An 18-foot Coast Guard boat ventures into the Gulf of Mexico at night to rescue a group of paddlers
Coast Guard small-boat coxswain Kristin Lindsay thought she and her crew might have to be rescued themselves as she steered their 18-footer into big seas in the Gulf of Mexico to rescue five teenage paddlers and their chaperone.
Two other young paddlers who became separated from the group of campers died of hypothermia after their canoe flipped. Two more who set out to search for them were rescued by helicopter.
Lindsay, of Station Yankeetown, Fla., and crewmembers Chris Klienpeter and Patrick Hedden were cited in May for heroism in taking their 18-foot aluminum boat eight miles into the gulf to save the paddlers. The Coast Guard doesn’t usually send its small boats offshore at night in 3- to 5-foot seas to rescue six people, but this was an unusual case.
The eight teens and two adult chaperones from Darlington School, a prep school in Rome, Ga., had set out around 3 p.m. Feb. 26 from Miller’s Marina on the Suwannee River. They’d planned a spring-break weekend camping trip to Coon Island, 4-1/2 miles up the coast. Lindsay says a front was blowing in, with winds picking up and the water getting choppy.
A small-craft advisory had been issued that morning. Lindsay says the plan was for the group of girls and boys to stay close to the shoreline, adults leading in a small powerboat and kids paddling behind in two canoes and two kayaks.
Lindsay says as the chop built and darkness fell, one of the canoes fell behind. The paddlers battled a stiffening northeast wind pushing them away from Coon Island toward the gulf. The main group had almost reached closer Cat Island when the powerboat’s engine died. Lindsay says they tied the boats to the powerboat, and group leader Steven Hall, a 48-year-old Darlington teacher and experienced wilderness guide, lit a propane light to use as a signal.
Hall could see a dim light in the distance and thought it might be the stragglers, so he and one of the bigger boys paddled to get them. The pair never found 14-year-old Clay McKemie or Sean Wilkinson, but they did get close enough to shore for Hall to make a broken-up cell phone call to his wife back in Rome. “Call the Coast Guard,” he told her.
Hall’s wife alerted the Coast Guard about 12:30 a.m. The only information she had was that the group had planned to camp on Coon Island and that they needed help.
“We assumed it was a medical emergency on the island,” Lindsay says.
Yankeetown is about a 1-1/2-hour drive from the Suwannee River. So Lindsay and her crew trailered their shoal-water boat, powered by an 80-hp jetdrive, to Miller’s Marina to make their way to Coon Island for what they thought would be a medical evacuation. Plowing through a 1- to 2-foot chop, the crew reached Coon Island and then Cat Island but didn’t find the paddlers.
A Coast Guard helicopter meanwhile had spotted the rafted boats about seven miles offshore. The wind was pushing them out into the Gulf of Mexico at about a mile an hour. The helicopter was low on fuel and couldn’t hoist and carry everyone, and the nearest offshore rescue boat was in Yankeetown. It would take Lindsay four or five hours to drive back to the station, pick up the larger boat, trailer it to the marina, and get under way. That might be too late to save the paddlers.
Back at Yankeetown, officer of the day Shannon Daugherty asked Lindsay by radio, “Can you get out there with the 18-footer? It’s up to you guys. You don’t have to go out there.” The Coast Guard thought there were four teens with the boats, so the crew decided to go for it.
“It had started raining,” Lindsay says. “The seas were picking up. A storm cell was coming over. It was getting real crappy.”
She pointed the boat toward the helicopter searchlight. Her timepiece showed it was almost 3 a.m. “It wasn’t too bad going out there,” she says. “We had following seas on the way out.” But she kept losing her electronics — radar, GPS and radio — as 3- to 4-foot seas washed over the gunwales.
Beneath the glare of the helicopter’s searchlight, Lindsay found not four but five teens — “big kids,” she says — and their 24-year-old chaperone huddled together on the powerboat with their life jackets on. Cold, wet and scared, the six climbed into the Lindsay’s boat, which she says was sitting so low that the water was almost up to the rail. Some of the kids looked like they were becoming hypothermic, so the crew gave them their foul weather suits, along with jackets and other gear they’d brought along.
“It took us almost two hours to get back in,” says Lindsay. “We had the pedal to the metal, and we were doing just 3 knots.”
Heading into the wind and waves now, the boat was taking water over the bow just about as fast as the bilge pump could remove it. “We almost capsized twice,” Lindsay says. The radio was soaked and working only sporadically. While she was taking the kids’ names, she found out there were two other teens still missing.
The helicopter meanwhile had headed back to refuel and happened onto Hall’s canoe, hoisted the two of them aboard, and flew them back to shore. Lindsay, who had been worried all along that they also might run out of fuel, made it to within 50 yards of the launch ramp when the engine sputtered and died. The crew paddled the rest of the way to shore, their mission accomplished.
An intensive search ensued for Mc-Kemie and Wilkinson, as the FWCC, Coast Guard and local boaters scoured nearby waters and beaches. The boys’ bodies were found two days later, afloat and with their life jackets on, about 400 yards from where the others were found rafted up. The Coast Guard believes it was coincidental they were so close; the bodies likely had drifted a long way before they were found.
Lindsay, crewmembers Klienpeter and Hedden, and Daugherty all were cited for their roles in the rescue, Lindsay receiving the Coast Guard commendation medal.
“I’m just glad we got the boat back in,” she says.