Good Samaritans of the sea, sailors answer Coast Guard call to help find missing boater

In rough seas, the sailboat crew out of New Orleans followed the lights of a rescue airplane flying circles and dropping flares to pinpoint the target. The results were bittersweet.
Published January 21

ST. PETERSBURG — The Gulf of Mexico was churning by the time the sailboat made it down to Clearwater, so the four-man crew decided to drop an anchor and hunker down until morning.

As they were heading to deeper water, right around midnight, the U.S. Coast Guard reached out. There's a potential search and rescue, Capt. Gabriel Chapman remembered them saying. “Can you help?”

"Of course we're interested in helping," said Chapman, 31. "We're boaters. We like to take care of each other, especially in stressful situations and potentially perilous situations."

Chapman and his crew, aboard a sailboat named after his mother called the Gwendolyn Leigh, followed the lights of a Coast Guard airplane flying circles and dropping flares to pinpoint the vessel in question. A 23-foot fishing boat popped above a swell every now and then, the vessel Ernest Bishop had set out in the morning of Jan. 9 from Fort Island Trail Park in Crystal River.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Search is on for missing boater off coast of Clearwater Beach

The Gwendolyn Leigh, a 37-foot Hunter Cherubini built in 1981, got close enough for the crew to see that the boat was a Key West model with a center cockpit. But there were no people in sight.

About 2 p.m. Jan. 10, about 16 hours after Bishop's wife reported him missing, authorities found his body about 25 miles off Pine Island. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is investigating the circumstances of his death.

"Our thoughts continue to be with Mr. Bishop’s family during this difficult time," agency spokeswoman Melody Kilborn said in a statement.

Bishop's family could not be reached for comment.

Chapman and his crew joined a long history of civilians jumping in to help with search-and-rescue missions. In November, Good Samaritans stepped in when a plane crashed in the water near Albert Whitted Airport. During Hurricane Irma, in 2017, a Carnival cruise ship on the way to the Bahamas picked up a captain whose shrimp boat had sunk in the storm, killing his deckhand and cat.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Cruise ship rescues Florida shrimp boat captain from Hurricane Irma as first mate goes down with ship

"We always appreciate any time a Good Samaritan can help," said Coast Guard spokesman Michael De Nyse.

The Gwendolyn Leigh came from New Orleans, operated by Chapman, first mate Dalton Mesch, and crew members Elliot Balch and Douglas Fischer. Their plan was to hop from Key West to the Bahamas to the Caribbean, doing boat maintenance as they go.

"We're all just kind of scallywags, I guess," Chapman said from St. Petersburg, where the boat was anchored just off Demens Landing.

The search for Bishop's boat threw a treacherous wrinkle into their journey.

Waves that night reached six to 10 feet, and the boat was under sail because the engine key broke. They prepared blankets and food in case they found someone in the chilly night.

The result was bittersweet. Chapman wondered if they had passed Bishop and missed him screaming or blowing a whistle in the wind. But if they had stuck around, they might have become the next boat in distress.

"In the boat world, you can go from having the happiest moment in your life to feeling like you're going to die," he said. "Stuff can change real, real quick, and you always got to remember that."

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or Follow @kathrynvarn.