The Glory and the Danger of Open Water — Thoughts on Two Missing Teens

capsized boatOn Friday, two 14 year old boys went missing in the Atlantic off Jupiter, FL. Their 19′ boat was found capsized on Sunday night. The Coast Guard, and now the Navy, is continuing the search for the teens, Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen.

The missing boys reminded me of how easily that could have been me, almost a half century ago. Open water can be such a glorious and also very dangerous place if you are young, adventurous and think that you know what you are doing.

When I was around 15, my family moved to Treasure Island on the west coast of Florida. I got a job cleaning boats at a local marina and saved enough to buy an old 16′ runabout with a 33 hp outboard motor.  Most of the time I used the boat to run around the sheltered waters of Boca Ciega Bay, but I would often head out through John’s Pass into the Gulf of Mexico to go fishing or just cruise around offshore.

I fell in love with open water. The Gulf was magical. On clear and calm days, you could see the sunlight shining through the bottle green swells. With my droning outboard, I raced the wind and cruised with dolphins, sharks, rays and wheeling sea birds. On stormy days, I hooted and hollered as the boat crested the rising waves.

Sometimes I took friends. Often I went alone. I didn’t have a radio. This was long before cell phones. I had flares; life jackets, though I never wore one; and a paddle. But I was 15 and therefore invincible. Sometimes it is enough to be more lucky than smart, and like so many others, I was lucky.

All these years later, I look back with both intense fondness and with a shudder. I had such a wonderful time being really stupid out in the Gulf of Mexico. There were so many ways I could have died. The boat could have capsized. I could have been thrown from the boat, been carried off by a storm, gotten lost in the sea fog, or lost my engine and just drifted off towards Mexico. Nothing bad happened to me, but it was not for lack of trying. Unfortunately, it only takes one time for luck to turn against you.

These days, older and more aware of life’s calamities, I am a big fan of wearing an life inflatable jacket or vest. When I go sailing or kayaking, I always bring along a handheld radio as well as a cell phone in a drybag.  I am looking into what is the right Personal Locator Beacon for an upcoming offshore trip. Safety harnesses and jack stays are my friends. I let folks know where I am going and when I will return. I still enjoy myself tremendously on the water, even if spend more time worrying about all that can go wrong. With time and experience, we all learn to enjoy the beauty and the majesty of open water, without losing sight of its dangers.

What happened to the two missing 14 year olds, Austin and Perry? Some news reports said that were heading to the Bahamas, while other accounts say that relatives said they were not allowed to leave Jupiter Inlet.  The Little Bahama Bank is roughly 50 miles due west of the inlet. Their capsized boat was found over 100 miles to the north, probably having been carried north by the Florida Current, part of the Gulf Stream. The Coast Guard, joined by the Navy’s USS Carney, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, is searching, by air and sea, an area covering 29,000 square nautical miles. We can only wish the searchers the best of luck.

Yesterday, the Washington Post published a related article by Peter Holley, Marine experts say missing Fla. teenagers should not have been alone offshore, which also features some valuable insights by Mario Vittone and Derrick Fries, as well as some of my comments as well.

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10 Responses to The Glory and the Danger of Open Water — Thoughts on Two Missing Teens

  1. During my teenage years I was fortunate enough to learn small boat handling on the Hudson River (NJ) as a sea scout and spent a good part of my life as a merchant mariner. When I first heard of this story I was shocked to hear these two 14 year old boys described as “seasoned salts,” who knew there way around the waters of the Florida Coast. Made many trips from Port Canaveral to Andros Island on a small tug with a RO/RO barge and we seasoned salts were always amazed at what mother nature could throw at us from time to time. Our thoughts and prayers are with the boys and their families.

  2. Irwin Bryan says:

    I was fortunate to learn sailing small wooden boats at a camp near Gloucester, MA. Our counselor in a motor launch led us around Cape Ann, at one point taking us out of sight of land and saying “Next stop England!”. It was a fun day until rounding the cape and being totally becalmed. The motor launch towed all 4 boats but it was very slow-going. We greeted darkness (no running lights) and the Coast Guard and got safely and hungrily back to camp after 10pm. The sea can turn fun to danger any time!

  3. Phil says:

    Both licensed seamen according to the news.

  4. Phil says:

    Does not matter how much experience you have!
    Nature is nature.

    When things go bad, you are at nature, nature takes over, the way of the sea.
    Bad or good, live or die, you went into the mouth of the beast!

  5. Phil says:

    Idiot news!
    The boy’s are licensed seamen, under age but licensed!

    Marine experts say missing Fla. teenagers should not have been alone offshore

  6. Rob Hughes says:

    The essential sailor’s adage is:”weather the storm you cannot avoid, and avoid the storm you cannot weather”. These children had no business being in open water with 38 knot winds approaching ….in an open boat! The parents relate (and I pray for the boys for their safe return) that the boys (children) were highly skilled on water. Yes, maybe they could handle a small fishing vessel in the intercoastal, but what was their experience in managing an open vessel only 19 feet long in 38 knot winds with waves refracting off the shoreline against waves coming in? These “children” had absolutely no business being on the ocean at any time.
    I have raced in many offshore races on my 54 foot sailboat – SORC / Chicago – Mackinac and cruised singlehanded and with crew logging thousands of miles and ALWAYS left the dock prepared and rehearsed for any emergency. These children had no epirb, VHF, GPS, ditch bag, emergency supplies – water etc, and sea anchor, etc. The statements of the parents, and I fully empathize with their feelings, are not credible since I would never let my 14 year old offshore in an open vessel with storms approaching, departing at 1:30 PM. This is a tragedy that could have been avoided

  7. Doug Bostrom says:

    I find it remarkable that articles and discussion of this incident focus on age, not equipment and the paltry wisdom and knowledge needed to use it.

    PFD, –actually being worn–. VHF, handheld backup, and the tiny, vanishingly small amount of training needed to use ’em. There are a few other things that help but those two cover 90% of cases.

    Whether one is 14 or 44, the result is going to be the same if one obstinately refuses to live in the 21st century.

  8. Rick Spilman says:

    Doug and Rob, your points regarding equipment and its use are absolutely correct. On the other hand, it is difficult to separate age from outfitting. Thier parents, no doubt, paid for the boats and equipment, or lack thereof. We hear repeatedly that the the boys were “certified boats.” I have no idea what that mean, but I know that took a training course with the Power Squadron when I was these boys age and it was worthwhile but hardly enough. If the boys had stayed within the Jupiter Inlet, where relative now claim they were told not to leave, there is a good chance they would be home today.

    And yes, many adults go fishing off the Florida coast and do not come back. It hey left the shore with proper safety and communications gear, and them used them, they might not have died.

  9. David says:

    I relate to these two boys too. My twin brother and I were constantly on the water at the age of 12, almost always by ourselves. We had both a 16′ power boat used mostly for water skiing and fishing, and also a small 12′ sailboat just for the joy of being on the water with the wind at your back. We literally relished going out in storms because the winds became so strong that we could get the sailboat on a constant plane. We would brag to our friends about being out on the water with tornado warnings sounding. We thought we were brave. Now in my 50’s, my thoughts are much more about safety, and the sight of thunderstorms approaching sends me toward shore instead of towards the water.

    The thing I don’t get is why they were not with the capsized boat. The golden rule that I knew at 14 years old was that you always stay with your boat. I cannot imagine them not knowing to do this. The only thing I can think of is that maybe they were within sight of land and decided to try to swim to it.

  10. Rick Spilman says:

    Sadly David, I think you may be right. Land can seem much closer than it really is. Attempting to swim to shore seems like a reasonable scenario as to why they weren’t with the boat.