USA. Retired Coast Guard chief calls for boating safety education after NFL players deaths

Wednesday, 03 June 2009

The recent tragic deaths of two NFL football players in Florida consumed the written and electronic media for days. What drew attention was not the boating accident but rather the players involved. In the end, these celebrities were but just more fatality figures added to the 50,000 or more recreational boaters that have died since 1962. As of May 22, 2009, Florida alone has already recorded 23 recreational boating fatalities. 

I closely followed this story, including reading the Florida Fish and Game mishap report, the Coast Guard’s 26-page situational report, and input from senior reporter Chris Laundry of Soundings Magazine.

Chris quoted me in Soundings May issue:  “Football is a violent sport, but it pales in comparison to what these men were dealing with. They were way out of their league. Those guys were big and strong, but it’s situational awareness that counts — and education,” said Rau

I’m absolutely convinced had these football players been required to take an effective boating safety course they would be alive today. Any one of the following fatal miscues could have been avoided had they known better.

Weather forecast. When they departed at 6:30 a.m. from Clearwater, Florida, on February 28, 2009, weather conditions were mild; however, the National Weather Service was calling for a cold front moving across the Gulf of Mexico that evening along with heavy weather. What were they thinking venturing 50 miles off shore, especially late into the afternoon?

Anchoring According to the Florida mishap report, their Center Console 21-foot Everglade boat was anchored 50 miles off Clearwater when the mishap occurred. At 5:30 in the evening, the players attempted to pull up the anchor; however, it held fast. Rather than cut the anchor line, they decided to haul the line from the bow to the stern and tie it off the port transom. The captain, Marquis Cooper,  throttled ahead to free the anchor; it held, pulling the stern downward, allowing seas to pour over the stern, capsizing the boat. 

According to the Florida mishap report, seas were running between two and six feet with 15-25 knot winds. Knowledgeable boaters reading this must be shaking their heads at the thought of anchoring a boat off the stern in those conditions, worse yet throttling ahead.

Calling the Coast Guard  During my safety seminars, I drive home this point: call the Coast Guard if there are concerns about the boat, the weather or people aboard. When the players first failed to pull the anchor they should have called the Coast Guard and provided their position and number of people aboard. Had they done so, they would be alive today. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Life Jackets Another point I drive home in my safety seminars is put on life jackets at the first sign of disarray. None of the players were wearing life jackets when the boat capsized. They did, however, manage to retrieve them from the over turned boat. 

Staying with the boat  Sound advice but almost impossible in seas that grew to 14 feet with fifty knot winds in 66 degree water.  All they had to hang onto was the flush bottom of the hull and hand rails that lay several feet below the surface. What a beating they took unlike any they may have encountered as football players. Hours after the boat capsized, three of the men removed their life jackets and succumbed to the unruly sea.

On Monday at 12: 49 p.m., the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Tornado located the one survivor sitting atop the hull clinging to the motor. 

Grab lines The men could have stayed atop the boat with grab lines. I saw the boat after it was pulled from the water. It carried a number of lines including the anchor line. By running the lines across the over-turned hull and securing them to the submerged port and starboard hand rails, they could have held onto the lines atop the hull. 

Night illumination  According to the survivor, Nicholas Schuyler, a Coast Guard helicopter passed over.  Had his lifejacket or his mates carried night illumination devices like a strobe light or glow stick, they would’ve been spotted from near or from afar. I plead with boaters to wear night illumination devices on life jackets.

Overdue The boat capsized at 5:30 p.m., but it was not until 2 a.m. that concerned loved ones called the Coast Guard. The information loved ones provided was sketchy. Had the players provided a detailed float plan, and had loved ones called the Coast Guard much sooner the chances of locating them would have been greatly enhanced.

Inexperience Florida’s mishap report listed inexperience as one of the mishap causes. There again it raises its ugly head: lack of boating education. How many fatalities will it take, celebrities or not, before mandatory boating education reaches all boaters regardless of age? I pray soon.  

Tom Rau 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:

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 03 June 2009 )