A 31-foot sailboat carried away by high seas in the predawn dark Jan. 7 off Key Largo ran aground near a Palm Beach County resort, where it fell prey to looters.
"This has been an emotional roller-coaster," said boat owner Kevin Wilkinson, 59, who lived in Marathon aboard the 1978 Bombay Clipper named Imma-nu-el.
Wilkinson was sailing alone from Boot Key Harbor to Miami when he was caught by a fierce storm front. After battling seas for hours, Wilkinson was forced to abandon his vessel. He was lifted aboard a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter with assistance of a rescue swimmer and a Coast Guard crew from Station Islamorada.
Wilkinson was stunned to hear from the Coast Guard that the Imma-nu-el was spotted drifting about a mile off Singer Island. The sloop, sails shredded, eventually grounded last week near the Palm Beach Marriott Beach Resort before the Coast Guard reached it.
"People crawled all over it" before officers arrived to protect the vessel, Wilkinson said. "It was basically looted. Anything of value was stripped from it."
A marine salvor pulled the boat from the beach. Wilkinson, unemployed and living on a limited disability pension from his U.S. Navy service, could not afford the recovery cost. So he agreed to sign the boat over to the salvor to pay for the salvage.
"Then [the tow company] called and said because it was my home, I could have the boat back for no payment," said Wilkinson, then unaware of the vessel's condition. "That was the upside of the roller-coaster.... I took a bus and train to get up there."
Arriving at the marina, he found the boat had been scavenged and was leaking badly, despite being pumped out earlier in day.
"Now the boat's a liability" for the salvor, Wilkinson said. "They tried to give it back to me but I don't have the financial means or resources to put it back together."
Wilkinson said he found "a trap rope totally wrapped around" the boat's propeller and shaft. He believes that kept the boat from making any headway in the storm.
"It doesn't change the outcome but I feel better knowing that I did everything possible to save it," Wilkinson said. "Mentally and emotionally, I'm OK. At least I have some closure."
The American Red Cross provided financial help for some new clothes, he said. After sleeping on friends' couches this past week, Wilkinson bought a backpack and sleeping bag.
"I don't know what my next step is," Wilkinson said, "but I have a new chapter for my autobiography."