Photo by Stan Sheets/Boynton Beach Star, Courtesy of the Boynton Beach City Library
By Willie Howard
Ship’s mate Don Lash knew it would be unwise to panic.
The 60-foot drift fishing boat Two Georges had just capsized outside the rough waters of the Boynton Inlet and Lash was trapped under water, his legs ensnared in rope.
“I reached for my fishing pliers,” Lash, then 19, recalled, “but they were gone. I realized that if I was unable to free my feet from this tangle I would die. A calm came over me. I took my pocket knife out and bent over and cut myself free.”
It was 50 years ago this March when the Two Georges went over, killing five passengers in one of the worst pleasure-boating disasters in South Florida.
On March 25, 1964, the Two Georges was headed into Boynton Inlet after a morning trip with 17 passengers and three crewmen aboard when the boat suddenly was lifted from the stern by a cresting wave and capsized.
Several captains from the Boynton Inlet fishing fleet rushed to their boats and headed out into rough water outside the inlet to rescue many of the Two Georges passengers and crew.
Some passengers swam to the beach. Bodies were recovered by rescuers near the inlet. Others washed up on the shore. A fifth passenger was never found and was presumed to be lost.
Lash, now 69, was working as a mate on the boat that day and was standing behind Two Georges Capt. Jimmy Stevens when the wooden boat capsized.
During a recent interview at his home in Boynton Beach, Lash said the fishing boat was surfing down a wave when it veered, began taking on water on its port side and then rolled over.
“I remember Capt. Jim crying out, ‘Oh my God. She’s gone,’” Lash wrote in a summary of the accident, written for his family.
“I was thrown against the back windows of the wheelhouse as she rolled over,” Lash wrote. “Total confusion ensued. I was under water with my feet tangled in some unknown line, preventing me from coming to the surface.”
He reached for his fishing pliers, but they were gone. That’s when he calmly reached for his pocketknife and cut his way to freedom.
Lash said he remembered taking the time to fold his pocketknife and slip it back into his pocket before he shot to the surface to for air.
Lash swam over to help a man who was trying to cling to a cooler. Then Capt. Angelo Phillips and the crew of the Pepper pulled them both out of the water. The man who had been clinging to the cooler died of heart failure, Lash said.
Stevens told the Palm Beach Daily News after the accident that he waited for three swells to pass over the sand bar before heading into the inlet. Everything seemed fine, he said, until a 20-foot wave lifted the stern of the Two Georges.
One of the crewmen told the newspaper that one wave broached the fishing boat, and another wave capsized it.
A 1965 Coast Guard report about the accident said the wave raised the stern of the Two Georges until the propellers and rudder were out of the water. Loss of control caused the boat to veer and roll over.
Dr. Charles Moore, also known as Capt. Buddy Moore, was standing on the State Road A1A bridge, watching the boats come in Boynton Inlet that day because he was trying to decide whether the inlet was too rough to head out for an afternoon of fishing.
From witness to rescuer
After the Two Georges rolled over, Moore, today an 89-year-old retired surgeon, jumped on a boat with Capt. Homer Adams and Red Waggner and headed out to the stricken vessel. That was lucky for Two Georges passenger James Renc, who had been slashed by one of the overturned boat’s propellers.
Moore recalled taking off his shirt and stuffing it into the open wound in Renc’s chest, then riding with him in an ambulance to Bethesda Hospital and performing surgery.
“If you’re going to be in a boat that’s flipped over and get popped and have a sucking chest wound, how lucky can you be to have a surgeon right there?” asked Moore, who lives in Lake Worth.
Renc later thanked Moore for saving his life. Renc’s two sons, one of whom had polio, also survived the Two Georges accident.
Members of the Gold Coast Aquanauts scuba diving club volunteered to attach a tow cable to the sunken fishing boat, said Tom Warnke, whose father served as president of the dive club at the time.
The Two Georges, owned by George Culver, was towed north to Lake Worth Inlet and repaired near the Port of Palm Beach, Warnke said.
“The next day (the divers) went to see Culver, and he gave them each a free pass to go drift fishing. It should have been a lifetime pass,” Warnke said.
Culver had the Two Georges back on the water taking passengers fishing later that summer.
Veteran Boynton Beach fishing captains said the wooden fishing boat continued to take passengers fishing off Boynton Inlet for another 30 years or so.
The Two Georges, named for Culver and his father, was taken out of service in the early 1990s after it failed a Coast Guard inspection.
Culver died in 1996. The restaurant bearing the Two Georges name was sold following his death.
After investigating the Two Georges accident, the Coast Guard charged Capt. Stevens with “inattention to duty.”
Lash blamed the fatal accident on rough sea conditions outside a difficult inlet that acted on an outdated boat.
“There wasn’t a fault other than the design of the inlet and the boat,” said Lash, who went on to captain the Sea Mist III for a few years and own a fleet of fishing boats in South Carolina.
“It was very upsetting to our family and a sad time in the fishing community,” said Cindy Jamison, daughter of renowned Boynton Beach captain Kenny Lyman, who moored his boat next to the Two Georges.
The capsizing of the Two Georges underscored the hazards of the narrow ocean passage at Boynton Inlet, which was more susceptible to dangerous sea conditions then because the north jetty was not extended and curved until 1967.
“It’s still a dangerous inlet, but it was more dangerous at that time,” said Bill Beck, owner of the former Boynton Beach Star newspaper, which published an extra edition showing photos of the rescue after the Two Georges tragedy.
The relatively narrow inlet, 130 feet wide, was opened in 1927 to improve water quality in the Lake Worth Lagoon. It was not designed for navigation.
The inlet’s strong tidal flow can clash with ocean waves to produce rough conditions for boaters. Winter swells stand up on a sand bar that forms from time to time outside the mouth of the inlet.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the agency that produces nautical charts, notes that the Boynton Inlet is “dangerous and particularly hazardous to small boats not designed for open seas.” NOAA’s chart notes say boaters using the Boynton Inlet “should be experienced and have local knowledge.”
Larry Madden, who was a 10-year-old paper delivery boy for the Boynton Beach Star on the day of the 1964 accident, remembers selling the extra edition on the streets of Boynton Beach on the afternoon of the accident.
“It’s still fresh in my mind because it was such a traumatic experience,” said Madden, who now lives in Arkansas. “People were standing two to three deep waiting for the paper.”
The Boynton Beach Star printed an extra edition the afternoon of the sinking. Images courtesy of the Boynton Beach City Library