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Mistakes from which there’s no recovering

Well-designed, well-built small boats can take far more punishment than their skippers and passengers care to experience. That’s the good news. The flip side is that the capabilities of the boat owner and crew are not always equal to the capabilities of the craft.

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That certainly appears to be the case in the recent accident involving four football players, three of whom died when their 21-foot center console capsized more than 50 miles into the Gulf of Mexico off Clearwater, Fla. (see Page 18). The lone survivor spent about 46 hours both in the water and on top of the overturned hull. When rescuers found him, the 24-year-old personal trainer was probably only hours away from perishing.

It’s a pretty safe bet that the four would have made it safely back to the launch ramp had they not tried to free their fouled anchor by attaching the rode to an eyebolt or U-bolt on the transom. Misunderstanding the forces and the physics, that was the fatal mistake. When the throttle was pushed down and the boat surged forward, the anchor held, the stern was pulled under, and boarding seas flooded the cockpit, capsizing the center console.

The 21-foot Everglades is a well-built, unsinkable boat that rides a deep-vee hull; this one was powered by a single 200-hp Yamaha. It certainly was capable of handling the 4- to 6-foot Gulf seas. Given the boat’s small size, the men — all young, all athletic — may have taken a bit of a pounding running in, but there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t have made it. Well-designed hulls make up for a lot of sins.

The incident generated a deluge of publicity because of the fact that the four were all football players, two in the NFL. At the end of the day, the safety discussions that have emerged in the aftermath of the accident provide some positive tangent to an otherwise tragic occurrence.

What went wrong? What are the lessons for the rest of us? The anchoring error proved to be the men’s ultimate undoing, but it was hardly the first mistake that was made.

Weather: The group was upended by a series of poor decisions, starting with the one that led them well offshore in a small boat with a strong cold front bearing down on them. A small craft advisory was in effect for later that night. Whether you’re on board a large boat or a small one, you just can’t ignore severe weather that’s headed your way. Roll the dice often enough on marginal forecasts, and sooner or later you’ll lose. Period.

Communications: There was a fixed-mount VHF radio on board, and the men carried cell phones in plastic bags, which provide a tenuous communications link at best, given their distance from shore. If you’re going to be that far off the beach, consider carrying a registered EPIRB or one of the new-generation PLBs. If you absolutely need to be heard, there’s nothing better. To repeat a cliché worth repeating, these devices “take the search out of search-and-rescue.”

Float plan: There’s a lot of water out there. Make sure you file a float plan (formal or informal) with someone before getting under way. This skipper didn’t.

Skills: There are plenty of books written on the subject of anchoring, including how to free one that is fouled. In this instance, the skipper could have tried to break his anchor loose by circling uptide and pulling from a different angle with the anchor line still fastened to the bow. If that didn’t work, the prudent thing might have been to simply cut the line and make for home, especially with conditions deteriorating and seas building. Frugality probably is embedded in my DNA, but I also appreciate the wisdom of “penny wise and pound foolish.”

PFDs: If there’s any doubt or question whether you should be wearing a life jacket, put the darn thing on. Unless you’ve got gills and scales, you’re seriously reducing your chances of survival if you go into the water without some kind of flotation device. And if you’re going to be fishing or cruising offshore, invest in Type 1 foam vests or inflatables, which offer the most flotation. In this incident, one of the men had to dive beneath the capsized boat to retrieve the PFDs, three Type II near-shore vests and a throwable cushion.

Truisms: Trouble usually happens faster than you imagine. Sometimes you see it coming, but often it just lands in your lap with a plop. In a matter of moments, these four young men went from dealing with a fouled anchor to clinging desperately to an overturned hull with no real way to call for help. They never saw it coming. Then the weather, as predicted, went downhill, hypothermia set in, and the Coast Guard was left searching — without a good position — for a white overturned hull on a white-capped Gulf, the proverbial needle in a haystack. And like that, their fate was sealed.

Seamanship is built on experience, education and a healthy dose of respect for the elements. Youth and strength and moxie alone — assets that they are — are no match for the sea.

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.