They were saved by ‘gods of the sea’ - Soundings Online

They were saved by ‘gods of the sea’

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Two teens adrift for six days are rescued by fishermen four days after the Coast Guard suspends its search

Two teens adrift for six days are rescued by fishermen four days after the Coast Guard suspends its search

Almost as soon as two teenage boys had launched their 15-foot boat near a South Carolina inlet this spring, they found themselves in a ripping current that flushed them out to sea.

It was 23 hours later that the Coast Guard finally launched a search. And it was another five days before two men on a sportfishing boat — running inshore to escape an approaching storm — found the boys alive more than 130 miles from where they started, and plucked them from the Atlantic.

By then, it had been four days since the Coast Guard had quit looking for 17-year-old Joshua Long and 15-year-old Troy Driscoll.

 Even before the boys were found, sunburned and dehydrated but otherwise in good physical condition, questions had been raised about whether the Coast Guard had done enough or done it right. Now, after completing a four-month review of the incident, the agency has changed some of its search-and-rescue procedures. But Coast Guard officials are pointing squarely at the boys and their families for the explanation of why the search failed.

 

The boys never should have launched their small, ill-equipped boat in the ocean, says Capt. Robert Hurst, the officer who conducted the review. And family and friends ashore were unable to provide reliable information to the Coast Guard, delaying the start of the search and causing the agency to call off rescue attempts sooner than it would have had it been given an accurate description of the boat, he says.

In the months since the boys were rescued — the finger-pointing subsided — the boys spent the summer giving speeches to groups ranging from grade-school children to adults. Teen magazines featured them as heroes. A group of local businessmen gave them a new fishing boat, and efforts are in the works to write a book and make a film of their ordeal. None of this would have happened if not for some extraordinary luck.

“The gods of the sea were good to them,” says Richard Goerling, a relative of Long and a Coast Guard reservist with search-and-rescue experience who helped coordinate the civilian search effort in the days following the disappearance. “I did not expect these boys to live.”

Gone fishing

The last family member to see the boys Sunday, April 24, was Troy Driscoll’s mother, Debra Fowler. She was sitting in her kitchen in North Charleston, S.C., at about 10 a.m. when her son burst in, showing off his young muscles and full of excitement. He was going fishing. Fowler says the boys had planned their trip for the day before, and that on Saturday she had instructed Troy to take life jackets and to call her before they launched the boat.

But the trip was delayed a day, and now Troy was looking for an anchor from the family’s 21-foot Wellcraft. Joshua Long waited outside in his truck with a boat on a trailer, a JY-15 sailboat, though the boys and everyone else called it a Sunfish. It had no mast, sails, outboard, centerboard or rudder.

The boys had a kayak paddle and were gathering some other equipment for what they had told Fowler the day before was to be an excursion to the AshleyRiver, a place they had been many times. Troy made no mention of changed plans, his mother says, and she assumed she knew where the boys were headed — one of the major tributaries to CharlestonHarbor.

At some point, the boys changed their plan. They headed to Sullivan’s Island, and on a coastal beach north of the Charleston Inlet north jetty, they wheeled the trailer down the sand and launched the boat, leaving their cell phones in the truck. It was some time between 10:30 a.m. and noon. The new plan was to paddle across a small stretch of water to a sandbar and fish for sharks trapped in the shallows by the falling tide, Fowler says.

Almost as soon as the boys were in the boat, according to Fowler, they found themselves caught in a current, unable to paddle to the sandbar. They jumped overboard, thinking they could swim ashore, but quickly realized that wouldn’t work and got back in the boat. Within 20 minutes they were far enough from shore that people on land looked like tiny dots, she says. In time, not even the shore was visible to the teenagers.

 

No word Fowler and her husband, Jewel, had gone into Charleston after a Sunday night church meeting to watch the full moon rise over the harbor when, at around 9 o’clock, she became concerned that Troy hadn’t called on her cell phone. She called Eddie Long, Josh’s father, who referred her to Josh’s mother, Connie, who had custody of the boy for the weekend. Connie said she thought the boys had gone to Sullivan’s Island but had not heard from them, Fowler says.

At 10:05 p.m. Fowler called the Coast Guard. She says she was told nothing could be done without knowing where the boys had launched their boat. The Fowlers and Eddie Long began searching by car, and they passed the news along to Tony Driscoll, Troy’s father, a North Charleston Fire Department captain. Soon the community had begun helping in the search.

Fowler wasn’t satisfied that enough had been done when she reported Troy missing. There was a full moon Sunday night, and she felt that was enough to justify the immediate launching of a search plane.

“You need a starting point,” explains Capt. Hurst. “You put a plane up in the air, and you’re immediately burning up the crew and aircraft. We don’t want to have them not able to respond if we do find a start point.”

But Hurst understood Fowler’s reaction. “If you’re a parent and you’re missing a kid, we just can’t react fast enough,” he says.

At about 4 a.m. Monday, as they drove along Sullivan’s Island, the Fowlers met a police officer who told them he had already searched the area. They turned around, not two blocks from where Josh Long’s truck was parked.

It was 11:18 a.m. that morning, at least 23 hours since the boys had shoved off from the beach, when the Sullivan’s Island Fire Department found Long’s truck and trailer. In that time, the Coast Guard had not sat idly. As soon as it had gotten Fowler’s information, a call was placed to Josh Long’s cell phone, and a message was left for him to call the Coast Guard, which was keeping track of searches being conducted by nine police and fire departments, as well as other local agencies and citizens. Before 11 p.m., an “urgent marine information broadcast,” or “pan-pan,” was issued on VHF channel 16, urging all mariners to be on the lookout for a Sunfish with two people aboard.

With the truck and trailer located, Coast Guard technicians began running computer programs to establish a search pattern. One program, called JAWS (Joint Automated Worksheet Solutions), was for use within 24 hours of the assumed disappearance. The other, called CASP (Computer Aided Search Planning), was designed for use beginning 24 hours after the disappearance. Each program spewed out sets of search patterns, but since more than 24 hours had elapsed, Coast Guard policy required the use of the CASP model.

Later, when it was known where the boys went in their boat, Hurst compared the results of the two computer models and discovered that the JAWS forecast, had it been used, might have brought searchers closer to the boys than did CASP. Since then, the agency has revised its policy to require SAR units to run both programs and compare them. If they point in different directions, the searchers are required to look for a reasonable explanation or, if they can’t find one, to search on both the JAWS and CASP tracks, Hurst says.

But Hurst points out that the computers weren’t the only sources of faulty information. Beyond the incorrect description of the boys’ boat, there were conflicting claims about where the boys had gone fishing, what safety gear they had on board, and what equipment they had brought with them.

In employing the computer search models, the Coast Guard assumed that they were looking for a Sunfish. The models don’t have programs for Sunfish, but they do have models that will suggest where a sea kayak and a life raft would drift in similar conditions, so they fed the computers with those two examples. Before the computers had given their instructions, however, a 47-foot Coast Guard vessel was diverted to search off Charleston. Soon other vessels were involved, as were helicopters and C-130 aircraft.

Past the point of survival

Now the reports started coming in to the Coast Guard. Someone thought they might have seen the boys in the Intracoastal Waterway behind Sullivan’s Island. A helicopter located a boat towing what appeared to be a Sunfish. Separate individuals told the agency of two cases — one in 1989 and the other in 1948 — when boats were lost and later found south of Charleston. There were sightings of a white object in the water, later found to be a sheet of plywood, and an object that was discovered to be a school of feeding fish.

The Coast Guard checked out all leads. Nine different SAR units flew 26 air sorties using seven helicopters and four C-130s. And 13 boats from 18 to 87 feet worked a total of 64 hours.

By Tuesday evening, the search had extended past the time when, given the information available, the boys could have survived. Hurst wrote in his report: “Given the air and water temperatures, and the prolonged time interval, persons in the water, or exposed on a Sunfish-style boat, would be well beyond the hypothetical survival scenarios.”

The boys’ families were informed that the search would be suspended that evening, less than 48 hours after the boys were first reported missing. “My personal feeling on this one is that we did a fabulous job of searching with what we had available to us, using the best tools available today,” Hurst says. “We had people out there doing some great things and working hard and really giving this their all, and we were just torn apart emotionally when we couldn’t find these kids.”

Earlier that afternoon, Goerling — the Coast Guard reservist who helped coordinate the civilian search effort — had arrived in Charleston to support his former sister-in-law, Joshua Long’s mother. “It was evident to me at the time that the Coast Guard was prepared to suspend their search,” he recalls. “I understood professionally what the Coast Guard’s decision-making process was … and agreed with the Coast Guard professionally.”

He also saw that the families and large number of community members were unwilling to stop searching, he says. “What we were going to be facing here was uncontrolled search — aka chaos — and not real good risk management, not good communications,” says Goerling. So he volunteered to become the “incident commander” in the absence of the Coast Guard.

Goerling says he went to Coast Guard OfficerCandidateSchool after college and served on the cutter Hamilton on the West Coast in “a lot of heavy weather.” He says he was trained in search-and-rescue and was a SAR coordinator as a reservist. He now works in local law enforcement in Oregon, he says.

Failed communications

Goerling finds no fault in the decisions the Coast Guard made during the search for the boys, nor with the conclusion that it was time to quit. Hurst points out that in the time between the end of the search and the rescue of the boys four days later, the same units that were involved in the search were engaged in nine more SAR missions. Had they still been searching for the boys, they would have been unavailable for those missions, Hurst says. Goerling’s one criticism of the Coast Guard and everyone involved in the hunt for Long and Driscoll is the failure to corroborate the most basic information, including the type of boat the boys had.

The Coast Guard had been told that one of Long’s uncles had given him the boat two days earlier, according to Hurst’s report. No one doubted that it was a Sunfish. It was the assumption that boys on a Sunfish would be completely exposed to the elements that led the Coast Guard to stop searching. Had it been known the boat was a JY-15, which has a deeper cockpit and greater stability, the agency would have searched longer because the boys could live longer in a more protective boat, Hurst says.

“An easy solution would have been to send somebody up to the uncle’s house and find out exactly what this [boat] was,” Goerling says. “Communications failed here early on, which created a lot of problems for the search patterns. Fundamentally, nothing’s going to work if you put the wrong information in.”

“We typically don’t challenge what their [family] reports are when everybody is saying the same thing,” Hurst says. He says that the family was asked detailed questions about the boat, and when some of them used the terms Sunfish and Sailfish interchangeably, they were asked aggressively to be specific. Then the family members said it was a Sunfish, he says.

In fact, it was a JY-15 that carried Long, who is 6 feet, 1 inch tall and 210 pounds, and Driscoll, 5 feet, 6 inches and 175 pounds, out to sea. Long was dressed in jeans, work boots, a long-sleeve T-shirt and a hat. Driscoll wore jeans, sneakers, a white T-shirt and a gray sweatshirt. Their clothes were drenched when they jumped overboard to try to swim to the sandbar. But the temperature was a comfortable 70 degrees, the water 64 degrees. But bad weather was coming. The forecast was for 20- to 25-knot winds with gusts to 30 knots.

During the first day at sea, Sunday, the boys saw numerous small boats, none of which responded to their shouts and waving. As night fell the seas rose, and before the sleepless evening had passed they had lost most of their gear. They shared a wetsuit to stay warm, and in the morning they found they had the paddle, one fishing rod of six they had brought, and their tackle box.

On Monday, the boys saw a cruise ship go by. They also saw sharks. They began drinking sea water. Conditions calmed during the day but were rough again Monday night. On Tuesday they attempted to catch rainwater in the tackle box but again had to resort to sea water. They also ate what, according to the Coast Guard, the boys called jelly balls — likely little jellyfish — that they found floating around them.

The night was rough again, and on Wednesday a large, white motoryacht raced by, not 100 yards away, without seeing them. Thursday night, a ship came within 10 yards of the JY-15, and although the ship’s wake was enormous, the little boat stayed upright. On Friday, a ship with the word “Clipper” passed within a quarter-mile of the boys. After it left, Troy began talking of death and of swimming into the sunset.

On Saturday morning, April 30, the boys saw porpoises swimming nearby. It was 4:30 p.m. when the sportfishing boat Renegade — being delivered from Florida to New Jersey, spotted the boys 7 nautical miles south of Oak Island, N.C., southwest of the entrance to the Cape Fear River — and steered toward them. The boys began yelling, and this time hands reached down and hauled them from the sea.