Norman Sockwell survives falling in debris filled surge between two crashing yachts in hurricane eyewall
By Fran Thompson
Norman Sockwell was not even supposed to be alive to tell the love story that brought the women at his company, Sci-Fi Metropolis, to tears when he returned to his hometown office in Riverside (near Talladega) and shared his harrowing tale.
People who fall in raging water between two yachts crashing into each other among a cacophony of debris in the eye of a category 2 storm are simply not supposed to live to talk about it over coffee.
But that is exactly what happened to Sockwell in the deep dark of night when he decided to ride out Hurricane Sally on his boat at the Perdido Key Oyster Bar Marina.
The women were in tears because the love story had a happy ending. And it was about a man who refused to lose mainly because that would have meant leaving the woman he loved behind.
“I was amazed at how calm I stayed,’’ Sockwell said. “The only thing I thought about was that I couldn’t die in the water because I promised my wife (Suzi) I would never leave her alone. We have been together since 2011 and married since 2013. And I could not do that to her. It was a promise I was not willing to break.”
Like everybody else on Perdido Key, Sockwell was not expecting much more than high winds and an especially high tide when he decided to stay with his boat as Hurricane Sally spun its way towards the Mississippi Coast in the late afternoon on Sept. 15. He and Suzi had spent many long weekends on Pour Decisions, their 48 foot Sea Ray 480. He planned to secure the boat, get some sleep and join his wife back in Riverside on Wednesday.
On the 4.5 hour drive down to the beach, Sockwell found out that his dad passed away. At such a time, a long drive alone may have been just what he needed.
Once at the marina, he did not care that some of the other boat owners laughed that it was overkill for him to use 11 lines to moor his boat to the dock. He had just recently secured his captain’s license and was showing his mettle. It looked like it was ensnarled in a spider web, but he was confident the boat was going to stay nestled in its slip, just as it was supposed to.
By early evening, the Sockwells, who were face timing, knew the storm had veered east. Suzi was worried. She knew it was not safe. But her husband felt secure even as the winds increased steadily into the night.
When his wife face timed live coverage of the storm’s eye heading directly for Perdido Key, she was rightfully terrified. But Pour Decisions was a big boat. It was built to take a beating.
“At that point, I knew it was going to be a long night,’’ Sockwell said. “I grew up in Tampa and have been through storms with 80MPH winds. But this was already more than that. I was looking at the eye of a storm that was moving at only 2 MPH sitting on top of Perdido Key for three or four hours. This was not going to be good.’’
He estimated that the winds had increased to 100 MPH by the time he got off the phone with Suzi at 3 a.m.
Then he heard a loud pop from the front starboard side. He thought a rope might have snapped or a cleat had slammed into his boat.
In the earthquake like aftermath, he went flying down the stairs into the stateroom, as bottles and plates flew out of cabinets around him. It was too rough to stand up. So he crawled back upstairs and made his way towards the cockpit.
He then saw his neighbor’s boat coming towards him. The collision sent Sockwell into the water between them. The wind was blowing at 120 MPH and probably gusting up to 134 MPH.
He tried to grab a pylon as both boats came at him and collided again. He dived underwater just as they banged together. When he came back up, the waves were so big that he could not reach up and grasp his boat’s swim platform. He made two valiant efforts to do so between dives under water to avoid the colliding boats.
The third time he came up for air he managed to grab onto a black rope in the dark. He still doesn’t know how he was able to find what turned out to be his lifeline. He said it was almost other-worldly that he didn’t even see the rope until he touched it.
What happened next was even more extraordinary. The rope went taunt and literally pulled him out of the water and onto the swim deck.
“It was miraculous that I was able to even find the rope. And then I felt like somebody helped me out of the water,’’ he said. “Like somebody behind me pushed me out of the water. It is the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me. I’m not sure what to attribute it to. But it could have been my dad. He had just died. I’m not one of those guys who would normally say that. But too many weird, freaky things were happening. If the timing would have been off on any of it, I would have drowned.’’
Sockwell said another strange occurrence happened after he was able to get back up on the boat from the swim deck, no small feat itself, considering the environment he was in.
A voice in his head said, “Norman, you need to get off this boat now or you are not going to get off this boat.’’
The boat was bouncing up and down and rocking so much that he could barely stay on his feet. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the loud cannon like sound he heard right after the cryptic warning was a pylon of a neighbor’s boat crashing through the hull on the portside of Pour Decisions. His boat was sinking.
It was too far to jump to the dock and too dangerous to thrash his way to the seawall in front of the condos to his west.
He turned towards the poles supporting the narrow deck between the marina’s boat slips. There was just enough light coming from emergency lights on nearby boats to show that the boardwalk under water was still there, with two pylons attached to it.
The trick would be to time the jump correctly in coordination with the swaying boat. He made a successful leap and grabbed a pylon. He was still standing in a few feet of water. But the boardwalk wasn’t shaking underneath him. For the moment that was enough.
He took a deep breath. He could see very little other than a few emergency lights in boats that had yet to crash or sink and a few flashlights flickering in the condos.
Grabbing a rope, he started inching towards the shore around 30 yards away. He almost immediately stepped into a gap in the boardwalk and again fell into the water. He thinks that is when he severely bruised his heal. He pulled himself out and walked 10 more feet before the same thing happened, further hampering him getting to the marina’s gravel parking lot, where his Chevy Tahoe was parked.
He noticed some activity in the marina condos when he made it to shore. But he was in no way safe. There was a category 2 hurricane raging around him. The winds were strong enough to knock him down numerous times, as he made his way to the truck.
“It felt like I was getting shot at close range with paint balls,’’ he said. “It left bruises. I don’t even know how many times I got knocked down and had to get back up.’’
Sockwell prides himself on his balance. The 52 year old has a black belt in marshall arts and stays fit. But he gave up on trying to walk and dropped to his knees.
When he finally reached his destination, he crawled around the truck trying to get in. Eventually, he was able to pry open his truck’s passenger door. He called his wife and told her he had made it off the boat, soothed by the sound of her voice.
Sockwell said he doesn’t know how long it was between the time he shot into the water and the time he climbed into his truck. It could have been as little as five minutes. Suzi thinks it was closer to 25 minutes.
“Everything goes into hyperdrive and the perception of time feels the same,’’ he said.
Even inside a 5200 lb. truck, he was not safe. He was soaking wet. His heal was burning and he was close to dehydration, if not shock. The wind gusts were blowing hard enough to tip his truck 30 degrees. What he described as “mini-tornados” swirled all around him.
He moved his truck through the water to the northwest corner and parallel parked as close as he could to the restaurant. The wind was now pushing his truck sideways in the two feet of water that covered the lot. He moved the truck back and forth to stay ahead of that problem, as the cyclones continued to swirl around him.
“It looked like little dirt devils spinning like crazy in front of me and behind me. It got pretty intense,’’ he said.
Once daylight came, Sockwell was able to get out of his truck and push his way through a thick jungle of debris to assess the damage to the marina and his boat.
“There were capsized boats everywhere. Some boats were partially sunk or on top of each other. Others were piled up in front of the restaurant. Boats were also piled in front of the condos. It was pretty intense.’’
He noticed a rescue helicopter flying overhead and EMT professionals on jet skis were patrolling nearby. All 30 boats in the marina were destroyed. But nobody died.
He said the Coast Guard called twice in response to the distress alarm on his boat.
“I joked with them that I was fine. I was just a little shook up. I said my boat was in distress, and I have no idea where it is,’’ he said.
Amazingly, Pour Decisions was still in its slip. It was leaning portside on the sea floor, but it was still upright. A power pole with breaker boxes still attached laid on top of it. Poles and 2 by 4’s were jammed into most of its openings. But all eleven ropes were in place and all eight pylons held.
“I am the new guy in the marina and less experienced than anybody, but mine was the only boat that stayed tied and in the slip,’’ he said.
Sockwell had to push a refrigerator aside just to get out of the marina parking lot. River Road was clogged in each direction. He went through the grass around a gate and into Lost Key Golf Course, where a resident told him about a service road that would get him back to Perdido Key Dr.
He was able to get into his wife’s cousin’s condo and wash up by draining the water heater. He melted ice for drinking water and ate a mini-key lime pie, the only food in the freezer. He then slept for about 12 hours.
“Once my brain got out of survival mode for a minute, I passed out. I woke up maybe one time and didn’t wake up again until maybe 10 a.m. the next morning,’’ he said. “I felt completely drained. I was completely out of it.’’
His brother-in-law showed up the next day with money and food and he took off for what turned out to be a seven hour trip home.
A couple weeks later, Sockwell returned to the marina to assess the damage with his insurance adjuster. His heal was still bruised and his biceps were still sore.
“The guy looked at my boat and said, ‘You went in the water? You know what the odds are of surviving a category 2 storm in the water?’ I told him that I didn’t. He said he was no longer thinking poor boat. He was thinking poor Norman. He said the odds of surviving that are maybe five or 10 percent, with the amount of debris between the boats and the way they were bouncing off of each other.’’
He didn’t tell the adjuster about the promise he made to his wife. He didn’t have to.
“It certainly gives you a new respect for nature and the sheer amount of water and force that wind and water can put on you,’’ he said. “Everything had to happen just in the right way or things would not have went down the way they did. If the timing was wrong with any of that, I wouldn’t be here right now.’’
Pictured: Norman Sockwell & his wife Suzi on Pour Decisions.