“I laid down in my bunk and I said, ‘God, help us get out of here alive,’” he said. “Next thing I know, we was bouncing [on] the beach.”
Willis, 71, described part of his journey in a sailboat with friend Francis Saunders, 86, that left the two men — and Saunders’ dog adrift for several days on the ocean with a damaged sail and dead engine.
On Wednesday afternoon, Willis stood on the stretch of Ponte Vedra Beach just north of the Serenata Beach Club where less than 48 hours prior he and his friend ran aground in the roughly 30-foot sailboat Tavarua.
He and Saunders watched as crews were unable to tow the Tavarua, a 1976 Down East sailboat, from the beach.
Willis said he and Saunders set sail from Fort Pierce around a week ago and were planning to go to St. Thomas. Saunders declined to comment.
Willis said he went on the trip to help Saunders and to learn how to sail because he has a sailboat back home in Fort Pierce.
“I really got a education, I’ll give it that,” Willis said as he stood on Ponte Vedra Beach.
Shortly after setting sail, the engine on Saunders’ sailboat lost power. Instead of heading south, the boat was swept north by the current. Along the way, their main sail broke and their ability to communicate was cut off.
“Shortly after we left shore, the fan belt broke on the engine,” Willis said.
And when the engine stopped, the batteries lost their charge.
“They was stone dead. Pretty soon we didn’t have no radio communication, no lights … no contacts,” Willis said.
They were trying to navigate with a storm sail, which limited their ability to steer the waters, Willis said. They had enough food and water on board for the trip.
“The currents took us north, far, far further than we needed to be, and we been trying to get back south nearly the whole trip,” he said. “It took us several hundred miles…we still several hundred miles north of where we was, and we was a lot further north than that.”
By the time they got near Ponte Vedra Beach, they just wanted to get to shore somewhere but knew they could not safely find a way in on their own.
“I run down a set of batteries running SOS on a flashlight,” Willis said.
And they were battered by the waves, which were at 4 to 6 feet that night.
“It beat both of us unmercifully,” Willis said. “We didn’t decide to come in — we was thrown in.”
Officials came to the scene and got the crew off the boat safely. Willis and Saunders were taken to Flagler Hospital for treatment and were discharged Tuesday, a hospital official said.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is investigating the incident.
Saunders’ dog, Alfy, was being held at St. Johns County Animal Control’s Pet Center until Saunders retrieves him.
Willis said he and Saunders are fine.
“All I can say is we done good to get out of it alive, and that’s about all I got to say about it,” he said.
Courtesy of Sheldon Gardner and staugustine.com