PERDIDO KEY, Fla. (AP) — When the sea began to swell and crash over Chris Harper’s head, he started to pray.
I don’t want to drown.
The 61-year-old, who had bailed out of a listing sailboat about an hour after midnight Sept. 16, wrapped himself around a wooden dock piling as Hurricane Sally’s winds roared around him.
I know it’s not my choice. But, please, I would like not to drown.
Shirtless, wearing only a pair of tennis shoes and black swim trunks, Harper’s chest and forearms chafed against the saltwater and rough wood. The heavy wind and rain that seemed manageable an hour prior increased, peppering his skin with what felt like BB gun pellets as the water line began to rise.
Harper knew he had to move. He made one last promise.
I want to go some other way. If this isn’t how I’m supposed to go, I’m going to give 100% to get out of here.
He let go.
Hours later, as the dawn light broke on a battered Perdido Key, he lay slumped against a concrete pillar of the Theo Baars Bridge 1,000 yards away, cradling a dislocated shoulder and using his last bits of strength to call for help.
Harper had survived Hurricane Sally’s landfall, which shattered much of the Perdido Key community, after his boat capsized. He spent an estimated two to four hours in the water between the dock pole he started at and the Theo Baars Bridge, navigating splintering boats and debris as he struggled to stay afloat. Nine days after the ordeal, the former Ironman and triathlon competitor said he didn’t have the time or energy to waste on panicking once he went over the side of the boat. He clung to what he could find in the water and moved when he had to.
“Was I real calm? No. But my breathing was always pretty steady, because I knew I needed the energy,” Harper said. “You just don’t have time to panic.”
Two days after he was rescued, he was back on the water.
“I stay positive. Always positive,” Harper said, back at the marina to supervise the recovery of his sailboat, Due South. “If you want to be good at something, you have to practice. This sounds cold, but give it the time it deserves. Cry as much as you need. When it’s over, it’s over. Move on.”
“I love the water,” Harper said. “I just want to get (my shoulder) well so I can start swimming again.”
‘I KNEW SHE WAS GOING DOWN’
Though Harper was living full-time on Due South, a friend who couldn’t make it to the marina offered to let him weather the night on his boat, a 56-foot Sea Ray, which was larger than Harper’s sailboat.
“It’s about 1:30 in the morning and things are starting to shake,” Harper said. “The winds are picking up. Just the swells inside the marina were at least 4 feet.”
Looking out at the marina, Harper couldn’t see the dock any longer, just the pier poles the boats were tightly secured to.
Then the boat began to rock.
“The boat begins to list, rock and roll, back and forth. That one last little list, I knew she was going down. So, I went out the back door into the water. The journey began when I held on to that pier pole probably for an hour,” Harper said.
At first, Harper said he genuinely felt he could ride the storm out until things calmed down and he could swim just a short distance southwest to the marina’s parking lot. He estimated the winds were about 100 mph — tough, but manageable.
But at around 2 or 2:30 a.m., a couple of hours before Sally was making landfall, the winds increased to a “piercing” speed. Harper said it felt like someone was opening up a BB gun on his back as he worried about rising waters.
“As the waves began to overtake me, I had to make another decision what to do,” Harper said. “I thought maybe I could swim to where the parking lot is, but the current was so strong and the wind was so hard, I eyeballed it and decided I couldn’t make it,” Harper said. “What I thought I could make was going right through the marina to the restaurant.”
When Harper let go of the pole, he shot straight toward the restaurant.
There was some swimming and some just drifting with a current.
Then an undertow hit, pulling him beneath the surface. Harper sank three, four, five feet.
“That was one of the point I thought this might be the end of the story,” Harper said.
He realized he needed to lose his tennis shoes, which had swollen with water, if he had a chance of resurfacing.
“You just kick your shoes off and keep fighting,” Harper said, drawing on his previous open water swimming experience.
He re-surfaced in the churning marina waters riddled with debris: Entire pier poles snapped in half, fiberglass, plastic PVC piping that ringed the marina. Harper made it to the restaurant-end of the marina, feeling through the dark for another lifeline to cling to.
“I was able to use lines, floating debris in the water, to maintain in that corner back there trying to find a way up, trying to find some sort of high, dry ground. But everything was stripped apart. I was probably in there another hour or so,” Harper said.
He finally found a floating piece of dock, big enough that he was able to pull himself up and lay on his back, catching his breath. He hooked his left arm through a grounded piece of PVC conduit, which kept him from being swept away by the current.
He couldn’t know it in the pitch-black darkness, but just a few paces away lay his own half-sunken sailboat. The current and punishing winds were working methodically, first snapping away the pier poles the marina’s boats were anchored to and then driving them into the very corner Harper was sheltering in.
A new sound rose in the cacophony of wind and rain.
“Crunching like fiberglass, trees popping in the woods,” Harper said. “You’re talking several thousand pounds of boats back there splintering, like you’re taking a thin piece of wood and just snapping it.”
Harper lay on his back listening: “What do I do now? The boats are piling up.”
He knew he had to let go, again.
“It was like this was a little temporary home that I had to leave again to find another place,” Harper said.
The current swept Harper and his dock-raft into the open water channel, carrying it swiftly toward the bridge that connects Perdido Key with mainland Florida.
Harper had no way to steer or control the dock, but it somehow floated to the first pier under the bridge. Harper was able to grab hold of a utility ladder at the base of the column and haul himself upward, fully out of the water for the first time in hours.
“Then I waited on daylight,” Harper said. “That was a long wait out there. When daylight came, when the sun came out, that’s when I began to holler for help. There were cars all around. A gentleman in a blue shirt I could see from a distance, and he said help was on the way. I gave him a thumbs up, my hands by that time were blue and purple. I used pretty much everything I had. I had tapped out. I didn’t have any energy left. I think I was about to go into shock. Just the dehydration.”
As the sun rose over the coast, Harper began to attract more attention.
Jerry Ash, who had ridden out the storm in his own boat in an adjacent marina, spotted Harper and took a quick photo, posting it to Facebook to try to get some help.
A few people on Jet Skis tried to help, but the waves were too dangerous.
Ash tried to get a kayak, tethered with a long rope, out to Harper, but Harper remembers the boat flipping before it got to him. But Harper felt like he couldn’t wait any longer and decided to go into the water to grab the rope.
“I grab the line with one good arm, I laid up on my back and they just pulled me into shore. They got me in the clubhouse over there and had cold water, cranberry juice. Hydrating was a big deal. They provided me shorts and clothes,” he said.
Harper specifically credits Josh McKee, a bystander who helped haul Harper into shore, with saving his life. McKee, an Army Reserve veteran, knew Harper needed to get medical attention for his shoulder, which was severely dislocated. McKee gave Harper a ride into Pensacola in search of an urgent care or medical practice that could see him, but the few places they tried were without power or not accepting non-emergent patients.
Finally, in an urgent care parking lot, Harper braced himself against McKee’s vehicle and let him pop his shoulder back into place.
Harper, who tells his story of near-death with a no-nonsense outlook and good humor, appeared almost overwhelmed when considering the people who have helped him since the hurricane. His family have helped find him a place to live temporarily, provided fresh clothes and meals. His son, Adam, has set up a GoFundMe to help his dad get back on his feet.
Nine days after his ordeal, he walked through the marina where it happened, marveling at the landscape in the bright light of day. The residents and workers at Oyster Bar Restaurant and Marina were a tight community, he said, that will now have to rebuild.
“That’s the story, when I got out of the water. The real story is the people who have stepped up have been incredible,” Harper said. “It didn’t really bring me to tears what I went through. I’m not going to bawl and cry over a piece of fiberglass, but I just hope people will continue to help people.”
Picking his way through the marina parking lot on Friday, Harper surveyed the dock he clung to for his first hour in the water. The pier pole that saved him has disappeared, snapped away under pressure sometime after he let go of it. Much of the framework of the dock remained, with PVC piping leading to shore that he could have followed, but he doesn’t dwell on or second-guess his decisions.
In the parking lot he first considered trying to swim to, flying debris lay at rest on crushed vehicles, metal frameworks crumpled like recycled soda cans.
Workers on the water were hauling out crushed and capsized vessels piled together. Harper hoped to salvage a few clothes and valuables from his own boat, depending on how much water it took on. He looked on with his arm in a black sling, a variety of cuts and abrasions on his forearms and legs already healing over.
Harper praised his family and friends for helping him quickly get on his feet, which he hopes to “pay forward” once he’s back on his feet, and he said he learned a valuable lesson during Hurricane Sally.
“I knew this from the very beginning: I knew you don’t stay on a boat in a hurricane situation. But, well, a tropical storm is a tropical storm,” Harper said. “The big mistake I made was, of course, not getting off the boat when I had every opportunity to do so. I got lured into the idea that I could handle it. I’d already ridden out two tropical storms.”
Harper wasn’t the only one to make this mistake. Ash, who helped orchestrate the rescue attempt, and several others in the area thought they could ride Sally out. But the slow-moving storm changed trajectory and intensity several times as it approached land.
“I’ve been through some bad ones before, but I know better,” Ash said about riding through a hurricane on the boat. “No one thought it would be like this.”
Despite the experience, Harper has no plans to give up life on the water. But going forward, he won’t make the same mistake again.
“My deal is, from now on, the boat is just a piece of property,” Harper said. “It’s not life.”