Boating is a favorite pastime for many Floridians. The Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the state's many lakes and rivers provide almost unlimited opportunities for fun and recreation. But accidents can happen to both experienced and novice boaters. If an emergency situation occurred on your boat, would you know how to respond and what to do?
One morning last month, before setting off for a day of fishing, a local boater filed a float plan with his wife, telling her he was launching from Bayport and would be back by 5 p.m. It was a sunny day on the Gulf of Mexico — clear skies, low wind — and the fish were biting. Later in the day as he was about to head for home, a bracket on the boat's starter motor fell off, disabling the engine and leaving him stranded 20 miles off the coast of Hernando Beach.
He had grown up on the water, had taken the Coast Guard Auxiliary's "about boating safely" class and knew what to do. His boat was equipped with a waterproof emergency kit, four hand flares, flare gun, air horn, whistle and a distress flag. He had attached the distress flag to the boat's radio antennae.
His boat also had a VHF radio, which he used to call the Coast Guard for help. Six boats passed before the Coast Guard arrived. As the other boats sailed by, he fired flares, sounded his air horn and used hand signals.
No one stopped. In fact, some people on a boat that passed close by waved back to him. Presumably, they did not recognize the orange-and-black distress flag and were unaware that boaters are required by law to stop and assist other boaters in an emergency.
The Coast Guard had dispatched a 47-foot motor lifeboat from Station Sand Key. The motor lifeboat began to tow the disabled vessel but could not bring it all the way to shore due to its 4.6-foot draft. Recognizing that a shallower draft boat would be needed, the Coast Guard called upon the Coast Guard Auxiliary at Hernando Beach.
The Coast Guard Auxiliary members support the Coast Guard with all missions except military and law enforcement actions. Thus, they responded to the call, a crew was organized and an auxiliary boat launched from Hernando Beach at 7:35 p.m. Less than an hour later, the auxiliary boat rendezvoused with the Coast Guard. The tow was transferred, and the 18.5-foot vessel and its owner were towed to shore. Both vessels arrived safely around 11:30 p.m. An auxiliary volunteer had contacted the boater's wife, and she was on hand to welcome him home.
Earlier in the evening, when he had not returned as scheduled, she had tried to call his cell phone but was unable to reach him. As nighttime approached, she became concerned and went to Bayport to look for him. She saw his car and boat trailer but no sign of her husband. She contacted the Sheriff's Office and was relieved to hear that her husband had been rescued by Team Coast Guard and was on his way home.
The boater was unharmed and in good spirits. This story has a happy ending because he was prepared and knew what to do. Lack of boating knowledge can be deadly. For 16 of the past 20 years, Florida has led the nation in boating-related fatalities.
Sadly, last year was no exception. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reports that, during 2010, 78 people died in boating accidents, and nine of them were from the Tampa Bay area. The wildlife commission estimates that 77 percent of boating accidents involve people who have not taken a boating education class. Florida law mandates that anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 1988, who operates a vessel powered by 10 horsepower or more complete a state-approved safe-boating course.
The Coast Guard Auxiliary offers a variety of courses, including "about boating safely," a beginner program that satisfies Florida's boating safety education requirements. For more information on the Auxiliary's programs, visit www.cgaux7.org.
Geralyn M. Ryan is the staff officer for public affairs for U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Flotilla 15-8, based in Hernando Beach.