Two Boating Incidents in Coastal Parks Have Very Different Outcomes: 7 safe, 4 rescued, 1 missing

Coast Guard helicopter.

U. S. Coast Guard helicopters often play a key role in rescues in coastal waters. Photo by mikebaird

Two groups of boaters encountered problems recently at separate coastal parks, but the situations had vastly different outcomes. Seven teenagers in North Carolina fared immensely better than a group of adults in Mississippi. Four members of the latter group spent the night in the water and 1 is still missing.

On Tuesday morning, May 19, rangers at Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina were contacted by the Coast Guard with a request for assistance in a search for seven missing teenagers.

The teens had boated to an unspecified location in the park on Monday to camp overnight, but failed to return as scheduled on Tuesday morning, and were reported overdue by a parent. A park report offers a reminder that the time rangers spend on the water is frequently not a pleasure cruise:

Protection ranger Shad Dusseau and interpretive ranger Ehren Gross headed out in a 25-foot boat in 30 to 40 knot winds and three to five foot seas to look for the party, but failed to find them in a search of the western third of the park.

Meanwhile, Chief Ranger Barry Munyan, while on another assignment, spotted a boat matching the description of the missing vessel anchored near the lighthouse complex.

Munyan contacted the volunteer lighthouse keeper, Mary Crocker, who was able to obtain the registration numbers from the boat and confirm that it belonged to the missing group. She then located the teenagers, who were camped nearby, but out of sight from the lighthouse.

The good news: everyone in the group was safe. Since their vessel was a 19-foot Boston Whaler, they concluded that weather conditions did not allow a safe trip back home, and wisely elected to remain ashore until the weather improved.

Thanks to good judgment by these young people, a problem with the weather didn't escalate into a crisis—or a tragedy.

A group of adults didn't fare as well in a separate incident at Gulf Islands National Seashore, which is located on the Gulf Coast in western Florida and eastern Mississippi. The area experienced strong thunderstorms and rough seas on Sunday, May 17, causing problems for a number of boaters. At least 27 people were reportedly pulled from the water off the Mississippi coast by personnel from several agencies. Late that evening,

family members reported a boat overdue from a recreational trip to Horn Island, which is located within the park’s Mississippi District. The vessel, a 20-foot motorboat, had five people on board, including three off-duty Ocean Springs Police officers, a spouse, and a girlfriend.

A multi-agency search by air and boat was begun at first light on Monday, May 18th. The crew of a helicopter soon spotted the missing vessel, which was capsized off the west tip of Horn Island in park waters. None of the occupants were near the boat.

While the Coast Guard and other agencies focused on searching the sea, a dozen NPS personnel searched the six islands in the area, all within park boundaries. Early on Monday afternoon, a Coast Guard helicopter spotted and rescued four survivors wearing life jackets within a couple of miles of one another about four miles south of the NPS islands and more than ten miles from where the capsized boat was found.

They were flown to a hospital in Gulfport and were reported to be in good condition, despite their long hours in the water.

There's been some discussion on another recent story on the Traveler about the importance of wearing a life jacket on any boating trip, and the survival of these four is a dramatic testimony to the value of a PFD. Unfortunately, there's more to this story.

It is not certain at this time whether the fifth occupant managed to get a life jacket on after the capsizing. NPS search efforts had to be suspended around mid-afternoon Monday due to worsening sea conditions.

According to local news reports, one boat involved in the search on Monday reported ten-foot seas in the area.

Intensive efforts by the park and other agencies resumed on Tuesday, and focused on a continued search of the islands and surrounding shallow water. The search for the missing boater continued during the day on Wednesday, and expanded to areas as far as twenty miles offshore. Due to the elapsed time and lack of clues, the search is being scaled back on Thursday.