The 14-year-old got tangled in the boat’s anchor line in a strong ebb tide
A father-son snorkeling trip off Florida’s Gulf Coast ended tragically when the teenager, trying to free their boat’s fouled anchor, became entangled in the anchor line and drowned.
Christopher Hidalgo, 14, of Brooksville, Fla., died July Fourth weekend off the Sand Key Park jetty at Clearwater Pass. The boy and his father, Wayne Hidalgo of Belleair Beach, had been snorkeling in the Gulf 150 yards west of the jetty when they tried to weigh anchor to pick up family at a launch ramp, according to Clearwater assistant fire chief Joel Gray.
“When they went to pull the anchor it caught on the bottom,” Gray says. The water was just 10 or 12 feet deep, so the boy went down to dislodge it. While he followed the line down, his father stayed at the helm and maneuvered the small center console boat to slacken the line so his son could more easily unsnarl the anchor, according to Gray.
“At some point, he realized the boy wasn’t coming to the surface,” he says. Hidalgo looked down in the water and saw Christopher entangled in the line and struggling to get loose. Gray says divers who recovered the body found the rope tangled around his leg. He says a powerful ebb tide running through the pass likely was a factor in tangling the boy in the line as the father maneuvered, then tightening it around his leg as the boat strained against the swift current.
Topside, Hidalgo pulled frantically on the rope to bring both the boy and the anchor to the surface, Gray says. He says as Christopher neared the surface, Hidalgo intended to cut the boy free of the anchor and pull him aboard. But he mistakenly cut the line between the boat and the boy, casting him loose to sink and drift out with the current.
“Any one of us could have made that mistake in that panic,” Gray says. “It’s your son down there. You’re by yourself with no help.”
Gray says Hidalgo did exactly what he should have done next: He called 911 on his cell phone. The tide was carrying Christopher out into the Gulf too fast for Hidalgo to jump in and save the boy. Clearwater Fire dispatched two PWC with diver and driver from a lifesaving station in the park. Gray says they found Christopher quickly enough, but the tide was carrying him out so fast that the divers would jump in to grab him, only to find themselves behind him. After about 20 minutes, a diver from a rescue boat intercepted the boy, grabbed him and cut him loose from the anchor. He was dead on arrival at Largo Medical Center.
Gray, a boater himself, says that on any given weekend probably a dozen boaters foul their anchors off Clearwater. “You go down, free it, hoist it up, and go on,” he says. This time it ended tragically.
He says the only other way experienced boaters at the fire station could think of to free a fouled anchor other than diving for it was to have tied a trip-line to the anchor crown, a common method that allows the anchor to be pulled out backwards if it becomes fouled.
“It was such a good father-son outing,” Gray says. “Then it turns out in tragedy.”