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Lessons learned from missing NFL boaters, one year later

1:43 PM, Feb 26, 2010   |    comments
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Clearwater, Florida -- Sunday marks one year since four football-playing friends headed into the Gulf of Mexico on an ill-fated fishing trip.

The investigation that followed found the University of South Florida and NFL boaters had overlooked a few simple things that put them in danger and made it much more difficult for the U.S. Coast Guard to track them down.

One of the squads involved in the search for Marquis Cooper, Corey Smith, Will Bleakley, and Nick Schuyler took me out into the Gulf this week -- to share the challenges they faced during that mission and the lessons every boater can learn.

Cold wind snapped at flags and faces as we launched from Coast Guard Station Sand Key. We pushed out into the Gulf in rough conditions.

But the weather was nothing like what Petty Officer Grant Emmons and his team faced when they left from the same dock in the same boat a year ago.

They rushed out of Clearwater Pass on the first mission to search for four fishing friends, reported overdue by their families. It was around 3 a.m.

"Just seeing over the waves" was a critical challenge for the boat's crew, Emmons said. The tops of swells reached 14 to 15 feet -- the same height as the chairs where the boat's drivers sit.

On my trip this week, seas just three or four feet high tossed our 47-foot boat like a numbered ball in a lottery machine.

And Emmons' team spent around nine hours in that vicious, roiling water. They motored out, 50 miles off shore, then returned after sunrise.

At sea this week, a member of the Coast Guard crew pulled out a grid to start charting a standard search pattern.

The process involves a stopwatch, a grease pencil, and an odd rectangular card with another circular card attached to the middle; the circular piece is marked with a mesh of intersecting lines and spins around to match the boat's direction.

I'm struggling just to stand, and he's doing math.

Communication is constant. Orders are called out and answered. Spotters shout what they see. Even basic procedures are spoken aloud, step by step. And commands like course corrections are repeated back, giving crew members who have been searching for hours the chance to double-check themselves.

We wanted to see how tough it can be to spot a stranded swimmer out here in the choppy Gulf.

The crew tossed a black-and-orange training dummy named Oscar into the choppy water. We backed away, turned, and coxswain Brian Cross challenged me to find our floating friend.

For a solid minute, I scanned the brownish-blue water. I squinted into the glare of reflecting sunlight.

Finally, I saw our victim.

I thought I'd be able to spot him about a mile away. It turns out we were ten times closer than that, and I barely picked him out.

When the four football-playing boaters disappeared a year ago, weather made even this impossible.

When daylight arrived for Emmons' crew, visibility improved, but the biting wind created whitecaps at the top of every swell. The Gulf was a landscape of white flashes that all looked like they could be the hull of a missing boat.

Two of our team members moved down to the waterline to bring Oscar aboard.

Again, commands were shouted and answered. As the boat worked toward the dummy, one of the crew members began calling out, reassuring the imaginary victim that the Coast Guard had arrived, and asking whether the foam-filled float was okay.

It's just a drill.

He's just a dummy.

But these men and women take their duties so seriously, every rule is followed, and every command is complied with.

Petty Officer Emmons says that's the essence of every Coast Guard effort. Big-time athletes or part-time sailors -- everyone has a family. And everyone can count on the Coast Guard for help.

Oscar was so tough for me to spot because I had no way to orient myself, no starting point of reference, and -- put simply -- clue where he was, Petty Officer Cross said.

That leads to a final lesson the Coast Guard shared from last year's search and rescue. All boaters need three key things:

File a float plan. Even if it's as simple as a text message or call to a friend or family member, tell them where you're going and when you expect to be back. Click here for a sample float plan.

Get an EPIRB. An Emergency Position Indicating Radiobeacon is a device that costs a few hundred dollars and can tell the Coast Guard your exact position by satellite if you get in trouble. Click here for more on EPIRBs.

Take a boating safety course. Classes are taught all over the Tampa Bay area by the United States Power Squadrons and the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Click here or here to find a class near you.

Connect with 10 Connects multi-media journalist Grayson Kamm on Twitter as @graysonkamm, on his Facebook page, or by e-mail at this link.

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