Thursday, May 24, 2018
Public safety

Mom feared son, one of the lost boaters stranded at sea for 7 days, dead

ST. PETERSBURG

All it took was one powerful wave from Tropical Storm Debby to capsize their barge, plunging the two boaters into the Gulf of Mexico and turning their business trip into a nightmare.

Gerald Chessher, 57, and Vance Bryan, 48, bobbed to the surface; their boat did not. And so they hauled themselves into an eight-person life raft, terrified, but unwilling to consider the possibility that this might be how they would die.

One day turned into two, four, then six.

On shore, their families waited for news. Chessher's mother, Joyce Bell, lost hope, doubtful that her son could survive one of the worst storms Florida has seen since 2005.

About 20 family members gathered at Bell's home in DeFuniak Springs; plans were made for a July memorial. But as it turned out, none would be necessary.

On the seventh day, Thursday night, Bell's phone rang.

A voice said, "Happy birthday, mother."

Bell had turned 77 day the day before and had not heard from her son for 10 days, since he'd called home on Father's Day.

"I said 'Who is this?'" she said.

"And he said, 'This is Gerald.' And I don't know what happened after that, somebody else had to take the phone."

After seven days adrift in the Gulf of Mexico, the two men were rescued by a tug barge on Thursday night about 90 miles northwest of Tarpon Springs, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard brought them to St. Petersburg.

Chessher and Bryan said they had set off from Captiva Island on June 18 aboard a barge they were delivering to Belize with the intention of selling it. They planned to stop in Cancun for fuel, but never made it.

Bryan, the barge's owner, told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday that by the time they were discovered, the men only had enough drinking water to last them through the night and into the next morning. Their emergency ration bag held two dozen nutrition bars and one liter of water portioned out into a handful of small packets they sucked down when their teeth began sticking to the inside of their cheeks.

To make the rations last longer, they ate small fish and crabs they caught with little pieces of seaweed tied to string. Wary of attracting sharks, they were careful to keep the fish remains in the raft, but still a 20-foot hammerhead shark lurked around their raft, Bryan said.

Because of their remote location, the men had difficulty attracting notice, Bryan said.

"The storm put us in an area that was out of range of fishermen and we were just too small of an object for the big commercial cargo ships to see," he said. "It was an unlikely survivable situation."

Trouble began soon after the journey began, with 8- to 10-foot high waves rocking the barge. The engine began to shut down, Bryan said, leaving the boat without enough power to keep its bow facing into the waves. It only took one big wall of water slapping the boat to bring it down, Bryan said.

In the span of 10 minutes, the barge went from being level to having its bow sticking straight up in the air. The men went down with the vessel, bobbed to the surface and immediately swam over to the life raft.

The storm only grew rougher, Bryan said, estimating that at its worst, Debby produced waves 20 to 30 feet high. While on the raft, Chessher and Bryan went over their options, quickly agreeing that giving up was not among them. In the ensuing days, they formulated a survival plan that they believed might give them three weeks to a month of life and after that, the future was an open, unexplored question.

Alerted on Sunday, June 24, that the men had failed to reach Cancun and had fallen out of touch with family, the Coast Guard in St. Petersburg dispatched a C-130 airplane from the Clearwater station to search the Gulf of Mexico. But Michael De Nyse, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, said it was the crew of the tug barge Rikki S. that noticed the orange smoke from the men's flare and came to their rescue.

After they were found, they were taken to a hospital and released. They spent Friday in a motel in St. Petersburg, resting and venturing out to buy new clothes — their own went down with the barge.

"What an adventure!" said Chessher, sunburned and smiling, in an interview with Bay News 9 in the pre-dawn hours of Friday, shortly after the Coast Guard delivered the men to shore.

Bell, Chessher's mother, said they planned to return home on Saturday.

Public records indicate that Bryan has been arrested more than 20 times, including several drug-related charges. Chessher has been arrested more than 10 times on charges such as assault and battery.

Before they spent more than a week in a raft together, Bryan and Chessler were casual acquaintances who lived near each other in Freeport. Bryan said that Chessler knew he sometimes delivered boats to international ports, and had expressed interest in coming along. This time, he offered Chessher the chance, and he took it.

"And thank goodness for it," Bryan said. "Gerald held up where most men would have given up hope. He kind of seemed like an unlikely guy to have an iron will, but it turns out that's just what he has."

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