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Why they lived -- lessons from a near-miss
In a dramatic story of survival, four men - three of whom are older than 62 - clung to their capsized 19-foot powerboat for 26 hours in early July, fending off 5-foot seas and fighting hypothermia until rescuers found them.
"Not only were we praying to ourselves, probably twice an hour we would pray together out loud," says Ron Miller, 63.
WEB EXCLUSIVE -- Douglas Whittaker describes their long night praying to be found, while video footage shows a Monroe (Mich.) County Sheriff Office Marine Unit Safe Boat rescuing the four boaters.
The video was shot from the Sheriff Office’s Raptor helicopter, which located the missing boaters during a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) search.
“Dep. Briesacher using the binoculars spotted something small and bobbing to the south of our location,” writes Joe Schumaker, aviation officer, in a report to the Sheriff’s Office. “We decided to investigate the object and if nothing pick up our grid and resume searching. … Did not see the object until nearly on top of it — 100 yards. Dep. Duncan was able to see that it was an overturned boat with 4 people sitting on top.”
For more visit MCSO Raptor's YouTube site.
The anglers, all from Michigan, were heading in after a day of fishing on Lake Erie, slogging through choppy waters at about 5 mph, says Douglas Whittaker, 76, the owner and helmsman of the 2000 Sylvan Adventurer, an outboard-powered dual-console with an open bow. Whittaker's son-in-law, Roy Letson, 52, of Charlotte, and Larry Vert, 64, of Lansing, were also on board.
"We were coming in, and a big wave came over the bow. And then we had three of them - boom, boom, boom - and the boat was full of water, and we all grabbed our life jackets," says Whittaker, of Eaton Rapids, who has been fishing the lake for nine years. "It all happened so fast, in a matter of seconds."
A weight issue
A cooler full of walleye and ice may have thrown off the boat's weight distribution, says Miller, who also is from Eaton Rapids. "We had caught our limit," says Miller, a diabetic with a heart condition. "We had 20 fish, five per man, and we had it sitting up in the bow. I think that could have been some of our problem. We should have moved it farther back, but we had done it that way before and had no problem."
The boat's bow is open, but it has significant freeboard all the way to the stern. On the trip home, Whittaker's three crewmembers were seated abaft the full windshield: Vert in the companion seat, Miller in a pedestal seat abaft the companion seat, and Letson on a flat area in the aft starboard cockpit. Letson was getting wet from spray in this position, so Vert suggested he move forward, between him and the helmsman. "It wasn't long after that the waves that took us down hit," says Vert. "I wonder about the attitude of the boat. We should not have done that. We should have kept the weight in the rear."
Everyone but Whittaker was able to don a PFD before the boat flipped to starboard at about 4 p.m. Thursday, July 2. They had purposely placed the PFDs on the backs of the pedestal seats for quick access. Whittaker says he was unable to put on his PFD because it was too small.
A night of prayer
But the men were fortunate. They all were able to get out of the water by climbing onto the overturned aluminum Sylvan hull, and they were able to stay on it by holding onto the strakes. They held on - and prayed.
"At about 3 o'clock Friday afternoon [July 3] Ronnie said to me, 'Doug, I'm not going to make it. I'm not going to make it.' " Whittaker says. "I said to Ron, 'Hang in there with me, buddy.' I said, 'God answers prayers. Give us the rest of the day, would you do that? Give us the rest of the day.' When the helicopter came, he turned to me and said, 'You're right, Doug. God does answer prayers.' And there wasn't a dry eye on the boat."
The boat capsized about five miles off Monroe, Mich., on the western end of Lake Erie. The anglers had launched around 8 a.m. from Sterling State Park in Monroe. They were expected back at the ramp at around 4 p.m. When Whittaker's wife hadn't heard from her husband by 6 p.m., she contacted her daughter, who called the state park authorities. They confirmed that Whittaker's tow vehicle and trailer were still at the park. At 9 p.m. the Coast Guard was notified. The Coast Guard, Monroe County Sheriff's Office and Canadian Coast Guard all participated in the search. They were found around 6 p.m. Friday, July 3, by the Monroe County Sheriff's helicopter.
No signaling device
"These boaters had done the right thing by filing a float plan," says Coast Guard Lt. Wade Hedinger, of Sector Detroit. "The men also stayed with their vessel, which aided in locating them."
There was never any question that the men would remain with the boat. "With the waves coming in as hard as they were, we wouldn't have lasted long if we left the boat," says Miller, who estimates seas at 5 to 6 feet. "As long as the boat was floating, we were going to stay with it. We were getting slammed with waves constantly."
The men estimate the water temperature was in the low- to mid-70-degree range and the depth about 25 feet. They had no strobe light, flashlight or signaling device, nor did they have an EPIRB or personal locator beacon. "Any of those things would have helped us," says Whittaker, who has made the same trip in a smaller boat many times without incident.
Whittaker considers himself a safety-conscious boater. "I've got a ship-to-shore radio, two fuel sources, two batteries, and a kicker engine," he says.
A 125-hp Mercury 2-stroke is the Sylvan's primary engine, and a 9.9-hp Honda 4-stroke provides backup power as the kicker. The boat has an eight-person capacity. Whittaker had taken the Sylvan on the same trip about a half-dozen times since buying it in May. The boat was recovered, and Whittaker - a retired electrician and mechanic who buys, repairs and sells used outboards as a hobby - says he was able to get both engines running again.
RELATED STORY: Why they lived -- lessons from a near-miss