Something in the water in the Atlantic Gulf Stream caught the eye of Capt. J.R. Klassen on M/Y Free Spirit, a 105-foot Northstar, after 10 a.m. on April 15.
He was watching a center console boat splash through the waves.
“It looked like another boat behind him but it wasn’t splashing,” Capt. Klassen said. “The next second I said, “That’s a plane going down.” I saw the plane hit the water then the right wing caught and it turned facing us.”
The yacht was 22.5 miles offshore Florida and heading to Ft. Lauderdale from Bimini, in the Bahamas when Capt. Klassen immediately diverted course to head to the crash.
“I was concentrating on getting to them, we were one-and-a-half to two miles away,” Klassen said. “I didn’t know if we could get to them fast enough if they were stuck in the plane. We had no idea what we would find.”
Then the yacht crew saw a yellow life raft. As Chef Diane Carroll, the yacht owner and guests on the Free Spirit, tried to keep eyes and binoculars trained on the raft, it would disappear behind waves and then pop up again.
They could see people in the raft. The captain ran full-throttle.
“I was watching through binoculars as the plane sank. I watched the tail going down… then it was gone,” Klassen said. “It was like three to four minutes. I had no real realm of time, but it might have been even shorter.”
When M/Y Free Spirit was close enough to the raft, the yacht owner’s son tried to throw the life ring. The swells and wind caused the ring to fall short.
“I got as close as I wanted, but with the wind the line wouldn’t go where he wanted,” Klassen said.
“When it missed they got a little panicky,” he said of the three people in the raft.
“We were towing a 33-footer Contender, so I pulled it around the way you would pick up a water skier,” he said. Then the crew yacht tossed out a tow line and the pilot grabbed it.
The crew pulled in the line as the pilot held on. The pilot said he had two female passengers and they all made it into the life raft.
“We got them up on the swim platform. They were wet, cold, shaking; the girl had to be lifted out, she had no sea legs,” Klassen said. “We didn’t see any cuts, but I am sure they are bruised.”
They were in shock, so Chef Carroll got them wrapped in blankets and offered dry clothes, he said.
“We finally got Free Spirit T-shirts on them,” he said.
Once onboard, Klassen called the U.S. Coast Guard and started toward Ft. Lauderdale. He relayed the survivors’ medical conditions.
“The coast guard called back and said they had a North Miami fireboat coming and would meet us eight miles out to transfer the people,” Klassen said. “To me, someone would have gotten hurt worse if we tried to get them off, it was just too rolly. I don’t even like doing that with our Contender,” Klassen said.
When the fireboat arrived they agreed to leave the survivors.
“So they decided to put an EMS on our boat,” he said. “They tried to pull up but with the boat’s rocking, it took 15 minutes to get him onboard.”
The emergency medical specialist checked the survivors while the captain headed to Ft. Lauderdale’s 15th St. Boat Launch near the 17th St. Causeway Bridge in Port Everglades to meet with Ft. Lauderdale emergency personnel.
Once in Port Everglades, they put a yacht guest on the tender to untie it for navigation down the canal to the public ramp.
The three plane passengers refused further medical treatment and were released after U.S. Customs and Border Protection came onboard at the launch ramp.
Capt. Brad Helton was at the helm of M/Y Makara about 10 miles south of the crash site when he first heard a broadcast of the coordinates.
“Then I heard Free Spirit give their position and they had already picked the people up,” Capt. Helton said by phone from his boat. “I thought, “Those guys have a good good captain and crew to rescue them.”
The two yachts cruise in same waters and dock next to each other about three times a month, Helton said.
“We get all this training in first response, man overboard, and they finally put it to use,” Helton said. “This was one of those times when the training kicks in and captain and crew go to work.”
“The crash was in the middle of the Gulfstream, if a boat hadn’t been there, they would have been gone. No telling where they would have they found them,” Helton said. “Kudos to the crew on Free Spirit.”
The pilot looked like he was trying to land by the other boat we saw, Klassen said.
“But that boat never saw him. If I had been looking straight out of the windshield, I never would have seen it either,” Klassen said. “We were just in the right place at the right time.”
Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.