EPIRB ashore for repairs when charter boat capsizes; survivors wait hours for rescue

The captain of the 27-foot charter fishing boat Super Suds II was lost at sea after his boat capsized 15 miles off Murrells Inlet, S.C., on May 17. Five passengers survived after clinging to the overturned catamaran’s hulls for about 17 hours until help arrived. A sixth passenger, who drifted away from the vessel along with the captain, managed to survive by clinging to a life jacket.

Although the vessel normally carried an EPIRB, the device was ashore for repairs on the day of the accident. If it had been aboard, it would have broadcast an alert and allowed rescuers to reach the scene much more quickly.

The vessel’s owner, Marlin Quay Marina of Garden City, S.C., reported the charter vessel missing at about 2000, an hour and half after it was due back, according to Petty Officer Donnie Brzuska, a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman. The vessel’s last contact with the marina was at about 1700.

Coast Guard Sector Charleston, S.C., responded by launching a helicopter from Air Facility Charleston and a rescue boat from Station Georgetown, S.C. A fixed wing C130 from Elizabeth City, N.C., and the 87-foot cutter Tarpon also assisted in the search.

The vessel was finally spotted about 15 miles from Murrells Inlet at about 1130 on May 18. A Coast Guard helicopter rescued the five survivors found clinging to the hull. The sixth survivor, Mike Robinson, had been found about an hour earlier about five miles away from the overturned boat. Robinson and the captain, 75-year-old Robert Clarke, stayed together for about half an hour clinging to a single life jacket until Clarke slipped away.

At the time of the accident, seas were running 3 to 4 feet with 10- to 15-knot winds and clear skies. The sea temperature was 70°.

As an uninspected vessel, Super Suds II was not required to carry an EPIRB. If an EPIRB had been on board and operating properly, it would have immediately directed the Coast Guard to the location of the stricken vessel. “If they had their EPIRB aboard, Capt. Clarke might be alive today,” Brzuska said.

He also noted that the survivors were not wearing life jackets when they were rescued. He said that when the vessel capsized the men were only able to locate four PFDs, including the one used by Clarke and Robinson.

The capsized vessel was towed into Station Georgetown. The surviving passengers were taken to a hospital, treated for hypothermia and released. Clarke’s body has not been found, and he is presumed dead.

The cause of the accident is still under investigation.

By Professional Mariner Staff