June 13, 2006 – A daring sea rescue saved two sailboats and possibly the life of a sailor trapped aboard a runaway boat in stormy seas Tuesday.
The story, told by St. Thomas tow and salvage operator Gary Lohr and U.S. Coast Guard officials, sounds like a movie script: Bill Beach, 59, was single-handing a 53-foot sailboat south of St. John when he was knocked overboard by the storm swells that rocked the Virgin Islands – part of a tropical wave battering the eastern Caribbean.
The boat was towing a 36-foot disabled boat, which the man was not able to grab hold of. He was, however, able to climb on the dinghy it was towing.
"The seas were very heavy, and he was very lucky to grab the dinghy," said Ricardo Castrodad, a Coast Guard spokesman in San Juan.
Unfortunately, the line attached to the dinghy broke as he climbed aboard.
Henry Katz, 68, was alone aboard the 36-foot boat being towed – watching as Beach floated into a wall of rain and waves – radioed the U.S. Coast Guard, saying his boat was attached to a runaway vessel.
The Coast Guard had no boats in the area and phoned St. Thomas-based Sea Tow for help.
Lohr, Sea Tow owner, enlisted the help of Josh Yager, who happened to be near his boat. The two powered out into the high seas and, miraculously, found the runaway sailboat in what Lohr described as zero visibility.
"I don't ever recall being in water and wind as bad as it was out there," Lohr said.
The runaway boats were on a crash course with the south coast of St. John.
Yager leapt from Lohr's boat and brought the sailboats under control before tying a tow line to Lohr's boat.
"I don't get rattled very easy but I tell you, today I was rattled," Lohr said. "It was basically headed dead for trouble."
Lohr's 28-foot power boat was repeatedly nearly swamped while towing both boats.
Another boat, Reel Therapy, assisted in bringing the boats to safety and, minutes later, Lohr received a message from the Coast Guard that Beach had been found. His dinghy was swamped just south of St. John and he was uninjured, waving at a Coast Guard aircraft from shore.
"When I told (the Coast Guard) what happened, it dropped their jaws," he said. "That one was one I'll never forget."
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