Yesterday, I told you about falling in love with Margaret after reading an article she wrote for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Here’s that story:
A strong wave, despair . . . tragedy at sea
Only survivor among 4 in shipwreck recalls 55 hours of panic, mistakes
Margaret L. Knox Staff Writer, Sunday 5/12/1985
TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. – A bag of food was lost in a clumsy toss toward the life raft, and a package of flares was swept away by a wave. The wreck of the Can Do, which left three men dead off the South Carolina coast last week, unfolded as a series of tragic events, according to the man who survived it.
It was to have been an eight-day snapper and grouper fishing cruise from the docks of Tybee Island to Murrells Inlet in South Carolina, said the survivor, second mate M. Gregg Palmer of Raleigh, N.C.
The four fishermen left Tybee Island on May 3. Early Sunday morning, deck hand Tommy Wood of Tybee Island awoke to find the stern of the 34- foot fishing boat flooded, the result of a “freak wave,” according to Palmer.
After that, everything went badly.
Within 55 hours, one man disappeared while swimming for help, another succumbed to dehydration and a third, surrendering to pain and despair, took off his life vest and slipped into the ocean.
It all happened under clear skies in 70-degree water. The 7-year-old Can Do, which previously had withstood hurricanes at sea, was rocked on the day of the tragedy by swells of only 4 to 8 feet.
Recalling the tragedy from his hospital bed in Charleston, S.C., last week, Palmer, 28, occasionally lapsed forgetfully into the present tense as he spoke of his dead shipmates. A novice fisherman with just a month of experience at sea, Palmer was still wondering, “Why me? Why did I survive?”
Doctors supplied some of the answers. Palmer was healthy and uninjured, and h is husky physique would have allowed him to lose 20 pounds of fat before the effort to endure the elements began to gnaw at his muscle tissue, they said. At 5-foot-9, he weighs 166 pounds, having lost 9 pounds while adrift.
The first mate, Robert Watson, 26, of Pensacola, Fla., who had lost his fishe rman father in a shipwreck, probably broke a hand and a foot while evacuating the vessel, Palmer said. Wood, 37, swallowed salt water when he fell into the ocean while trying to board the life raft.
Faith and will power also figured in Palmer’s survival formula. He had listened as two of his shipmates, babbling with hallucinations, fell into a death-hastening delirium.
“I kept catching myself at it toward the end,” said Palmer, who was rescued at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, wearing khakis and a rubber rain suit but no shirt. “I used a lot of prayer and a lot of desire to get back home.” While Wood’s family and Watson’s relatives in Pensacola were preparing for memorial services Saturday, Palmer was getting ready to leave the hospital and go straight to a meeting with his uncle, who is the Can Do’s owner and father of the lost captain, Stacey Chancey.
Al Chancey wanted to hear from Palmer every detail of the shipwreck. As Palmer has pieced it together, the chain of tragedy began about 4 a.m. Sunday when Wood awoke to find the stern deck flooded.
Within half an hour, the Can Do was swallowed by the Atlantic. In that
half hour, recalled Palmer, everything went wrong.
The crew bailed and pumped frantically while Chancey tried to send a distress call and discovered that the radio’s batteries were dead. By 4:20 a.m., they were abandoning the sinking ship.
In a panic, they threw the life raft overboard before equipping it.
Palmer will not say who tried to toss the bag of food and water aboard – only that he missed. “The raft was bouncing, the boat was bouncing. He was clumsy,” said Palmer.
Someone else laid the emergency kit of flares and flashlights on the ship’s deck, and a wave sucked it overboard.
After less than two hours in the six-man life raft, they sighted a sailboat and discovered their waterlogged air horn was useless, Palmer said. Their shouts were whipped away by the wind.
As the sailboat drew to within 300 feet, Chancey, over his mates’ protests, tried to swim for help, Palmer said. Despite wearing a life preserver and having a reputation as a strong swimmer, Chancey was swept away by a strong current and disappeared in the swells.
The rest of that Sunday, the three survivors sighted several boats but none close enough to hail until about 3 p.m.
Palmer is haunted by what happened then.
“If I had just jumped up two seconds earlier . . .,” he kept repeating. But they had failed to designate a watchman, and all three were dozing when a sport fishing boat motored past, even closer than the sailboat.
By that evening, Wood was complaining of impaired vision and hearing. “He’d look you dead in the eye, as serious as could be, and say, ‘Let’s go up to the bar. Let’s go get a drink.’ “
When a wave washed over him, Wood drank the salt water despite the others’ en treaties to spit it out.
Palmer and Watson piled life preservers on top of Wood and lay beside him all night, trying to keep him warm. But by dawn Monday, he was dead.
Watson gave up about 24 hours later. The pain of his broken bones was too much, he told Palmer, and, like Wood, Watson began talking as though he were ashore: “Let’s go to the store. Let’s catch a ride.”
Palmer said he begged the first mate to hang on just a little longer. But by then, both were despairing, believing they had been swept well out to sea, beyond the range of small craft.
Watson removed his life vest and crawled over the side.
Just an hour later, Palmer caught a ride. He was spotted by a Coast Guard airplane just 45 miles southeast of Charleston and picked up by a sport fishing boat. He had with him in the boat a bottle of dishwashing liquid, a tube of toothpaste and the waterlogged air horn.
Wouldn’t you drive out of your way to meet the woman who wrote that?