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Man floats ashore on top of PFD

When his boat sank, he didn’t have time to put the life jacket on

When his boat sank, he didn’t have time to put the life jacket on

The boat sank so fast they didn’t have a chance to put on their life jackets. Michael Eckert survived floating on a PFD that had been dumped out of the 22-foot Wellcraft when it capsized in the Atlantic off Florida’s Sebastian Inlet. His brothers, Jay and Shawn, found a bucket and cooler to cling to, according to authorities. They remained missing, however, and were presumed dead after an exhaustive 48-hour search.

Michael, 51, and Shawn, 40, both of Sebastian, Fla., and their brother Jay, 46, of Warsaw, Ind., left the Sebastian Yacht Club late on the afternoon of April 14 to fish offshore for wahoo and dolphin, says Coast Guard spokesman Ryan Doss. At 6:25 p.m., a 911 operator received a cell phone call from one of the brothers, who said the boat was taking on water and gave their latitude. But before he could give the longitude the phone went dead, Doss says.

The Coast Guard traced the cell phone number to the brothers’ mother in Vero Beach, Fla. She told rescuers the sons had planned to fish 5 to 7 miles offshore and gave them the location of some of their favorite fishing spots. The weather was deteriorating — northerly winds 20 to 25 knots, seas 6 to 8 feet, current moving southwest toward shore — so the men probably hadn’t gone out as far as they had planned, says Doss. He says the mother told the Coast Guard they had no VHF radio, but they did have life jackets, a GPS and the cell phone. She also said the boat’s electrical system had been acting up recently.

Coast Guard aircraft found no trace of the men that night. The next morning at around 8:30 a cold and exhausted Michael Eckert reached the beach on North Hutchinson Island. Doss says he told the Coast Guard that the Wellcraft sank, and the brothers each grabbed debris from the boat to keep themselves afloat. After three hours, Eckert lost sight of his brothers. Lying on top of the PFD he had found, he paddled with the current all night until he reached shore, Doss says.

Boats and aircraft from the Coast Guard, St. Lucie and Indian River County sheriff’s police, and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission searched April 15 and 16 for the two missing anglers. Altogether 100 searchers scoured the water and beaches, and the Coast Guard alone flew 20 sorties covering 5,300 miles.

“We searched for them with everything we had,” says Doss, but to no avail. Rescuers found only debris — a cooler, a seat cushion, a pair of pants, a shirt — about a mile off North Hutchinson Island.

The Coast Guard has documented that those who wear life jackets have the best chance of survival if the boat sinks or something else goes wrong and they wind up in the water. He says it’s also important to carry a VHF radio because it’s more reliable and has greater range than a cell phone. But wearing a PFD is the critically important ingredient in survival.

“It’s the equivalent of wearing your seat belt in the car,” he says.