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Family abandons boat, swims for shore

The five people — including two children — spent a long and difficult night waiting to be rescued

The five people — including two children — spent a long and difficult night waiting to be rescued

A rescue of four family members who abandoned their broken-down boat — at night — 23 miles from shore is prompting the Coast Guard to remind boaters to stay with their vessel if it becomes disabled.

The Coast Guard found the boaters the next morning — cold, tired, still far from land but OK after spending a harrowing night in the water off Cape Romano, Fla. All four were wearing life jackets. A fifth family member, who stayed with the boat, also was rescued.

“Four people in the water in the middle of the night: They were lucky we were able to find them,” says P.O. James Judge, a Coast Guard spokesman. The Coast Guard advises staying with a boat, even if it is taking on water, and climbing onto the hull if it capsizes.

The drama began to unfold late Saturday afternoon, Aug. 18, says Capt. Don Cramer, of BoatU.S. MarcoIsland. That’s when the Coast Guard alerted him to a disabled boat whose skipper had called them for help. The boat’s engine had died and the skipper couldn’t get it started again.

Cramer says he couldn’t raise the boat by VHF radio — he believes the skipper was carrying a handheld VHF — so the Coast Guard relayed the boat’s GPS coordinates. Cramer dispatched a towboat about 5 p.m.

As the towboat headed out to the vessel’s reported position the Coast Guard advised Cramer of a second disabled boat, which had run out of gas two miles south of the first.

Cramer believes the two boats had gone out fishing together, probably at a communications tower off CapeRomano, because they were in cell phone contact with each other. The skipper of the first boat called the Coast Guard and told them the other boat was in trouble, too.

However, the position the skipper gave the Coast Guard now was about 20 miles from the earlier one he had provided. Cramer told his tow captain to make a swing south because the second boat — a 25-footer — had children aboard, and should be rescued first if possible. The tow captain couldn’t find the 25-footer, but he did find the first one and took it under tow.

Then Cramer went out to look for the second boat.

Meanwhile, conditions had begun to deteriorate. Winds were blowing 35 mph, seas were 4 to 6 feet — 6 to 8 feet at times, according to Cramer. “There was a nasty chop between waves. It was bad,” he says.

Arriving at the second boat’s reported GPS position, Cramer began searching in a grid of concentric circles — each one a half-mile larger radius than the one before. He says he circled out two or three miles, his yellow lights flashing, his spotlight on. He tried to call the boat on VHF.

“Nothing. I wasn’t getting a response,” says Cramer.

No radio traffic. No flares. No horn. No strobe.

As conditions worsened, Cramer says he called the Coast Guard to report he was going to have to give up the search.

Judge says the Coast Guard immediately launched an HU-25 Falcon jet and diverted one of its cutters, the 21-footer Dependable, to search for the disabled boat. The next morning, a Falcon crew found the missing boat with just one person aboard and dropped food, water, a raft and VHF marine radio. The boater used the radio to tell the jet crew that four others had abandoned the boat about midnight. The boat had been anchored and was taking on water in the heavy seas. Worried it might sink, they abandoned the boat. They were all wearing life jackets.

Dependable called for a helicopter from Miami to help in the search, and at about 8:40 a.m. Sunday the chopper found the four missing boaters — two children, a 10- and 14-year-old — a mile south of the disabled vessel, Judge says.

Judge did not have the name of the boat or survivors, but he says they were very lucky to be alive.

When survivors stay with a disabled boat it keeps everyone together, and the boat is easier for rescuers to find than a head bobbing in the water. “You’re searching over 2,000 square miles and looking for something the size of a basketball,” Judge says. If the boat sinks, survivors still should try to stay together — gather in a circle, link arms and huddle up with legs pulled up to the chest to ward off hypothermia. The bigger the target in the water, the easier it is for rescuers to see it from the air, he says.

“You should try to stay with the boat until we come,” he says.