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Captain, crew rescued as fishing boat sinks 32 miles off Clearwater

CLEARWATER — Ruth Knowlton got a call at her Orlando home from a number she didn't recognize Friday morning. It was her son's voice on the phone.

"Mom," he said. "The boat sank."

"Stop joking," said Knowlton, 72, to her 44-year-old son, Darren Stanwood, a captain on a grouper fishing vessel that had left Thursday afternoon for at least a 12-day trip off Madeira Beach. The other crew members were Tom Hunter, 46, of Zephyrhills, Lisa Mercer, 42, of Hudson and Dennis Grimm, 53, of Madeira Beach.

"It's too early to be talking like this," Knowlton said.

"No, Mom," Stanwood said. "I'm serious. The boat sank."

Knowlton paused, the shock running through her body. "Are you okay? Where are you?"

Stanwood told her what had happened:

He and his crew were 32 miles off the shore of Clearwater when they noticed the boat filling with water. Stanwood co-owned the boat — a 32-foot commercial fishing vessel named Lady Juanita — and it was laden with ice and some fish they had already caught. Their goal was to return with 5,000 pounds of grouper.

By the time they saw the water rising, it was too late to save the boat. Stanwood radioed for help at 6:26 a.m.

"United States Coast Guard," Stanwood called over his radio. "United States Coast Guard."

"Lady Juanita, this is the U.S. Coast Guard," an officer responded. "What is your position?"

Stanwood answered, his voice surprisingly calm in the chaos.

"We're losing the vessel. The vessel is going down."

Three minutes later, an HH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter from the Coast Guard station in Clearwater was off the ground and looking for them.

Four minutes later — just seven minutes after making the first call — Stanwood and his crew jumped off the sinking boat into a life raft. The waves were 4 feet high and breaking, with the wind at 15 knots.

The water temperature was 81 degrees, and the air temperature was 74, the Coast Guard said. The fishing boat capsized, and, when the helicopter spotted Stanwood and his crew at 7:11 a.m., there was little of it above water. When the Coast Guard flew over the spot again two hours later — after all had been rescued — the boat was gone. The only sign left was a floating ice box.

Stanwood and his crew were deemed uninjured and in good health. Petty Officer 1st Class Heath Montembeault said Stanwood "did a good job" and did everything he was supposed to do — he stayed calm and gave their location first, so that they could be found.

They had life vests, and their raft was in good shape. Friday morning could have ended badly otherwise, Montembeault said.

Stanwood and his crew wore Coast Guard jumpsuits after being rescued. They lost everything they had on the boat: clothes, mementoes, cell phones. Stanwood's business partner, Robert Spaeth, said the boat was worth at least $60,000.

And it wasn't insured.

"Nobody got hurt, thank God," Spaeth said. "We can't look back now. The boat is on the bottom of the ocean. It's over."

Stanwood borrowed a phone to call Spaeth and his mother, whom he asked to pick him up. She was too shaken to drive, so her husband drove the hour and a half to get her son — who lives with them when he's not at sea.

He's been fishing for nearly 30 years, and Knowlton has never liked it. But she accepted it because he loved what he did. As she waited for her husband and her son to return home, Knowlton paced and cooked one of her son's favorite dishes — chicken thighs and rice, slow cooked, with peas — and began making a fruit salad because he loves fruit.

She does not know what he'll do now because he has lost so much. She doesn't want him back out there, but she knows he loves it and that fishing is part of his soul, and so, as she made his bed and fluffed his pillows, she put one of his magazines on the night stand — National Fisherman — and thanked God her son was okay and coming home.

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4609.

Captain, crew rescued as fishing boat sinks 32 miles off Clearwater 10/03/08 [Last modified: Sunday, October 5, 2008 10:04am]

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