The only party on the New Florida Girl Monday morning was a "bucket brigade" party as passengers assisted in bailing out the charter fishing vessel when high seas ripped a 15-foot hole in her side.
The New Florida Girl, a 37-year-old wooden hull party boat, arrived back at the docks on her own power Monday about 2 p.m.
"She got me in with a lot of help from my crew," Capt. Jim Westbrook said moments after arriving in Destin harbor escorted by the Coast Guard.
Capt. Westbrook, crew and 25 anglers had left Sunday morning on a 36-hour fishing trip. They fished all day Sunday and even into the evening pulling in 1,400 pounds of fish. They anchored up for the night about 40 miles to the southwest of Navarre.
From the boat to the beach it was about 17 miles, Westbrook said. The plan was to get up Monday morning and fish state waters for red snapper.
All appeared to be calm early Monday, but just before daylight the wind picked up - as well as the sea.
When they pulled up anchor, "it hit the side of the boat," Westbrook said, noting the Gulf was getting rough.
"The heavy seas must have pulled those planks off," he said.
"The front of the boat was going under ... the wind was blowing 40 knots and the sea had tripled," in just a matter of minutes, he said.
The waves were so high and strong, Westbrook said, "it was like driving into a brick wall every two seconds."
The party boat Destin Princess was nearby and heard their distress call and dropped off a small water pump.
In the meantime, the passengers and crew had formed a bucket brigade to help bail out water.
"If I really had stopped and thought about what was happening I might have gotten nervous, but we were too busy," said Dave Kowaski of Titus, Ala. "We were passing buckets for about three hours. It was flat steady. We had a chain going of about 20 buckets. "Kowaski has been fishing on the New Florida Girl since 1973 and this was his second overnighter.
For Walt Farmer of Wetumpka, Ala., it was his first fish outing on the New Florida Girl, but he said he would definitely go again.
"Momma didn't promise me a rose garden," Farmer said. "I'll be back ... I love the water."
The Coast Guard got the distress call at about 9:30 a.m. and started their response.
"A jet came out and did a fly-by, then a second fly-by dropped off a big pump," Westbrook said.
Westbrook was fascinated with the accuracy of the drop-off, noting that the Coast Guard dropped the pump just about six inches off the bow of the boat where one of his crew gaffed it and brought it aboard.
The Coast Guard also sent out two 41-foot response boats, crew from Station Pensacola and the 87-foot Coast Guard cutter Seahawk, home ported in Carrabelle, were there to assist in the rescue.
"The guys in blue were on the scene," Westbrook said.
Escorted by the Seahawk, the party boat made it back to Destin harbor on her own power.
It wasn't until after the boat was back at the docks that Capt. Westbrook knew just how long the rip in the side of the boat was.
"I knew I had problem, but not that bad," he said.
However, Westbrook said, it was nothing that couldn't be fixed. The boat lost about four planks, but the frame of the vessel appears to be in tact.
Fishermen aboard the New Florida Girl sang the praises of Capt. Westbrook.
"He knew the hell what he was doing," said Robert Morgan of Georgia. "I'd fish with him again any time."
Morgan, who's fished with Capt. Westbrook about five times, explained that the captain knew the vessel was taking on water at the bow of the boat and that he directed the crew to find the hole and patch it.
"He kept the angle so we wouldn't take the brunt of the waves," Morgan said. "The whole crew was great."
Passenger Craig Kasch of Destin said, "It was the best fishing in 20 years" - even with the mishap.
"That just added to the adventure."
When it was all said and done, Kasch said, "I'd rather have been with this crew than anybody else. We had just a bunch of old salts on the boat."
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