilot in Vietnam and a commercial airline pilot, had been boating for three decades and was known in ports from New Jersey to Mexico. He had also been a stockbroker and attorney.

"A lot of people would say he was a captain's captain," Sperling said. "He was just a really polite guy."

Sperling, who began fishing and sailing in the area when he was 15 years old, said he and Henry knew well the dangers of the shoals and the inlet, but all it took was one surprisingly large wave rolling in from the offshore storms to take them by surprise.

"It was just as casual as any other time we've gone in," Sperling said. "Man, it got bad real fast."

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