Crew jumps from rescue boat that lost steering in storm

By the next day, the boat had washed ashore on the Navy’s property in Crescent Harbor.

Two Central Whidbey firefighters escaped from a SAFE Boat that lost steering during Friday’s wind storm.

“One slip and they would’ve been crushed between the boat and the seawall,” Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue Chief Ed Hartin said.

It started with a call that a large sailboat was drifting in Penn Cove. A two-person crew loaded into the fire district’s 25-foot SAFE Boat, a brand of vessel commonly used by rescue agencies in Puget Sound. They determined that the sailboat’s anchor had dug itself into the seafloor and did not pose a threat, so they headed back to the Coupeville boat launch.

As they were getting ready to haul out, they received a call that a 12-foot boat was loose in Saratoga Passage and was last seen near Greenbank. The winds were strong — instruments recorded gusts of up to 63 miles per hour at Ault Field on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island Friday afternoon — and Hartin estimated that the waves were around four or five feet tall.

He advised the crew to do a once-over of the area to see if they could find the boat. A Coast Guard helicopter was already en route from Port Angeles to search the area, he said. The crew did not find the boat and turned north to return to land.

They got as far as Hidden Beach off Greenbank. Deputy Chief Jerry Helm, who was driving the boat, said he “felt a snap in the steering wheel and then the wheel began to free-spin.” He estimated the boat was about 100 yards from shore.

Helm tried to land the boat on the beach because the bow was already pointed towards the boat launch there.

“Unfortunately, the wind and currents pulled him off that course and he ended up in contact with large rocks and the seawall,” Hartin said.

The two were stuck in the cabin as the waves pounded the boat against the shore. They sent out a mayday call and rescue agencies from South Whidbey and Camano Island responded.

Helm exited through the rear door and his partner, whom he would not name, climbed out of the cabin’s side door. The pair managed to time their escape to the waves and jumped onto the seawall to pull themselves up on dry land. The other two rescue agencies were called off once the pair were safely onshore.

“One slip and they would’ve been crushed,” Hartin said.

Multiple agencies tried to catch the boat, but the sea and wind conditions worsened and they decided to wait for it to beach itself. The next day, a resident reported that the boat had washed ashore on the Navy’s property in Crescent Harbor. It now sits behind the fire station.

Hartin said the boat had significant damage to its hull and foam collar, and the cabin was full of seaweed. The fire district has begun a major incident investigation to determine what happened. The fire chief said he would be “surprised” if the boat could be repaired and put back to work.

SAFE Boats are used by most marine rescue agencies because they are, well, safe in rough water. The company’s website says that its boats are actually inspired by “rough waters and rocky shore of Puget Sound” and are built to take a beating. Hartin said he had not heard of any problems with SAFE Boats before and noted that it has performed well in the past in similar conditions.

The fire district has had the boat for at least four years. It belonged to the Coast Guard first before it was sold to a private party, who sold it to the Central Whidbey fire district, Hartin said. He estimated the district spent $200,000 to purchase the boat and update equipment.

The fact the boat stayed in one piece despite being violently thrown against the rocks was a testament to its safety, Hartin said. Helm echoed the chief’s sentiment.

“There’s a reason why the Coast Guard used them for so many years — it saved us,” he said of the boat. “I’m happy to be alive.”