Chris Harper was, thankfully, already an experienced swimmer
By Fran Thompson
Chris Harper’s son, Adam Harper, posted on a gofundme page that when he was growing up he and his brothers would ask his dad what particular triathlon or Ironman event he was training for. Chris would reply that he was “training for life.’’
That turned out to be startlingly prophetic when Harper found himself riding out Sept. 16’s Hurricane Sally on a boat at the Perdido Key Oyster Bar Marina.
Just like the 30 boats docked at the marina, Harper took a beating during the storm. But thanks to what he said was the grace of God and his physical fitness – in that order – he did not join his sailboat and a vast majority of the marina’s other vessels either at the bottom of the Intracoastal Waterway or piled against the shore.
He did suffer major ligament and structural damage to his shoulder. That will be an issue going forward. But the rest of his cuts, bruises and abrasions are healing nicely. His hands are no longer purple and blue.
Eventually the 61-year-old will get back to his active lifestyle that has always included riding a bicycle along the beach road, swimming a couple of miles a week in the Intracoastal Waterway and fishing for blackfin sharks on his kayak by the second sandbar in the Gulf.
Harper has lived on his 41 foot sailboat, Due South, for the past 18 months. But he has been around boats and the water for 40 years. He had already ridden out two tropical storms. He had no issue with riding out a third on Due South.
The owner of the 56-foot Sea Ray that was docked next to him phoned around dusk to say there was a checkpoint at the Theo Baars Bridge and police were preventing him from returning to Perdido Key. He suggested that Harper ride the storm out on the more comfortable Sea Ray, which would still allow him to keep an eye on his own vessel.
Even as the wind picked up and swells increased throughout the early evening, Harper was not concerned.
By 1 a.m. on Sept. 16, the water in the marina had risen above the boardwalk adjacent to his boat. But all the marina’s boats remained securely tied. If this was the extent of the storm, he would be fine.
But it was not. The situation got exponentially worse in a hurry.
Waves began crashing over the Sea Ray and the boat listed. He knew it was going to sink and he should not be aboard when it did.
So he grabbed onto an adjacent pier pole and planned his next move. He felt like he could have rode out the storm on that pole until the waves started breaking way over his head and, in some cases, pounded his head into the pole. It might have been when a wave sent him swinging from one side of the pole to the other that he separated his shoulder.
“The waves were throwing me around pretty hard,’’ he said. “But I didn’t want to let go.’’
Three different times Harper thought he was going to drown that night. “The first was when I was ripped from the pole, but I was able to hold onto some galvanized nails,’’ he said.
He could see a blue flashlight shining from one of the condos on the marina’s westside around 30 yards away. But following that beacon to shore through the churning water and raging current was not a good option. Winds were already blasting above 100 MPH.
By then, the only visible part of the abandoned Sea Ray was its black hull. His own boat was well secured and doing pretty well until the poles holding up the dock came loose.
Eventually, Harper decided to let go of the pole and swim with the current through the marina to the first floor of the Oyster Bar Restaurant. He thinks this was around 3 a.m. While making his way among the debris, he had his second two brushes with death when he was pulled twice under the water by what he suspects was an undertow.
“The undertow really wanted to take me down,’’ he said. “I still had my tennis shoes on and I didn’t want to lose my shoes. But I knew it was either kick them off or I would drown.’’
He eventually made it to the restaurant and scrambled up as far as he could into a corner on the northwest side.
He was still in the water, and boats, including his own, were crashing into the marina in front of him. At one point, he was almost crushed by his friend’s 33 foot Morgan.
If all this wasn’t bad enough, he was constantly being stung by jellyfish and struck by rain pellets.
“It felt like somebody was shooting me in the back with a BB gun,’’ he said.
Harper said he was able to hang onto a PVC pipe conduit with a nipple to secure himself in place in the corner of the restaurant. But he was still in the water and dodging boats that were slamming into each other right in front of him.
“I remember saying to myself ‘this not a good place to be,’’’ he said.
There was debris everywhere. Snapped pier poles, fiberglass, pvc pipes, garbage and diesel fuel were flying and floating all around him. Plus, it was pitch black. Almost as unbearable was the constant and deafening noise, as all of the above crashed together in the howling wind.
“I would duck my head under the water just to get away from the noise,’’ he said.
This was no safe haven. He knew he needed another option. So, separated shoulder and all, he let go of the pvc conduit and grabbed onto a piece of floating dock that he was somehow able to climb upon.
He laid down on his back and tried to remain calm.
“I just tried to breath and rest,’’ he said. “I don’t think I ever panicked.’’
He followed the current out into the Intracoastal Waterway on his plank hoping to get to the Perdido Key RV Park & Marina under the Theo Baars Bridge.
Instead he ended up near one of the bridge’s tenders and, thanks to a utility ladder he found on the backside, was able to pull himself up out of the water with just his one arm.
With dry land under him for the first time since he jumped off of the Sea Ray around three hours prior, he knew he had survived the storm. His next step was to wait for daylight.
At sunrise, he noticed activity at the RV Park, located about 50 yards straight across the Intracoastal Waterway. He called out for help.
Josh McGee, a former Green Beret, eventually came to his rescue by sending a roped kayak towards him. The kayak flipped, but Harper grabbed onto the tow rope and used the kayak like a knee board. He screamed for those on shore to pull harder when he started going under again in the strong current. The tow team went into overdrive.
When he got to the RV park landing, McGee told him he was sorry to tell him that he had to walk through a bed of thorns. “I said that couldn’t possibly hurt as much as some of the stuff I went through,’’ Harper said.
The McGee family brought Harper a jug of water, some cranberry juice and dry clothes. Another RVer brought him more clothing. His hands had long ago turned blue and purple. His shoulder was a mess. He was probably in shock and definitely dehydrated. But all that pain let him know he was alive.
McGee said he obviously needed medical attention and the two men left in McGee’s Ford truck to find it. They were turned away at three local emergency care centers either because his injuries were judged non-life threatening or there was no electricity at the clinic.
“We were getting frustrated. I can absolutely tolerate a lot of pain, but this was unbearable,’’ Harper said.
Finally, the two men went behind the bed of McGee’s pickup and McGee popped his shoulder back into place.
“He had to do it three or four times. But it didn’t hurt nearly as bad as the dislocation,’’ Harper said.
A couple of days of rest at his sister’s home in Navarre and a visit to a medical center over that way had him feeling much better.
“Everything good started happening for me once I got out of the water,’’ he said. “Josh and his precious family did everything possible to help a fellow human being that Josh had never met in his life.’’
Harper’s life has continued to mend since then. One son found him an apartment in Spanish Fort. There were two $100 restaurant certificates donated by samaritans waiting for him when he arrived. His daughter arranged for furniture. Adam started the gofundme page for him.
“From the minute I got out of the water, the goodness I found in people to make all of this happen was unbelievable,’’ he said. “A lot of people have less than I do. I will be OK.’’
Even his near death experience did not keep Harper out of the water for long.
Just a few days afterwards, he was helping his friend transport a boat to the Palafox Street Pier in Pensacola. “I was sitting in a recliner below and somebody said, ‘Harper, you must be out of your mind to be out here,’ and I said ‘as long as Ed Harrison is driving, I know we will be fine,’ and I took a nap.
“I loved living on my boat,’’ he added. “I would see manatees and dolphin swimming. I had the best views of sunsets and sunrises. I don’t know if I will live on another boat. But I will go riding on boats with other people. Absolutely.’’
As for his hurricane story, Harper reflected on the three times he came close to dying during the ordeal.
“All I remember thinking during those moments was that I didn’t want to drown. I’ve been on the water for almost 40 years swimming and fishing. I said, ‘God, find something else for me do to. Don’t let me drown.’’’