ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. − At 2:30 on an August morning, Charlie Gregory put his tiny open boat into the water at the Lighthouse Park Boat Ramp, near the house where he'd grown up, and puttered in the dark toward the inlet between Vilano Beach and Anastasia Island as he had done so many times before.
It was a good time and tide for the bull redfish that Gregory hoped to catch on his third or fourth outing that week.
He anchored on the rocks of the jetty, as usual, but this time his anchor somehow came loose as swells lifted his 8-foot aluminum jon boat. The current swiftly pulled his little craft out to the mouth of the inlet as he tried in vain to start his outboard engine.
Then, disaster: "I got rolled by a wave, because as you go into the inlet it's basically the big swells that come through, and on lower tide when it's pushing against it, it starts to break a little bit," he said.
A wave flipped his boat. His engine flooded. Anything that could have helped in his rescue − his phone, his radio, his flares, his life jacket − was lost overboard.
Gregory thought about jumping from the boat and trying to make it to shore, but the current was so swift he didn't think he'd make it.
"I knew I should probably stay with it, because it's going to float better than I am," he said.
'Team effort from the get-go'
That decision most likely saved his life, said U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Nick Barrow of Jacksonville. He was coordinator of the search and rescue operation that found Gregory 12 miles from shore on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 5, some 30 hours after his boat was swamped in the inlet.
He and other first responders from the massive search effort gathered with the Gregory family at Northeast Florida Regional Airport in St. Augustine Thursday afternoon in the shadow of an HC-130 Hercules airplane from the Coast Guard station in Clearwater.
The crew from that plane spotted Gregory on radar, then saw him sitting in the little boat about waist-deep in water.
"Charlie, thanks for staying with the boat," Barrow said, noting the move made it much easier to search for him on radar.
The Coast Guard cutter Coho picked up Gregory and took him to an ambulance, sunburned and sore but otherwise healthy.
"This was a team effort from the get-go," Barrow told Gregory. "We threw everything we had at this. We all rallied around one common goal, and that was to find you, as quickly as possible, and bring you back."
'We had eyes on him'
It was a happy ending, unlike many searches that Chief Petty Officer Evan Ewald, from the Coast Guard plane from Clearwater, has seen in 16 years as navigator.
"Over the years, I would say most of these cases don't work out the way you'd like. It's kind of stressful," he said.
"Everybody was out there searching, all doing their parts," Ewald said.
The massive search effort included U.S. Coast Guard crews from Mayport and Clearwater, the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, St. Johns County Fire Rescue, St. Augustine Police Department, St. Augustine Fire Department and Florida Fish and Wildlife.
The various agencies had numerous boats in the water, which were able to eliminate searched areas, allowing the Clearwater plane to focus on other parts of the ocean.
It arrived at first light on Saturday and, with the help of historical drift data, the crew began searching in patterns over the water. A ramp at the back of the plane was opened up and two crew members lay on their bellies there, scanning the water. Meanwhile, Ewald worked the radar.
"We began that pattern and within, I'd say 20 minutes, we had eyes on him," Ewald said. "It really worked out."
Standing at the back of the Coast Guard plane Thursday, Debra Gregory, through tears, thanked everyone who had helped, which included civilian boaters and paddleboarders. She and her husband Raymond presented a plaque to each agency involved in the rescue of their son, their only child, and exchanged hugs and best wishes with the searchers.
"You will be in our hearts forever," she said. "We will never forget how you didn't just save one young man's life, but you saved an entire family. Without you, life would be over for us as we knew it."
'The depths of hell'
Gregory, an affable 25-year-old, works at the Surf Station surf shop in St. Augustine. He described the long hours in the boat.
"Man, honestly, it was not as scary as I would've thought," he said. "That has always been a big fear of mine, being stuck in the open ocean at night, particularly, but you know it really wasn't that bad once you get over the initial shock of, hey, I'm out here for hours at a time and nothing's happening. At least I can collect my thoughts."
As the sun came up, though, his pale skin began to burn. He occasionally climbed out of the partially submerged boat and swam in what shade it could provide, which also helped keep his muscles from cramping up.
He was most worried, he said, for his parents. No one knew that he'd gone on another fishing trip, and if he vanished forever, how, he wondered, could they cope with the not knowing?
"That was my main thought: If I die out here, what will everybody think? Will they know what happened, or not? That was kind of eating me a little bit."
But at home, by late that Friday afternoon, 13 or 14 hours after he left early that morning, his parents began wondering: Where's Charlie?
"He'd been gone too long, and we know his habits," his mother said. "He wasn't answering his phone. We didn't know his phone was in the drink."
They called Charlie's cousin, a fishing buddy. Call the Coast Guard now, he said. They did, and that kicked off the search, which went through the evening, the night and into the next morning.
For Charlie's parents, the wait was agony beyond imagining. "It was the depths of hell. I felt dead. Saturday morning, Friday night," Debra Gregory said.
Then, Saturday morning, Patrice Shumaker, Debra's best friend since seventh grade, called. Her husband, Dallas, is a firefighter, and he'd heard on his radio that Charlie had been found.
And at that moment, from the depths of hell ...
"You zoom to the moon," Charlie's mother said. It was such a wild emotional rollercoaster ride, from down in the negative to beyond infinity."
Since his rescue, Charlie Gregory hasn't gone fishing again in his jon boat, which was rescued along with him. But he has gone surfing in recent hurricane swells, and he's been going out at night on paddleboards with his cousin, gigging for flounder.
"I grew up in St. Augustine for my whole life," he said. "So what am I going to do now, not go in the water?"
And when asked what he learned from his experience, he gave a wry smile and had a ready reply: "Use a bigger boat."
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: St. Augustine, Florida fisherman Charlie Gregory recounts sea rescue