TOPSAIL BEACH, NC (WECT) - A Pender County family is lucky to be alive after their boat capsized in Topsail Inlet.
It’s the second boat to capsize in that area this year. The first incident in March turned deadly. Pender County Rescue officials say more boaters are getting themselves into trouble because of rough conditions and changes to the inlet that are not marked. The inlet will likely not be dredged before boating season is over.
A career military man, Bill Batt had plenty of experience on boats around military bases across the country before moving to Hampstead a few years ago. He checked the weather and inlet conditions before heading out with his family to fish off Topsail Island on May 2.
On the way back, a rogue wave rolled his 19-foot boat as it was coming into Topsail Inlet with the breakers.
“We went over so fast I barely had time to say, ‘Oh crap!'” Batt said of the experience.
There was no time to grab life jackets, the VHF radio off the dashboard, or any other equipment to help them survive the open water.
"This is the scariest thing in my life and I don’t ever want it to happen again,” Batt’s wife, Tina, said of being in the boat when it capsized. “One second, we were talking, and just like that, we were under the boat. We were inside the underside of the boat and it was like, ‘What just happened?’”
Tina, who says she is not a strong swimmer, had been wearing a life vest all day but the other two adults with her were not. Even though they could see the shore, it was over 100 yards away when the boat flipped, with choppy waves, a strong current, and deep water between them and the shore.
Luckily, the Batts’ son-in-law had his cell phone in his pocket when the boat capsized, and was able to call 911. There were boaters and beachgoers within sight, but the Batts said no one saw them capsize, and they could not hear their calls for help over the sound of the ocean.
Within 16 minutes of getting the 911 call, Pender EMS and Fire’s marine team was in the inlet with a rescue boat to respond. But because the bottom of the boat blended in with whitecaps in the inlet, and because of the difficulty triangulating cell phone signals coming in from the ocean, it took rescue crews another eight minutes to find the Batt family.
“It was right after low tide, so there wasn’t a whole lot of water and the inlet was pretty rough,” Robert Cannon recalled of the rescue.
With breakers pushing their rescue boats dangerously close to the capsized boats and the Batt family, it was not safe for crews to attempt pulling the victims out of the water into the rescue boat. So they improvised, jumping in with them and using flotation gear to swim the Batts to safety.
Pender EMS and Fire Chief Woody Sullivan says while he knows many adult boaters will choose not to wear a life vest at all times, he hopes recent incidents will at least prompt boaters to put on a vest before riding through an inlet.
“You get beat up (in the waves), you get tired, you get fatigued and then you just cannot fight that current," Sullivan explained. “Topsail Inlet is one of those inlets that shifts daily. It has not been dredged in a while and with the sandbar shifting with each storm, hurricane, northeaster, all that, it literally shifts daily. So the navigational buoys are generally incorrect and the novice boater will follow the navigational buoys instead of reading the inlet. That’s where a lot of these problems come into play is because the buoys are just in the wrong place…. If you are coming in on low tide, that is an extremely dangerous inlet.”
The fatal boating incident happened in March next to Topsail Inlet in the breakers off of Lea Island. When that boat capsized, two people thrown from the boat were able to swim to shore. But a third passenger, a 58-year-old man from Columbia, Md., drowned.
To help boaters until Topsail Inlet can be dredged again, Pender EMS and Fire plans to put video, taken of the inlet by drone and updated twice a month, on its website. The plan is to have a video link up by May 17 at penderemsandfire.com.