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Florida to Bahamas: Family Rescued after catamaran breaks in half

By The Brunswick News — last modified Jan 28, 2015 03:38 PM
Arranging to fly his family home to Queensland, Australia, was not how Alf Meads was supposed to spend his Thursday. He was supposed to be in the Bahamas with his wife Kelly and adult sons Cody and Zach, to give their 53-foot catamaran sailboat to Alf’s mother-in-law. The boat was going to be her retirement home. That will never happen now.

Published: 2015-01-28 00:00:00
Topics: Safety and Medical
Countries: USA

Read full story at The Brunswick News

The boat broke in half on Dec. 30 in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida, and now the Meads are back in Brunswick after being rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. They are taking steps out to get back to their home on the other side of the globe.

“It just breaks my heart thinking about it,” Alf Meads said Thursday, sitting inside Tipsy McSway’s in downtown Brunswick.

He and his wife bought the boat, dubbed Nootke Dancer, four years ago from its previous owner who had docked it at Brunswick Landing Marina. Since then, all four of the Meads have spent anywhere from one to three months at a time in Brunswick, updating the boat and getting it ready for its trip to the Bahamas.

Alf has made numerous sailing trips on other boats in the Pacific Ocean and off the coast of Australia.

Part of that preparation included a thorough inspection of the vessel’s seaworthiness that resulted in a 13-page report giving the boat a clean bill of health. The report said the boat’s hull and superstructure were adequate for open water after inspectors took moisture readings, soundings and made an inspection dive.

Alf Meads said the report missed one very important detail. A wooden structural beam at the boat’s stern had rotted, weakening it.

A terrible noise

The seas were calm and the skies were clear at around 7:30 p.m. Dec. 30 and the Meads had two options: anchor offshore of Talbot Island State Park in Florida and wake up early for the next day’s trip to St. Augustine, or get a head start and head for the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway that night and sleep in the next day. They chose option No. 2.

A short distance into the trip, about 2 miles offshore of Talbot Island, Alf Meads said things quickly took a turn for the worst.

“We just heard this terrible noise,” he said. “A whole piece had broken off of that beam.”

Cody Meads ran to the back of the boat and attempted to fix it, but it was too late. Another beam gave way and the entire middle of the boat that connects the two pontoons of the catamaran collapsed.

When the first beam snapped, Kelly Meads ran to the galley to get the family dog, Zaza, and to get a life vest. After the second beam broke, the door to the galley shut tight, trapping her and Zaza inside.

With some punching and kicking, Alf Meads was able to free his wife and Zaza and boarded the recently purchased life boat his sons were readying.

It took about four minutes from when the first beam broke to when the boat was lost — four of the most terrifying and stressful minutes of Alf Meads’ life.

The family tried to get back to the boat as it sank to recover the roughly $20,000 in U.S. and Australian currency aboard for the trip.

But it was all for naught.

“Basically, we were able to salvage nothing,” Alf Meads said.

By 8:15 p.m., a 25-foot Coast Guard boat from Station Mayport arrived and rescued the family.

The aftermath

With the help of the Coast Guard, the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department and a friend they made staying at Brunswick Landing Marina, the Meads were able to get back to Brunswick with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Although they never asked for any help, Alf Meads said people they have developed relationships with in Brunswick were more than gracious. Staff of Tipsy McSways, where members of the family are regular customers, took the family to a beach near where the boat sank on New Year’s Day to help look for anything that might have washed ashore.

A shrimp fisherman they befriended gave Kelly Meads a jacket to replace the one she lost on the boat.

Others in the community helped the family buy enough clothes to wear until they make it home.

For the last two weeks, the family has been talking to insurance companies, banks in Australia and arranging travel plans, trying to piece together whatever they can of what they lost. Wedding photos, Christmas gifts and items important to the family now rest on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

Saddest of all is the thought that all the work the family did to get a retirement home ready for his mother-in-law is now gone, Alf Meads said.

“This boat was her dream,” he said.

By Monday, the family should be back in Queensland, where life will resume but will likely never be the same.

“It’s a massive loss, mate. My family will probably never get over it. It nearly cost us our lives,” he added.

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