Update: The Pierce County Sheriff's Dept. recovered the body of Michael Scott Christie Feb. 1 on the north shore of Henderson Bay, about two miles from where he disappeared Dec. 28.
After losing their friend in a fatal accident, two transient sailors are trying to figure out how to get out of a dangerous place.
Michael Scott Christie, 24, was presumed drowned after the skiff he and two others were paddling swamped and capsized off the Purdy Spit during the early evening of Dec. 28. The two men with him made it to shore, together with their two small dogs, but Christie remained missing after a search that lasted two days.
Christie and his companions, William Harris, 32, and Chris Marx, 39, had been living on three sailboats anchored in Henderson Bay for some months. They were returning to their boats after grocery shopping in Gig Harbor when the accident occurred.
“We got in the boat, everything was good,” Harris said. “We were using 2-by-4s to row because someone had stolen all our stuff off the beach several days earlier.”
“We lost a really good canoe and the paddles and lifejackets with it,” Marx said. Because of that, none of the three men or the two dogs that accompanied them were wearing life jackets.
“When we left, it was clear and calm and about halfway across from the bridge, it was just starting to get dark, the water really churned up,” Marx said. “We got about 30 feet or so from the boat and one of the waves spilled over the front end, followed by a second and a third real quick, and it literally just swamped us and we keeled over and went.”
Christie and the dogs somehow remained in the swamped boat while Harris and Marx clung to it for maybe 15 minutes as the current carried them toward the Purdy bridge, recirculated them back along the eastern shoreline of the bay and then back again toward the bridge, according to Marx.
“When we got near the edge (of the beach), I noticed we were going under the bridge, so I started telling him (Christie) he needed to let go and swim the rest of the way,” Harris said.
“They really, really tried to find our friend."“He wouldn’t let go,” Marx said. “I was like, ‘We gotta let go, we gotta let go.’ He finally started swimming with us. We got to land and literally turned around and he was back in the boat.”
Harris said, “I went right back down in the water under the bridge trying to get to him; about waist deep, the water was pulling me away. I took one more step and there was no bottom. I got back up on the beach and we started yelling our names back and forth trying to keep track of where everyone was at. He (Christie) yelled my name and then I saw the boat flip over and then we never seen him again.”
“All you could see was just the tip of the boat and it rolled and that was the last time he (Christie) said anything and I just ran (to call for help),” Marx said. “As soon as he crossed under the bridge and out of the lights from the gas station it was like trying to look into midnight.”
Multiple agencies responded, including the Key Peninsula and Gig Harbor fire departments, the Tacoma fireboat and rescue divers, Pierce County sheriff’s divers, West Pierce Fire rescue swimmers and the U.S. Coast Guard.
“For a water-related rescue, the number of people that get dispatched is huge,” said Anne Nesbit, the public information officer for the KP fire department.
“We had to pull divers because the water was so rough and the current was moving so fast,” she said. “We had to focus on shore-based search with the aid of a helicopter, and the sheriff and fireboats were doing sweeps.” The overturned dinghy was found on the east side of Burley Lagoon north of 146th Street NW.
“The fire department rescue and all of the police that were out here have been absolutely phenomenal,” Marx said. “One fire chief, the night that it happened, everybody was leaving and he refused. He told everyone, ‘You can go, I’m gonna stay.’ They really, really tried to find our friend.”
The search for Christie continued until midnight and then resumed the next day, accompanied by Harris, Marx and numerous others in small boats and along the shoreline. The search was suspended late Sunday.
“We got a hold of his dad in San Diego,” Marx said. “It seemed like he comes from a pretty solid family, a big family, he talked about them all the time. He sounded pretty fortunate in that department.”
One of the three vessels the three men had been living on, a 21-foot fiberglass boat built in the early 1980s, broke loose from its anchor during high winds the night of Jan. 5 with Marx onboard. The boat rolled over at least once and took on water before washing ashore against the bulkhead below the 76 gas station in Purdy. Marx and his dog escaped uninjured.
Later that night, a second boat, a 40-foot, two-mast sharpie built in 1985, also lost its anchor and was blown under the bridge where it was dismasted, holed and sank.
“The sharpie was doing fine until about 3 a.m., then I don’t know what happened,” Marx said. “Now it’s gone and it was the only thing of any value we had.”
Harris came to Washington in May 2018 from California to buy the sharpie for $2,000. He invited Christie to join him from California and, together with Marx, they spent the summer sailing Puget Sound, selling jewelry Harris made and working on the boat.
They picked up another boat for free in Des Moines, a 36-foot Rhodes Evergreen sloop built in 1948 and missing her mast.
The original plan was to get to Port Townsend, find work and restore the boats. “There’s a lot of resources there and a lot of work, like carpentry, which is what I do,” Marx said.
But neither vessel had a working engine, so Harris later traded his car for two outboard motors, neither of which worked for long. The seller offered to repair them at his place on the north end of the Key Peninsula, which is what drew the three to Henderson Bay. It was there they were given the 21-foot boat by its owner, who had left it at anchor off the Purdy Spit for at least a year.
“We’ve pretty much just been waiting on the motors,” Harris said. “The weather hasn’t really given us any options to do anything.”
Shortly before the sharpie sank, Harris had decided to sell it. “I don’t have the resources to take care of her,” he said. “She’s a really good boat, she’s an epic boat.”
The sharpie was refloated with the help of some community members a few days later and beached near the Purdy Spit boat ramp, badly damaged. At press time Harris and Marx were at work cutting it apart and local volunteers were hauling away the pieces.
The 21-foot boat Marx was on was moved off the bulkhead and rafted up next to the Rhodes.
“At this point we just want the motors back and then we can take them somewhere else,” Marx said. “I’ve been hoping we could offer a trade to work for one.”
But their extended stay has attracted the attention of local residents concerned about the danger to themselves and the community from anchoring in an unsheltered stretch of water and about what they are doing with their waste. It is illegal to discharge human waste into Puget Sound or to remain at anchor more than 30 days in a single location.
The Rhodes has a working marine toilet and holding tank, as did the sharpie, according to Harris. The smaller boat has a portable toilet they take to shore to empty. “If we can, we wait to land so as not to fill the holding tank as fast,” he said, adding they have a friend who pumps out the tank when needed. KP News could not independently confirm whether that was true.
“As long as the county keeps turning a blind eye to these situations, we’re going to have a bigger and bigger problem with more tragic endings.”“We just really want to straighten it out,” Marx said. “People have complained and they had some points. There’ve been a lot of nice people that have come forward too and we’re very, very grateful to this community.”
One shoreline resident, who witnessed these events but declined to be identified, said, “How does this end? I get that people are sympathetic, as if it’s this romantic, vagabond lifestyle. But it’s not. It’s dangerous for them and a burden for us.”
Another resident added, “To be a responsible boater, you need at least two things: knowledge of what you’re doing, and the funds to afford the necessary equipment to operate and maintain a safe ship. In my opinion, these men had neither of these things.
“As long as the county keeps turning a blind eye to these situations, we’re going to have a bigger and bigger problem with more tragic endings.”
Both abandoned and unseaworthy vessels with people living on them are growing in number in Puget Sound and around the country, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. The DNR is charged with removing abandoned vessels and also has an incentive program for owners to turn in unwanted vessels. For more information, go to www.dnr.wa.gov/programs-and-services.
The state Department of Ecology responds to spills of all types into the environment. Reports can be made 24 hours a day to 360-424-8802.
Editor’s note: At press time, Harris told the KP News that he and Marx had been given another boat with a working engine and marine toilet, and that he would be putting the Rhodes Evergreen up for sale or trade. The two men have since left the area, leaving the Rhodes behind.
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