On February 28th, 2009, while we were all going about our business, four men made way from a dock in Florida in a 21’ powered vessel to visit their favorite fishing hole in the Gulf of Mexico and to meet a date with destiny.  On March 2nd, one of those men, Nick Schuyler, was rescued by USCG Forces as he sat upon the over-turned hull.  The bodies of the three others, Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, owner of the boat, Detroit Lions free-agent defensive lineman Corey Smith and William Bleakley, a former South Florida football player, still lie out in the Gulf.  The US Coast Guard expended $1.6mm over three-days, covering 20,000 square miles – only finding Schuyler.  The souls of the other three mariners lie, no doubt, in God’s loving arms.  Almost 10 months later to the day, three different anglers made way from Clearwater, Florida, and had very different results.  This column is about that.

The Rubicon

From Largo, Florida, brothers Christopher and Matthew Whalen and Adam Triplett made way in the M/V Rubicon for a multi-day fishing expedition.  The Rubicon, whose keel was laid in 1985, was a diesel-powered vessel and, as a commercial fishing vessel, registered with NOAA’s Vessel Monitoring System.  VMS is a national registry program for tracking commercial fishing vessels in VMS regions or fisheries.  It ensures compliance with regulations specific to the boat’s location.  Rubicon was also a USCG-documented commercial fishing vessel and thus was required to carry an EPIRB and a life raft.

All was going well until, late on the night of December 23rd as the crew of the Rubicon slept 56 miles northwest of Clearwater, a wave swamped the boat, killing battery power.  As the Rubicon now sat lower from the on-boarded water, she kept shipping more and more water below, sitting lower with every wave.  Once the crew realized that their manual efforts to off-load the water couldn’t keep pace with the waves, they fired off their EPIRB. 

Better to Be Lucky Than Smart

The firing off of the EPIRB started the “rescue clock starts now” process.  When the signal was received, US Coast Guard personnel called the emergency telephone number associated with the device and vessel.  This caused the former owner of the Rubicon to be awakened by Coast Guard personnel.  Quite naturally, he didn’t know where the boat was.  The new owners hadn’t updated the registration with NOAA.  Now what?

The US Coast Guard then turned to NOAA’s VMS system, which showed them with equal precision just where the Rubicon was.  In the dead of night, aided by advanced technology as well as a red flare launched by the crew of the Rubicon when they heard the helo rotors draw near, the M/V Rubicon was under the search light of a “red-and-white.”  Within 2 hours from the firing off of the EPIRB and 35 minutes after accessing the VMS data, in the wee hours of Christmas Eve, a US Coast Guard rescue swimmer was lowered to the Rubicon and, one by one, the crew was hoisted aboard the HH-60 Jayhawk helo.  The M/V Rubicon was left to the sea.


Two Emergencies, Different Outcomes

There is little doubt in the professional life-saver community that four mariners would have been saved in the first incident had they had an EPIRB.  20,000 square miles of search patterns would have been replaced by a bee-line down the Line of Position – a rescue rather than a recovery.  As a consequence of the disaster was that the Southern Kingfish Association (SKA) mandated that all participating anglers carry EPIRBs by 2011.  Thousands of anglers participate in SKA tournaments each year. 

Types of EPIRBs

There are two general types – Category I, which has a hydrostatic release so it can fire itself off if it gets submerged, and Category II, which must be manually fired.  (A Cat-I can also be manually fired; you don’t have to wait until the boat sinks…)  Costs keep coming down as functionality continues to increase.

There are also EPIRBs now, sometimes called “GEE”-PIRBs, which have an integral GPS unit built in.  This aids greatly in pin-pointing the location of the vessel in distress.  See #EPIRBS for more information.  If you don’t, at least remember this. 

If you have to leave the boat, take the device with you.