A lost battle against raging seas forced a veteran Marathon sailor to abandon his 31-foot sailboat before dawn Tuesday.
"That boat was my only asset and my home for 10 years," said Kevin Wilkinson, 59. "The last thing I wanted to do was step off into the ocean."
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter had dropped a rescue swimmer into the water, about 20 miles off Key Largo, around 3 a.m., to help in the rescue.
Crew aboard a 45-foot U.S. Coast Guard vessel from Station Islamorada had been tracking Wilkinson's boat, a 1978 Bombay Clipper named Imma-nu-el, for several hours after he called for help.
"The Coast Guard guys were absolutely great," Wilkinson said. "I cannot speak highly enough about them."
Wilkinson, a Boot Key Harbor liveaboard, said he left Marathon early Monday to reach a Miami boatyard for repainting. After recently losing his job in the seawall business, the 26-year Navy veteran planned a trip to the Caribbean.
"I knew there was weather coming but I intended to be in Miami before it hit," Wilkinson said. "I was making decent progress but Monday afternoon, the wind just died. I literally was becalmed in the calm before the storm."
Winds steadily increased but Wilkinson was confident in his boat. "In a matter of a few hours, the seas built and the winds increased. I was running my diesel engine and making no headway. I could not maintain any directional control."
His sails were stretched so tight by gusty winds over 30 knots that Wilkinson could not lower them. He called for help as the sloop was blown from Hawk Channel into deep offshore water.
The Coast Guard boat crew planned to put men aboard to help handle the sailboat but seas up to 12 feet made the transfer or tow impossible, so a Coast Guard helicopter was dispatched.
"The boat was getting severely pounded," Wilkinson said. "The only way I felt safe was lie on the cabin floor."
Eventually the helicopter pilot radioed, "Captain, it's time to get off the boat."
Wilkinson filled a plastic bag with family photos, his wallet and passport. He tucked the bag into his lifejacket before "I took a leap of leap of faith" and jumped into the ocean.
"They plucked me out and I watched my boat drift away," Wilkinson said. "I have absolutely no idea where it's going to end up."
Wilkinson estimated his boat — named for a biblical passage meaning "God is with us" — is worth about $45,000, including $5,000 spent in the last six months.