NEW PORT RICHEY — John Thornley steered his power boat across the sparkling Gulf waters on Sunday afternoon, bound for the sandbar near Anclote Island.
Thornley, his girlfriend and a few friends spent the day in the sand and surf and stuck around for a pre-Fourth of July fireworks show before heading back to land. On the return trip, three more people were in the boat — three stranded water scooter riders Thornley rescued.
He set his sights on the flashing green channel marker that leads into the mouth of the Pithlachascotee River, the familiar way home he has taken for 30 years on the water.
But as his 21-foot Sea Pro cruised along, with the downed water scooter in tow, it came to a sudden, violent stop. The boat ran aground on some shell-encrusted rocks that sit just outside the channel.
Thornley, 49, sustained a black eye and a gash on his forehead. His girlfriend, April Koning, bashed her nose, which bled and bled.
"We all went flying forward, into the windshield, the back of seats," Thornley said Wednesday. "We all got banged up and bruised."
So what happened?
Thornley says the first two channel markers weren't lit up. The one he saw and steered toward was actually the third one into the channel, and in the dark he got off course.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which maintains those "aids to navigation" had not heard of the outages when contacted Wednesday. But a spokesman said the issue would be investigated.
Any number of factors can cause the devices to malfunction, said spokesman Michael De Nyse, such as harsh weather or a collision. The lights are powered by solar batteries that recharge during the day.
Candy Donovan ran into the same trouble a few hours before Thornley and his crew. She took her fishing boat out to the sandbar, spent the day and headed for home alone about 9:30 p.m.
She too never saw the markers and ended up overshooting the channel by a couple of miles.
"I kept looking for that green light," she said.
Donovan, who has been boating in the area since 1975, knew she was off course when she spotted some condo buildings on the coast in Hudson.
She turned her boat around and started slowly cruising back south.
"By this time, I'm cold and frustrated and lost," she said. "I looked farther inland and I saw another red marker light. And then I realized I was a lot closer in than I should be."
Donovan ran aground, her boat's propeller grinding over what sounded to her like oyster shells. She managed to putt in the rest of the way, finally making it to her home in New Port Richey.
She's anxious to see the markers fixed.
"It's dangerous for people coming back and forth … at nighttime," said Donovan, 54. "There could have been much more of a tragic situation."
Said Thornley, a friend of Donovan's: "This time of year, people are out there at night and the …lights are out."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected]