SAFE-BOATING WEEK SHOULD BE EVERY WEEK
On a late July day last summer, two 14-yearold boys headed out of Florida’s Jupiter Inlet to run offshore and do some fishing. They never returned.
By the time the U.S. Coast Guard called off the search one week later, the tragedy had become the focus of a nation.
The boys were never found, but the Coast Guard spotted their boat, bottom up, drifting north in the Gulf Stream 67 miles out, south of Daytona Beach.
Along with the sense of loss and anguish came accusations and anger at the boys’ parents for allowing them to head offshore alone in a 19-foot, single-outboard center-console. Stoking those fires were reports — never proven — that the two youngsters had intended to run to the Bahamas.
The parents maintained that the boys had been fishing and boating all their lives, noting that it was “in their blood.” I can relate to that as well as to exhibiting pretty poor judgment in my teenage years. I was more lucky than smart, which makes me hesitant to point fingers.
It’s reasonable to say these boys shouldn’t have been out on their own, running Jupiter Inlet and heading offshore, particularly on a squally day. But the odds are they did so feeling as immortal as kids that age often do — and without worrying about mentioning any exact plans to their folks.
Granted, there might be a debate about giving kids of that age access to a boat they can take offshore. While perhaps youngsters with years of experience might know the basics, they still lack the perception and judgment of adults.
But of course, adults are hardly immune from risk (or from a lack of common sense on occasion) when taking an open boat into offshore waters.
On a nice day with good equipment, the risk is minimal. But nice days can turn mean and good equipment can go bad — things happen.
National Safe Boating Week this year is May 21-27, so this seems like a good time to point out some of the ways in which this calamity might have been avoided, with actions that make sense for all of us who fish the ocean in boats.
A few that come to mind here:
• Stay in port or at least inshore when the weather is iffy or, certainly, when it’s stormy. As you’d expect, statistics show odds of trouble go way up in proportion to sea conditions. (Apparently the boys headed out with storms parked just offshore.)
• Pay particular attention to inlets and tides. During an ebb tide with an opposing wind, running an inlet can be tricky at best and treacherous at worst. (Jupiter Inlet can be nasty.)
• File a float plan with someone reliable. (Such information could have helped search operations.)
• Have the right gear and make sure it’s working well (redundancy is good too). That includes a VHF radio and an EPIRB or personal locator beacon. (Apparently the boys had no such electronics.)
• Wear life jackets when in doubt. Here, I know I digress from the Coast Guard line, which simply says all boaters should wear life jackets at all times. Of course, that’s always the case — as required by law — with children. But adults, at least when running, shouldn’t hesitate to strap ’em on either. In 2014, most boating deaths were from drowning, and 84 percent of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket.
• Encourage new and young boaters to enroll in a boater-safety course, widely available on a local basis. (Both boys completed such a course, another valuable tool, but never a guarantee of safety.)
The father of one of the boys has been working with the Coast Guard to offer free boating-safety classes in that area and has started the AustinBlu Foundation (austinblufoundation.org) to raise boating-safety awareness through education, legislation and technology (ACR Electronics is a primary sponsor).