Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Public safety

Storm capsized boat, left families stranded around Tampa Bay

ST. PETERSBURG ­— The waves kicked up high and quick Sunday, sloshing over the side of the boat Brittany Whitten had taken into Tampa Bay for her first fishing trip. Some of the boat's six passengers fought the water with 5-gallon buckets, but it came up too quickly, capsizing their vessel near Weedon Island.

"There was just so much water inside the front of the boat, it just made it sink," Whitten, 23, of Lakeland said. "It was just too heavy."

Whitten and her boyfriend, Jared Lyons, along with Lyons' mother, brother and two family friends, clung to the side of the boat. Their life vests were locked in a submerged part of the vessel. They had seen the storm approaching and made for land, but ran out of time, Lyons said.

One friend, a former lifeguard, took off for help almost as soon as they hit the water. Lyons and Whitten started swimming for help about 30 minutes later. They were picked up by boaters, and rescuers pulled the rest of their group up as well. No one was seriously hurt.

The incident was one of several boating mishaps during stormy weather Sunday.

"This bay can be very deceiving," Tampa Fire Rescue District Chief Troy Basham said. "People think that because it's a small bay, it can't be life threatening, but we've lost a lot of people in the 30 years that I've been here."

Basham said the capsized boat was one of three calls Tampa Fire Rescue received in the span of an hour Sunday. Another boat lost power and was pushed onto the Gandy Causeway. A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boat was stranded trying to rescue that vessel, Basham said.

Bay News 9 Meteorologist Mike Clay said Monday that he expects similar weather conditions all week.

Basham said boaters should do as much as possible to track weather in real time while on the water. If they're caught off guard by a storm, putting on a life jacket and making for safe harbor are key, Basham said.

Another dramatic rescue happened Sunday night when a family of seven was stranded just off Fort De Soto.

"Yesterday was pretty hairy," park supervisor Jim Wilson said Monday.

When the family radioed in that their 31-foot craft was about to run aground, Wilson took his truck to the beach. The vessel came to rest on a sandbar, and Wilson headed for the water.

"They were just very lucky because where they beached themselves, the land was between them and the water," Wilson said.

Wilson swam out to bring the family in, and no one was seriously injured.

It took just a few minutes, but Wilson said it passed slowly.

"It seemed like forever at the time, because the wind was blowing about 50 miles per hour, and sideways rain," Wilson said.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Claire Wiseman can be reached at (727)-893-8804 or [email protected] On Twitter: @clairelwiseman.

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