CAPTAIN JUDY HELMEY’S PERFECT STORM

Capt Judy Helmey with a Big Red Snapper“Capt. Ali leaned over and said, ‘Judy we have been working together for a long time…’ I stopped her from finishing her statement. I knew that she was very aware that we were only minutes away from having the Miss Judy Too ripped right from under us, and for a seasoned sea captain, it was not a good feeling! Maydays from other boats were many on the radio…the waves were being pushed by the 80 knots winds, and they looked like mountains on both sides of us. We were being tossed around like a cork, I only had brief intervals of control, and I was beginning to believe that we were going to die!”

Early on that morning of June 19, 1998, some regular customers boarded the Miss Judy Too with Capt. Judy Helmey and her First Mate, Capt. Ali Young. The clients consisted of three young couples, who all had at least two young children each waiting at home.

“We were supposed to head out to the Gulf Stream, but for some reason, I decided to go the snapper banks instead,” said Capt. Helmey. “I called this decision, ‘a Captain’s prerogative’!”

The Gulf Stream is located about 70 miles offshore, while the snapper banks are only 35 miles. In retrospect, this intuitive choice by Capt. Judy Helmey probably saved everyone’s life.

It was an extremely calm day on the ocean, the fishing was great, and soon the coolers were full red snapper, grouper, and an array of bottom fish. So, at about 2:00 PM Capt. Judy decided once again, for some unknown reason, to head in early. It was still very calm at sea, so Capt. Ali cleaned up and started to get everything comfortable for the two-hour ride to shore. Capt. Helmey set her compass heading to 305 degrees, settled down in her captain’s chair, and started to tell her normal “Fish Tails” as the boat headed for home.

At about 15 miles off the sea buoy, Capt. Judy received a call on her cell phone from another charter captain. He said, “You had better batten down the hatches and get ready for what is heading in your direction. It’s pretty bad!”  Judy thanked him and immediately turned to the weather channel on her marine radio. The weather statement was very strange. It stated that a weather event was heading their way, but Capt. Judy had never heard that kind of a statement before.

“I had my radar set at the 20 mile range, and couldn’t see anything in terms of rain on the screen,” said Capt. Helmey.  “However, I could see a little discoloration in the cloud line to the west, but nothing out of the norm for that time of the year.”

About 5 miles off the sea buoy, chatter on the marine radio revealed that a weekend boater was calling the coast guard with concerns and some really serious questions. It was the first time in his new boat, he was in an unfamiliar area, it was rough, and the wind was blowing very hard. The coast guard quickly replied with a suggestion that he put on his life jacket and head into the wind. The answer seemed strange, because normally the coast guard would offer assistance.

“During and after the storm passed, I knew why they suggested what they did,” stated Capt. Helmey. “They couldn’t have helped at the moment if they wanted to…until the passing of the storm. At that point, I turned my radio down real low so that I was the only one that could listen.”

Capt Ali Young with a Big GrouperCaptain Judy motioned for Captain Ali to come closer so they could talk quietly. It was the beginning of a drill they had done many times. Judy told Ali about the pending weather, then sent her below to get the life jackets in a pile and ready. They also closed the hatches, windows, and straightened up loose objects on the aft deck.

In the distance, the storm became visible for the first time. At that point, it didn’t look too bad, but was about 40 miles long, covered most of the immediate coastline, and appeared to be moving from the west to the east.

“I remember the ocean conditions being without any sort of movement,” recalled Capt. Helmey.  “It was hot, muggy, and the wall of the storm couldn’t be seen on my radar, due to the fact it wasn’t lined with rain. I entered it from completely calm sea conditions to a strong ripple. A storm ripple is when the winds are very strong, but the sea hasn’t caught up with it. I still remember how tight the air pressure felt.”

“The ‘wall’ looked just like the weather that the sailboat entered in the movie White Squall,” said Capt. Judy.  “It didn’t appear very threatening, but after penetrating the front wall, the wind went from zero to an immediate strong thirty knots. I told Captain Ali to hand out the life jackets. Everyone on board was aware that we had a bad situation, but didn’t know how bad. Heck, at this point neither did I. The passengers put on their life jackets, and Captain Ali tried to ease their minds by explaining that we went through weather like this on most summer afternoons. After about three minutes the winds dropped for a brief moment which gave me a feeling that I might have scared my customers for no good reason. However, what happened next would change my life forever!”

Even if the radar didn’t show anything, everyone on the boat could hear the storm coming, and within minutes they were in it. Capt. Judy described it as being swallowed by a hungry animal!

“The noise sounded like an ocean going freight train that was doing about a hundred miles an hour,” said Capt. Judy. “The sound got louder and the wind got stronger. Just when I thought the winds would top out they picked up!  My boat had and still does have lots of electronics, which means it has lots of antennas sticking up. I remembered my father’s words, ‘While in a storm, the first antenna that blows off could be just one that has a bad bracket holding it up. If more come off, however, your super structure could be next.’  As I looked back I saw an antenna hanging by its cord being really tossed around until it finally fell into the ocean. Other antennas also broke off as if they were tooth picks!  The super structure is the part in which we were standing. It was so noisy that I didn’t hear the crack as it made its way around the front of the super structure that incorporates the windshield and side windows. At this point that was a good thing. I had enough going on. I had slowed down to try and make my way through waves that were so large that I didn’t make it over one before the next one was breaking over the bow.  It’s hard trying to steer a boat that doesn’t have the rudder in the water most of the time. The boat heeled over so far that my arm on the starboard side went into the water.   All of the waves were huge! My mind was racing thinking about the young couples onboard and their children. At the same time, Captain Ali was assuring the customers that this boat was built to handle this sort of storm. At eight minutes into the storm, my weather instruments blew off at 80 knots, and then the canvas top on the bridge ripped off, and waved around what was left of the radar antenna. The outriggers were twisted and bent, and some 500 yards of 50-pound monofilament wrapped around the rod and reels that lined my lower deck. It was an eerie sight because the line was wound so tightly around everything on the deck, it appeared as if someone had grabbed the end of the line and pulled it around and around the deck.”

The storm’s fury lasted for just 18 minutes, and Capt. Judy stood at the controls running the boat at full throttle into the wind the whole time. Her courage and expertise under life threatening circumstances probably saved every person on board!

“To this day I don’t know how we made it through that storm,” said Capt. Helmey.  “It was the first time in over 40 years that I had to tell clients to put on their life preservers, although during and after that storm, I doubt that life preservers, rafts, or any other floating aids would have done much good.”

“The bottom line to this story is a simple one,” stated Capt. Judy. “I have been on the water all of my life and I have had only one instance where I feared for the life of everyone onboard my boat.  I guess you could say, the law of averages finally caught up with me, and except for major damages to the boat, we all came out of it okay…and that’s good enough for me!”

Though I wasn’t there, I have known and been to sea with Capt. Judy Helmey and Capt. Ali Young for more than twenty years as friends, fishing buddies, and interesting people to write about, and I can assure you that their clients that day would echo what I have always said: “If I ever get caught in a terrible storm on the Atlantic Ocean, I pray that my Captain and Mate are Judy Helmey and Ali Young!”

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