Heroic Boating Rescue

Sgt. Brian Parkton knew the situation could turn bad in a heartbeat.

The veteran marine patrol officer was responding to reports of a boat in trouble with nine people, including three children, still on board. The 21-foot open motorboat had filled with water and lost power at the mouth of Destin Pass, a northwest Florida inlet known for powerful tidal currents.

When Parkton and Deputy David Bowell arrived in their 28-foot patrol boat, the only thing keeping the current from sweeping the boat and its passengers under a nearby dredging rig was a thin towline attached to an overmatched barge.

“Immediately I recognized that this was a bad situation,” recalls Parkton, who was a sergeant assigned to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit at the time. “My heart dropped because with the conditions there, if that line snapped the vessel was going to be pulled under the dredge equipment.”

As the first officer on the scene, Parkton instinctively began coordinating a response with his Sheriff’s Office colleagues and other agencies that were rushing to assist, including Destin Fire Rescue lifeguards, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Parkton’s chest-mounted body cam captured the entire incident, which unfolded over 17 harrowing minutes.

The swamped vessel moments before the tow line parted. Screenshot courtesy Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office.

“This is a bad one right here,” Parkton tells Bowell as they approach the overloaded boat and observe the tenuous tow. Over the radio, he warns colleagues that anyone who enters the water will likely be swept under the steel dredge pipe. “If this vessel sinks these people will be in the water and get pulled under,” he says.

Seconds later the line parted and the boat rolled, dumping all nine people, including three children, into the water. At almost the same moment, Destin Fire Rescue lifeguard Hunter Ruddell arrived in a personal watercraft equipped with a rescue sled.

“Thankfully, they were all wearing life jackets and every single one of those people was able to be rescued.”

— Lt. Brian Parkton, Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office

As the capsized boat slammed into a steel dredge float, Ruddell was able to pluck a 9-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl from the water and transfer them to Parkton’s boat. Thirty seconds later, the current pinned the 21-foot boat vertically against the drill rig. In his nearly 14 years of service, Parkton had never seen anything like it.

The same powerful current swept the children’s mother under the dredging rig and into the Gulf of Mexico, where an FWC patrol boat picked her up. Other passengers managed to scramble onto the massive steel dredge floats, and were transferred by personal watercraft to Parkton’s patrol boat.

Three adults were taken to the hospital, including one woman who suffered a fractured kneecap. A year on, Parkton is still amazed there was no loss of life. Investigators from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) blamed the accident on operator inexperience, with weather as a secondary cause. Like many inlets along the Intracoastal Waterway, Destin Pass is subject to strong tidal currents. It can get messy in a hurry, particularly when the wind is blowing against the tide as it was that day. Waves at the mouth of the pass were running three to six feet. Those are no conditions for an inexperienced captain in a small boat.

Lt. Brain Parkton at the helm of Okaloosa County’s 28-foot Ambar patrol vessel. Courtesy Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office.

After he was safe ashore with his family, the boat owner told FWC officer Britton Corbin—who had just pulled his wife out of the Gulf of Mexico—how he got into the predicament in the first place. It was May 22, 2020, the Friday before Memorial Day. He’d taken the 21-foot inboard out the pass to have a look at the Gulf when a large wave broke over the bow, depositing some six inches of water in the boat. A second wave crashed over the bow and the operator turned back toward the bay. The third wave came over the stern, flooding the boat and killing the engine.

As the helpless vessel drifted toward the rig, a dredge company barge took it under tow. Even before Parkton and other rescuers arrived on scene, a teenager was swept off the boat and picked up by a nearby sportfishing boat. It was the captain of that boat who hailed authorities on VHF Channel 16.

If you’re keeping track of things the boat owner should have done differently, you’ll have quite a list by now. He wasn’t prepared for the rough conditions in the pass. He navigated too close to the dredge equipment. He lacked experience and didn’t have—or didn’t use—a VHF radio to call for assistance. In fact, the call that ultimately saved his life and the lives of his family came from a stranger.

But give credit where it’s due. The operator and everyone on board was wearing a life jacket when the boat capsized. That was a critical factor in the successful rescue of all nine boaters, Parkton says.

“When the vessel began to roll over and everybody was in the water, there was no doubt in my mind that we were going to have drownings,” he says. “Thankfully, they were all wearing life jackets and every single one of those people was able to be rescued.”

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