ST. PETERSBURG — When four men were reported missing in the Gulf of Mexico Feb. 28, the U.S. Coast Guard launched a three-day search that covered more than 20,000 square miles.
The search required 230 combined hours of Coast Guard aircraft, cutters and a motor life boat.
The cost: $1.6 million.
That figure, which the Coast Guard provided to the St. Petersburg Times on Monday, does not include the cost of the assistance provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Air Force, which could not provide assessments Monday.
The Pinellas County sheriff's marine enforcement unit offered some assistance, costing about $2,000, a spokesman said.
Rescuers found one of the boaters, Nick Schuyler, clinging to a capsized fishing boat. His friends Corey Smith, Marquis Cooper and Will Bleakley were not found and are presumed dead.
Coast Guard officials said their chances of rescuing the others may have been enhanced had the boaters carried an EPIRB — an emergency position indicating radio beacon — to help them narrow the search.
Rescue officials also say that the cost of search and rescue missions would be reduced if more boaters carried the beacons.
"We're certainly not touting the EPIRB as a cost savings for the Coast Guard," said Lt. Cmdr. Chris O'Neil, the Coast Guard's chief spokesman in Washington, D.C. "It just so happens, as a fact of the matter, that it saves lives and helps us in our search, which leads to a cost reduction."
The Coast Guard last year spent 10.3 percent of its $6.1 billion operating budget on search-and-rescues.
In District 7, which stretches from the coast of Crystal River south to the Fort Myers beaches, the Coast Guard carried out 1,300 search-and-rescue missions in 2008, though most were not as exhaustive as the search last week. Coast Guard officials said three-day searches like that are rare.
The cost of search-and-rescues includes fixed costs such as the salaries of the crew.
But the bulk of the $1.6 million search last week went toward fuel, maintenance and other operating costs of the two high-powered C-130 Hercules fixed-wing aircraft, two Jayhawk helicopters, a 179-foot cutter, and other expensive vessels that combed the gulf.
The Coast Guard strongly advocates that every boater should carry an EPIRB, which transmits GPS and radio signals that rescuers can use to find a craft in distress. But boaters are not required to carry EPIRBs or similar devices, which typically cost $400 to $1,000, depending on the model.
Charter boat owner Clay Eavenson told the Times last week that he suggested to his friend Cooper that he buy an EPIRB two days before the ill-fated fishing trip.
Cooper, an avid fisherman, apparently intended to buy a beacon but didn't have one when his boat capsized.
"We all have great intentions, we always get so busy," O'Neil said.
"This is the purchase that you have to make the time for."
But it's tough for the government to mandate an added safety device on recreational boaters, a group that generally values the unrestricted nature of the open water.
"Most people, when you go onto online boating and fishing forums, they've had enough of Big Brother," said Chris Wahler, a marketing manager for ACR Electronics, which manufactures EPIRBs. "Some will follow safety guidelines because it's the right thing to do, but many are like, 'It's my decision, don't tell me whether to wear a life jacket or not.' "
Wahler said he has heard of cases where the push for mandatory EPIRBs has come up among legislators in other states, particularly after highly publicized tragedies like the one last week. But the ideas have withered before the proposal stage.
In the case of EPIRBs, the decision to carry one — especially on boating trips more than 15 to 20 miles offshore, where there's no cell phone reception — can make the difference between life and death. It also can mean the difference between a quick, inexpensive rescue and a long, expensive search.
Last month on Lake Erie, a large chunk of ice broke off from the shoreline during a fishing tournament. Because the Coast Guard was able to narrow the search to a small area, the agency spent just $254,186 to rescue 134 people.
O'Neil pointed out that it's a different rescue scenario than looking for people in the Gulf of Mexico.
But he said it highlights how easy it is to rescue people when you don't have to conduct a massive search.
And how futile it can be to search wide swaths of water — and never rescue.
Emily Nipps can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8452.