'Drifting' dinghy defies Gulf Stream

Author:
Publish date:

Loose Cannon has been on hiatus this fall, but I feel compelled to break the silence with the strange tale of Larry Sutterfield.

Watch the video, and you will see footage from a Coast Guard aircraft as it flies over Cay Sal Bank, a part of the Bahamas that is closer to Cuba than anywhere else. The crew of the C-130 Hercules saw Sutterfield emerge from a makeshift tent on the beach, frantically waving his arms.


The aircrew dropped a handheld VHF radio, food and water to Sutterfield. I saw this done during a different rescue, and their accuracy was remarkable. You can see it on the video. The crew then diverted the cutter Kathleen Moore to the scene and Sutterfield was taken to Key West, suffering from nothing more than sunburn.

The news stories all said Sutterfield, 39, had lost power to his inflatable while on a camping trip originating around Boot Key in the Florida Keys. The stories said the Illinois native drifted for five days before ending up at Cay Sal, where he spent the night before being rescued.

For us boat types, news coverage of such events is often frustrating because the reporters don’t always know what questions to ask.

First they should have considered the geography. Cay Sal lies more than 70 nautical miles southeast of Boot Key and the city of Marathon. As soon as the dinghy “drifted” outside Hawk Channel, the effects of the Gulf Stream would have propelled the boat in a northeasterly direction at anywhere from 2 to 3.5 knots. In five days Sutterfield would have been off Jacksonville, not on the beach at Cay Sal.

As you can see from this chart, Sutterfield’s dinghy would have had to drift on a path athwart the powerful current of the Gulf Stream. Even without a loss of propulsion, the range of a small outboard was nowhere near the 72 miles it needed to travel from Marathon to Cay Sal Bank, even if it were powerful enough to buck the Stream.

As you can see from this chart, Sutterfield’s dinghy would have had to drift on a path athwart the powerful current of the Gulf Stream. Even without a loss of propulsion, the range of a small outboard was nowhere near the 72 miles it needed to travel from Marathon to Cay Sal Bank, even if it were powerful enough to buck the Stream.

Cay Sal has long been a haunt of drug smugglers, smugglers of Cuban migrants and poachers. American sport anglers are required to clear into the Bahamas at Bimini 100 miles away before they can legally fish Cay Sal. The Coast Guard constantly patrols this desolate atoll, looking for mischief.

That’s not to say Larry Sutterfield was up to no good, but his story about how he arrived is akin to saying that he had defied gravity and flown there. There is something missing from the narrative.

"We make inquiries into anyone rescued or seen in that area regarding the possibility they were fishing illegally or involved in any other illegal activity," Key West Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Peter Bermont told the Key West Citizen newspaper. "But to be clear, this was a search-and-rescue mission from the start to help a person in distress."

’Til next time.