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Rescue beacon saves lives of two Tampa Bay boaters

It was only a few weeks ago that 75-year-old Guy Sumlin bought the gadget that would save his life.

The Land O'Lakes man and his son Warren, 52, of Tampa, were preparing for a 150-mile boating trip to Great Guana Cay, a Bahamian inlet where they would cast off for grouper.

He kept seeing reports of the Gulf of Mexico capsizing that killed three athletes. Warren's son, Matt, exercised at the same gym as Nick Schuyler, the tragedy's only survivor. He learned the men were without an EPIRB, or emergency position indicating radio beacon, that could have led rescuers to their location. Guy's boat had an old unit in need of repair. Would that be enough?

"He said, 'No, lets get a new one.' And thank God he did," said Elizabeth Sumlin, his wife. "If it hadn't had been for this," said his daughter, Donna, "if the Coast Guard hadn't have heard it, they could have been bobbing out there for more than 11 hours."

Guy and Warren's story from this weekend bears striking similarities to last month's gulf accident: the rough and windy weather, the overturned fishing boat, the men stranded for hours in the surf.

But because of Guy's $500 rescue beacon, last seen blinking a distress signal while sinking to the sea floor, the Sumlins' story doesn't end in tragedy.

Guy and Warren made the trip safely from Stuart, on Florida's east coast, to Fox Town, Bahamas, said Ronald Russell, a business owner at the dock who helped in the rescue. But when they set off Saturday morning to check into customs at Marsh Harbour, about 50 miles away, they hit rough waves and 25-knot winds.

Their 25-foot Grady-White fishing craft capsized, sending the men overboard and their food, phones and electronics below, Elizabeth Sumlin said. In a hurry to ship out, the men had failed to leave a float plan back home. They stayed at sea all night, watching the rescue planes fly by overhead.

A Coast Guard chopper found them the next morning, clinging to a small rock formation 7 miles from the Fox Town docks.

Volunteers with the Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association returned the men to shore. Russell served them breakfast and hot tea.

"They didn't talk much. They were glad to be alive," Russell said. "Guy said, 'Thank God for the EPIRB.' "

The Sumlins' troubles aren't over. Without their passports and identification, returning stateside will require diplomatic help from on high, Donna Sumlin said. But the family can't help but be grateful for their rescue — and can't forget what could have been.

"We were almost holding a vigil when the three lost their lives in the gulf," she said. "All I kept thinking of was my father."

Times staff writer Rita Farlow contributed to this report. Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

To view a video of how an EPIRB works, go to links.tampabay.com

Rescue beacon saves lives of two Tampa Bay boaters 04/27/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 30, 2009 3:00pm]
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