Four friends set out aboard an Everglades 211 center console from Clearwater, Fla., on the last day of February to fish for amberjack out in the Gulf of Mexico. They obviously planned to travel well offshore, since rescue teams discovered five full five-gallon jerry jugs of gasoline aboard the 21-foot boat.
By 2 p.m., a front roared through, bringing high winds and reported seas of up to 15 feet. Authorities believe the friends traveled out as far as 50 miles offshore. However, when their overturned vessel was found, it was anchored some 35 miles out of Clearwater in about 135 feet of water.
For the inexperienced boater, taking a boat well offshore in the Gulf, out to the Channel Islands or toward the middle of one of the Great Lakes with today’s easy-to-use electronics doesn’t seem too challenging. Many boat buyers never even purchase a paper chart or learn how to plot a course. For experienced sailors, a propensity for complacency sometimes makes us forget that what we love to do — travel way out to remote areas — can be a dangerous pastime. In either case, it pays to learn, pay attention and be very careful.
The four men who took that (unsinkable) Everglades boat offshore to bottomfish in the face of deteriorating weather conditions — two NFL players and two former college football players — made many misguided decisions that contributed to the demise of three of them from hypothermia. Could their fate have been avoided? Most likely, given more education, experience and common sense.
When contemplating a bluewater trip, no matter what it looks like when you wake up that morning, check the marine weather forecast for the area in which you plan to travel. The forecast for the day the foursome left the dock called for small-craft warnings, deteriorating conditions and high waves.
Though the boat they boarded was in fact truly unsinkable, it was only 21 feet long. That’s not a very big boat for traveling 50 miles offshore. It might have been wiser to charter a larger boat with a professional crew if they wanted to travel that far afield.
If you are headed offshore, you can and should go online to file a float plan (floatplancentral.org/download/USCGFloatPlan.pdf). Leave a copy of the plan with someone responsible who cares about your safe return. If that person knows when you’re due back and you’re late returning, he will have the information needed to contact search-and-rescue authorities and assist the SAR teams in finding you in the quickest fashion.
Proper Tools for the Job
You wouldn’t take 130-pound-test rods and reels aboard if you planned to cast for little fish under a dock. Likewise, don’t take 150 feet of rode fixed to a Danforth anchor when you plan to moor up on a reef in 150 feet of water. The old saw about anchor line needing to be seven times your depth still holds true in deep water.
I promise you that not one anchor locker on a 21-foot center console is physically capable of accommodating 500 feet of 3/8-inch line. Smart bottomfishermen take a laundry basket aboard especially for this application. You can stow far more line in it, and deploying and retrieving it is much easier when you don’t have to force the line down into a locker.
The typical anchor that comes with a 21-foot center console is a Danforth style, which works well in mud, sand and gravel but should definitely not be used for rocky bottoms. Once you stick a Danforth-style hook in hard substrate, chances are you won’t get it back without diving down and physically removing it. Rather, grappling hooks or “reef” anchors work much better. Though you can often buy them for less than $100, you can also make your own out of rebar for about $10. If this kind of hook snags, you have two ways to retrieve it: Pull up the trip line you had already wisely attached to the bitter end of the anchor, or simply overpower it. The “flukes” are not so strong that you can’t overpower them by bending.
In the case of the football players, they tried to retrieve their stuck anchor by tying it to the lifting ring on the port transom. The boat and its 200 hp outboard proved insufficient to move the earth. In the steep seas, the tension on the anchor line pulled the stern down rather than lifting the anchor up — those are the only two possibilities — and the boat rolled over. Cutting the anchor line would have been a far more prudent decision.
The accident report, issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, also highlights several important omissions from the Everglades’ equipment list. The boat carried no EPIRB or satellite telephone and no life raft. Yet at 35 miles offshore, they were definitely out of both VHF and cellphone range.
Three of the four victims of the tragedy apparently died as a result of hypothermia. “But they were in Florida,” you say. “How is that possible?” The water was 62 degrees! Body temperature is 98.6. Even in 62-degree water, hypothermia will set in, though it will take a little longer. The accident report claims drinking was also involved, though it doesn’t state by whom. Alcohol makes you more susceptible to hypothermia.
Had they an EPIRB or a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), the search-and-rescue teams would likely have reached them far earlier in this saga and lives could have been saved. The Coast Guard found the lone survivor sitting atop the barely visible overturned hull.
Had they heeded the weather forecast prior to leaving the dock, perhaps they all would have had nachos and beer in someone’s living room as the gales raged outside. Had the owner of the boat taken seamanship classes, perhaps things would have been different. This entire episode incorporates myriad what-ifs.
Talk about cheap insurance! An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or Personal Locating Beacon (PLB) can mean the difference between being found when you’re floating in a life jacket way offshore and not being found at all. And in most cases, a locating beacon cuts the time to rescue by a huge amount.
Congress recently gave the U.S. Coast Guard purview over offshore emergency communications. In 2011, the Coast Guard handled 20,516 search-and-rescue cases; 11,011 of those considered recreational vessels and 1,311 of those occurred beyond 3 nautical miles.
Of all those cases, not a single life was lost where an emergency beacon was employed. The time to rescue proved to be a fraction of those without beacons. Two actual SAR cases are good examples — one cost $35,447, the other $37,958. The big difference between the two was the actual search time involved: For the first, in which a locator beacon was used, the search time was only 23 minutes. For the second, where a VHF/FM radio was used, the search time was 102 minutes (nearly two-thirds of the total cost of the SAR). So, when you consider the amount of money it costs to conduct a search-and-rescue sortie, added to the $9.1 million our government assigns as the “Value of Statistical Life,” you begin to see that losing a life at sea becomes a very expensive proposition.
Consequently, the Coast Guard is now seriously contemplating instituting a requirement in the future for all vessels traveling farther than 3 miles offshore to carry some sort of emergency locating beacon and/or a DSC VHF.
Sounds convoluted, doesn’t it? Look at it this way: The relatively minor cost of carrying an emergency locating beacon can mean the difference between being rescued pretty quickly or perhaps never at all.
File A Float Plan
If you don’t have all the wonderful safety gear we mentioned, and even if you do, there’s a cheap and easy way to cover your butt. Simply visit floatplancentral.org/download/USCGFloatPlan.pdf and fill in the blanks. That’s right, just follow the directions, and if you get in to trouble aboard your boat and don’t return to the dock when you expected to, people in a position to do something about it know who you are and where you went.
Equipment to Take Out of Sight of Land
Since humans first went to sea, a cardinal rule has been to have redundancy: spare sails, propellers, pumps, anchor and rode, extra fuel margin, etc. Today, a handheld GPS comes in handy if your electronics ever go south. And finally, some sort of emergency beacon should you ever reach your “last resort.”