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Gulf of Mexico can quickly turn vicious

People joke about the Gulf of Mexico. They call it a pond, say it has no waves. But they have never been at sea and felt the full force of a late-season winter cold front.

I've seen the gulf get nasty — 10-foot seas and 40 mph winds. I've knelt on the deck and prayed, cursing my ignorance and damning the decisions of others. And I've learned from my mistakes.

People die in the cold water of the Gulf of Mexico — quickly, without warning, sometimes within sight of land.

Four friends decide to go fishing in 21-foot boat. Hoping to catch amberjack, they travel 50 miles from shore to get a good spot. Smart fishermen hit the farthest spot first, then work their way back.

The weather report called for calm seas in the morning. But in the afternoon, a cold front would sweep down from the north.

So they take off across 2-foot seas and head toward their fishing spot.

Perhaps they were anchored up fishing, or maybe running home when they realized that the front had arrived earlier than predicted. The 2-foot seas built quickly to 4 feet, then 6 feet. All it takes is one 8-foot wave to swamp a boat.

Hopefully, they would be wearing personal flotation devices, but the sad truth is most boaters don't when under way. Their 21-foot boat was built to float, even full of water.

So they cling to the hull, knowing that as long as they hang on, they will be safe. But the real enemy isn't drowning. It's the cold.

Offshore, 20 or more miles from land, the water temperature is hovering in the mid to low 60s, the air temperature only slightly warmer. Even in a wetsuit, you will become chilled within an hour.

Hypothermia creeps up slowly. By the time you realize you are in trouble, it is usually too late.

Judgment is the first thing to go. Then the motor skills. A strong person may survive for four or five hours, but unless they get out of the cold water, they are on the losing end of a mathematical equation.

The only help is rescue. But finding an overturned boat in the Gulf of Mexico is literally like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. If the boaters were smart, they left a "float plan" with a friend or relative detailing where they went and when they planned to be back.

If not, the Coast Guard would wait for a missing persons report. By then, it could already be too late.

A well-prepared boater carries an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon that will send a distress signal to a satellite orbiting overhead. The price of these lifesavers has come down in recent years. You can buy one for $500 to $750.

Once in the Dry Tortugas, aboard a sailboat catching the full force of a late-season winter cold front, I searched for an EPIRB that wasn't there.

I knelt on the deck and prayed, promising God that if I lived, I would never be so stupid again. Thankfully, I was allowed to learn from experience.

Others are not so lucky.

Gulf of Mexico can quickly turn vicious 03/02/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 3, 2009 10:32am]

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