A navigation app with a “buddy” feature that enables a friend or family member to track your boat saved the life of the app developer’s son and four of his friends while they were duck hunting.
Developed by Jay Stipe, president and CEO of MiraTrex, of Tampa, Florida, the “buddy” feature of the Pro Charts mobile app was designed to help prevent a repeat of the July 2015 disappearance of teens Austin Blu Stephanos and Perry Cohen off Jupiter, Florida, Stipe says. A recreational aircraft pilot, he had wanted to help search for the boys but didn’t see how he could do any good without their last known position.
The pair went out Jupiter Inlet in Stephanos’ 19-foot outboard to fish and were lost, likely in a vicious squall. Rescuers found the boat two days later off Daytona Beach but not the boys. They were not carrying a rescue beacon, VHF radio or cellphone, any of which could have pinpointed their location.
“When we saw that incident last summer, we saw the potential to help other people with some new features on our app,” Stipe says. “You want to be able to see what direction [a boat in distress] is going and where the signal was last detected. Ours is the only marine app with a buddies feature that allows you to see other people and view their recent location history.”
Stipe’s son, Kevin, 23, and four of his friends were duck hunting last December just outside Chassahowitzka Bay on the Gulf of Mexico when their 1976 17-foot Mako started taking on water. “It was early, about 5:15, and still dark, pitch-black,” Kevin Stipe says.
They’d just turned toward the Chassahowitzka marshes, where they planned to set up to hunt. “Two of the guys were lying down when they felt water hit the back of their heads,” he says.
They realized that the bilge was full. The helmsman took off his waders and jumped into the 6-foot-deep water, which was a chilly 66 degrees, to see whether he’d forgotten to put the transom drain plug back in. The plug was in, so he fired up the pumps, which couldn’t keep up with the water coming in.
As a last resort the skipper gunned the engine, hoping the water would exit through the scuppers. Instead the stern submerged. “Now the boat and motor were underwater,” Kevin Stipe says.
His iPhone was in a waterproof case in the pocket of his waders. He had shed his waders and grabbed the cellphone out of the pocket with one hand and was holding his shotgun with the other when the boat flipped — “violently,” he says. He dropped the gun but held on to the phone and raised it over his head as he hit the water.
He was the only one of the five who saved his phone. The other phones, as well as the VHF and flares, went to the bottom. In the chaos and darkness, they were unable to grab life jackets. Kevin dialed 911 and gave their general location — three miles offshore at Chassahowitzka Bay — but he failed to give their exact coordinates, which were available on his Pro Charts app.
The hunters climbed onto the overturned boat. Kevin called his father and relayed their plight. Stipe jumped out of bed, grabbed his iPad and immediately saw where they were on the Pro Charts app. They were just a mile, not three miles, from shore. He called the Coast Guard and gave them the coordinates of the overturned boat.
A Coast Guard helicopter and a Citrus County Sheriff’s fire-rescue boat arrived about 7:55, and the five were taken aboard the boat. Though cold and wet, they weren’t injured or suffering from hypothermia, Stipe says.
As it turns out, the Mako had a 12-foot hairline fracture along the keel, and the foam flotation had rotted.
In 2010-11, Jay Stipe bought Simple Charts, a navigation app for Apple iOS devices, added several features, including the “buddy” function, and renamed it Pro Charts. The app is free, and the subscription fee is $2.99 a month, or $29.99 a year. (Visit miratrex.com for more details.)
Stipe says the app is designed for owners of smaller boats that might not have sophisticated navigation systems. “This was developed to save someone’s life,” he says, “and it ends up saving my own son’s life.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue.