St. Augustine, Florida – On the morning of August 2nd at 2:30 AM, Charlie Gregory lowered his small fishing boat into the water at the Light House Park boat ramp, near his home, and set out into the darkness towards the inner waterways. Much like he had done many times before, towards destinations like Villano Beach and Anastasia Island.
This was prime time for catching bull redfish, a goal Gregory had in mind for his third or fourth trip this week. He always cast his anchor on the jetties of Jetty Creek, but this time, his anchor somehow came loose when the waves jostled his 8-foot aluminum jon boat. The current swiftly pulled his small craft toward the inlet as he struggled to start his outboard engine.
Surviving a Sea Disaster
Then disaster unfolded: “I encountered a breaker as I ventured further in, where sizable swells naturally course through. Upon clashing with the ebbing tide, they began to fracture somewhat,” he explained.
A breaker capsized his boat. His engine flooded. Anything that could aid in his survival – his phone, his radio, his flares, his life jacket – was lost in the vessel.
Gregory tried to swim to shore and save his boat but the current was so strong that he didn’t think he’d make it. Aware of the situation, he concluded, “It dawned on me that it’s wiser to stick with the vessel since it’s far more adept at swimming than I am.”
Coordinated Effort by the Coast Guard
Commander of the U.S. Coast Guard, Cmdr, said that this decision likely saved his life. Jackson Beiro. He was the coordinator for the search and rescue operation, who found Gregory about 12 miles from the shore, almost 30 hours after his boat sank on the morning of August 5th.
He and a large-scale search effort’s other first responders converged on the Northeast Florida Regional Airport on Thursday afternoon, where Gregory Family was in Clearwater in the Coast Guard station’s HC-130 Hercules aircraft shadow.
The crew of this aircraft spotted Gregory on radar, then saw him in a small boat sitting waist-deep in the water.
“Charlie, thanks for staying with the boat,” Beiro said, noting that finding him on radar made it much easier to locate him.
Coast Guard Cutter Kaho picked up Gregory and placed him in an ambulance, battered by the sun and with some injuries but otherwise in good health.
Beiro told Gregory, “This was a team effort. We threw everything we had at it. We all rallied around a common goal, and that was to find you and bring you back as soon as possible.”
“Our focus was on it”
This was a heartwarming outcome, despite numerous efforts, as Chief Petty Officer Evan Aylward, a 16-year veteran of the Coast Guard, witnessed it from the clear waters, something he hadn’t seen in his 16 years as a navigator.
“In recent years, I would say that more often than not, things don’t work out as per your wishes. He described it as a sort of weight on his shoulders,” he remarked.
Aylward observed, “All hands were on deck, everyone was on the hunt, and everyone played their role.”
In the large-scale search efforts involving Mayport and Clearwater, the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, St. Johns County Fire Rescue, St. Augustine Police Department, St. Augustine Fire Department, and American Coast Guard personnel were involved.
Various agencies had multiple boats in the water, successfully sealing off search areas, allowing the Coast Guard plane to focus on other parts of the ocean.
The breakthrough came on Thursday in the early hours of the morning, and with the help of historic data, the team began searching for patterns on the water’s surface. A ramp had been opened in the rear of the aircraft, and two crew members lay on their stomachs, scanning the water. Aylward worked on the radar during this time.
Aylward recounted, “We kicked off like this, and in just 20 minutes, we had it in our sights.” “It turned out really well.”
On Thursday, positioned at the rear of the Coast Guard aircraft, Debra Gregory broke into tears, thanking everyone who helped, including civilian boaters and paddle boarders. She and her husband, Raymond, offered their gratitude to every agency by presenting a plaque and exchanging well-wishes with the searchers.
They said that he will always remain in their hearts. “We will never forget how you not only saved a young man’s life but rescued an entire family. Without you, our lives would end as we knew them.”
“Into the Depths of Hell”
Charlie, a resilient 25-year-old, works at a surf shop in St. Augustine. He described the ordeal in the boat for long hours.
Honestly, it wasn’t as fear-inducing as I had anticipated,” he admitted. “It’s always been a big fear for me, especially getting stuck in open water at night, but you know, it wasn’t as bad as I thought once I got past the initial shock, like, ‘Hey, I’m out here for hours.’ I’m out here for a while. I can, at the very least, collect my reflections.”
His parents, however, were in agony during those hours of waiting. “It was hellish. I felt dead. “Come Saturday morning, after Friday night,” Debra Gregory mentioned.
Then, on Saturday morning, Peter Smakar, Debra’s best friend from the seventh grade, called. Her husband, Dallas, is a firefighter, and he had heard about Charlie on the radio.
And in that instant, emerging from the abyss…
Charlie’s mother said, “You look at the moon. It was like an emotional roller coaster ride, from the lows to the limitless highs.”
Since his rescue, Charlie Gregory hasn’t gone back to fishing on his jon boat, the one that saved him. But he has ventured out into recent ocean swells, paddle boarding at night with his cousin, enjoying the thrill.
“I grew up my whole life in St. Augustine,” he said. “So now, what do I do, not go in the water?”
And when asked what he learned from his experience, he smiled and gave a prepared answer: “Use a bigger boat.”