By Tom Rau
Although never easy, the Coast Guard must make the difficult decision of calling off a search that has failed to locate a missing boater. Too often the failure to find a missing boater has little to do with the search process, but rather the difficult challenge of applying the process to a search area that can be enormous, if not mind boggling, in scope.
Making the search even more challenging is the inability of a boater to draw the eye of those searching for them. Such was the challenge the Coast Guard faced in a recent case in the Gulf of Mexico involving a missing 23-foot Sea Chaser Catamaran powerboat.
On August 21, 2009, three fishermen set out on an overnight trip from Matagorda, Texas. When they failed to return as planned, family members notified the Coast Guard. What followed was a massive weeklong search in a search area nearly the size of the state of Wyoming.
The Coast Guard deployed sea and air resources from three states: Florida, Alabama and Texas. The search also drew upon resources from state and local rescue agencies. After seven days of around-the-clock sorties, the Coast Guard called off the search.
As fate would have it, a day later, on Saturday evening, the captain of a pleasure craft spotted the men sitting atop the hull of the capsized boat some 180 miles off the coast of Port Aransas, Texas. The crew of a Coast Guard 47-foot motor lifeboat picked up the survivors and transported them to shore.
The wife of one of the survivors told a reporter from the Houston Chronicle that it was like finding a needle in a haystack.
Believe me; it can be far more challenging than that. Imagine a shifting layer of various sized green and blue-shaded pebbles spread across the entire floor of the Dallas Cowboys football stadium; then toss a tiny ball-bearing into the shifting mix; then, from atop the stadium, try to spot it with binoculars. Imagine, however, if the ball-bearing was a bright point of light. You wouldn’t even need the binoculars.
According to the survivors, waving a white tee shirt attached to a boat rail they had ripped off the boat was the only means they had of attracting attention. One of the survivors said he twice saw Coast Guard rescue planes fly over as well as a helicopter. He also saw Coast Guard boats. Had the fisherman carried an emergency grab bag with various day and night signaling devices they could’ve drawn the eye of the Coast Guard crews. But a white tee shirt waving over a white over-turned hull camouflaged amongst white-capped seas: is it any wonder Coast Guard surface and air crews failed to spot them?
These searches come at an enormous cost. The most recent in the Gulf of Mexico cost a huge bundle of tax-payer money. Then there was the enormous cost involving the search for the NFL players in March in the Gulf of Mexico after their 21-foot power boat capsized. They too lacked the means to attack the attention of searchers. Sadly, the ultimate cost in that case was paid with three lives.
Monetary cost; however, has nothing to do with ending a search, but rather the diminishing probability of detection as time passes, especially in an immense search area that expands in time with the influence of wind and currents on the search object.
Another deadly factor at play is the toll the environment takes on those struggling to survive, especially while battling hypothermia and dehydration. The three fellows in the Gulf of Mexico capsizing managed to siphon water from a 30-gallon water tank built into the hull. That, for sure, helped them beat the survival odds, but barely.
Despite diminishing odds as the days pass during a search, it’s still never easy for Coasties to call it off. It’s in their DNA to rescue mariners: since their conception in 1790, Coasties have saved the lives of over 1.1 million mariners.
In spite of their heralded tradition, their life-saving skills, their state-of-the art resources, the Coast Guard’s surest and most cost-effective asset has been and will continue to be a smart boater.
Tom Rau, a leading authority on boating mishaps, is a retired 27-year Coast Guard veteran, boating safety columnist, and author of Boat Smart Chronicles, Lake Michigan Devours Its Wounded. His book is a 20-year journal of recreational boating mishaps with valuable lessons learned. It, along with recent rescue stories, can be viewed at: www.boatsmart.net
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