Mark Saia, right, chats with fellow captain Jonny Johnson before departing the Coupeville Wharf Wednesday. A night earlier, the 1925 schooner Suva broke free from her mooring during a nasty wind storm and ended up approaching the rocks across Penn Cove near Blowers Bluff. Saia got in an inflatable tender at the wharf and raced across the cove despite heavy gusts, high waves and increasing darkness to single-handedly rescue the boat. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Captain’s heroics saves Suva from rocks

After a harrowing ordeal Tuesday, Mark Saia arrived home around midnight and soaked in his hot tub, allowing his body to thaw and his mind to stop racing.

He had spent the previous three hours involved in a single-handed rescue of the Suva. The schooner broke loose from its mooring during Tuesday night’s windstorm, struck a nearby vessel, then floated across Penn Cove on an uncharted, unmanned trip into the approaching darkness.

Back home in the hot tub, Saia dunked his head underwater and decompressed.

“I WAS thanking the Lord and I was thanking the people who watch over her,” Saia said. “It was hard to comprehend the thought of her going on the rocks after all we’ve done in three years.”

Saia is the main captain of the Suva and part of the Coupeville Maritime Heritage Foundation that owns her.

The Gatsby-era schooner, built in 1925, returned to its home port of Coupeville after its purchase in 2015 and is in its third season of offering public tours and sails from the Coupeville Wharf.

Saia said he constantly monitors the weather and expected things to get nasty Tuesday night. He secured a third rope to a floating mooring ball late in the afternoon to keep the Suva in place not far from the wharf.

What he didn’t expect was the magnitude of the storm and how it increased in intensity into the evening rather than subsiding. Swells reached 6 feet and winds were sustained at 40-50 mph in Penn Cove.

Wind gusts reached as high as 60 mph in Oak Harbor.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it out there,” Saia said.

SAIA WAS attending a youth sporting event in Langley when he got a phone call from a friend around twilight at 8:30 p.m. informing him that the Suva broke from its mooring.

Saia raced back to Coupeville not knowing what to expect. He recalled a feeling of terror when he reached the wharf and saw the Suva in the distance on the opposite side of the cove approaching Blowers Bluff.

“My heart stopped,” Saia said.

“To me, it looked like she was on the rocks.”

Saia jumped into a 12-foot inflatable tender, which was tied to the dock at the wharf, and raced across Penn Cove to try to save the Suva.

The conditions were horrific and darkness was fast approaching, but Saia’s adrenaline kicked in as he rode the waves, nearly flipping on a couple of occasions, while pushing the 8-horse power engine to its limit.

“I felt like I was in the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “I didn’t want to slow down. I gave it all she had.”

WHEN HE reached the Suva, he said, the schooner was about a football field length away from shore.

He had to time his leap from the skiff to the schooner’s stern to avoid a dangerous dip into the rough water. Saia said he jumped and grabbed the pulpit then pulled himself up from the lifeline.

“I could have been swimming,” said Saia, who’s 54. “My adrenaline was pumping. I clambered up that boat like a 12-year-old boy climbing a tree.”

Saia said he immediately stood up, ripped the zipped-up cover off the wheel and cranked it, turning the boat away from shore.

With darkness upon him, he still faced one major challenge. He had to get inside the cabin to start the engine and had trouble seeing well enough to enter the combination to unlock the cabin door.

He used the light of his cell phone to shine on the lock and found his reading glasses in his pocket.

Saia then reversed course and headed westward against the wind back into the cove at a snail’s pace.

“SPRAY WAScoming over the whole boat,” Saia said. “I was battling to get to the end of the cove.”

At that point, the marine rescue boat from Central Whidbey Fire & Rescue approached.

“Waves were crashing over that boat,” Saia said. “It was quite a sight.”

Saia captained the Suva to the west end of the cove and dropped anchor for the night near the Captain Whidbey Inn. Another one of the Suva’s captains, Jonny Johnson, spent the night onboard keeping watch.

When Saia went back onboard the tender that he had so frantically tied on to the Suva, he was afraid it wouldn’t start.

“I jumped in to start it up and it was still running,” he said with a laugh.

Damage to the Suva was minor and centered around the bow pulpit, the result of a collision with a sailboat.

When all three of its mooring lines snapped during the storm, the schooner immediately T-boned the sailboat, jarring the boat’s owner who was resting in his bunk.

Central Whidbey Fire & Rescue firefighters took the sailboat’s owner to shore.

“HE WAS pretty shaken up by the fact his boat was whacked by a 69-foot, two-masted sloop,” Fire Chief Ed Hartin said. “It was a pretty nasty night. I don’t blame him for wanting to be on dry land.”

The sailboat didn’t fare as well as the Suva.

Four stanchions were taken out, the pulpit damaged and some of the teak work on the outside of the boat chewed up.

Saia said he’s noticed that storms of increased ferocity appear to be happening more frequently and it would be wise to brace for more of them.

In retrospect, he said, he wished he would have dropped the anchor.

“THIS IS going to be our normal weather,” Saia said. “I can guarantee that. We just have to be prepared when there’s any kind of wind.

“Any wind I foresee, we will drop anchor at the end of the cove and take the tender to the Captain Whidbey. That will be our new policy. It’s not going to get any better.”

“Our planet is in a little bit of turmoil.”

Yet, somehow, the Suva survived it. With the help of some heroics by Saia.

“I wouldn’t have done it by myself,” Johnson said.