On Jan 5, 2017, Michael (31 year Army veteran) and a buddy with limited boat-handling experience departed Mobile, Alabama on an offshore overnight tuna fishing trip. The crew of two aboard a World Cat, a 25-foot center console power cat, departed in the early morning from the Fort Morgan boat ramp intending to return Jan 6 about 2:00 pm. When his wife didn’t hear from Michael by 5:00 pm on Jan. 6th, she contacted the USCG as they had agreed and per his float plan that had been registered on the hiltonsoffshore.com website.
The USCG, after searching for cell and satellite phone activity and sending local police to confirm the truck/trailer were still at the marina, dispatched a SAR airplane. They started at the farthest waypoint on his float plan (96 miles offshore) and worked back towards shore. The cloud ceiling was low; they were flying at 800-1000 feet. At about 10 miles out, USCG spotted a light blinking SOS and contacted Michael via VHF handheld. The SOS Distress Light was turned on and the USCG aircrew spotted it using their Night Vision Goggles.
After circling the boat for an hour and a half, the SAR airplane had to return to shore because one of the engines was icing up. Conditions when first spotted on Jan 6 at 10:40 pm: 30 kt winds, 8-11 ft seas, wind chill 28 degrees, water 66 degrees. There was water sloshing on deck but they were still afloat. They were moving to keep the boat upright and not launch off the wave tops. His crew could not steer in the bad conditions, which prevented him from using safety devices like his Sat phone (couldn’t get out of the canopy for a clear signal). Water in the boat had knocked out the batteries, so his fixed-mount VHF failed.
After the airplane departed, Michael continued slowly towards the shore at about 4 knots. They intended to make shore on their own, but the weather continued to deteriorate. When they were about 3 miles out (about 1-½ hours after the plane had departed), near Sand Island Light House, the boat listed 60 degrees and was broadside to the waves. Michael knew they were in a very dangerous situation, so they began to deploy their 6-man life raft. They knew that a USCG vessel was approaching because they could hear voices on the handheld radio. The USCG could not hear him. Michael set off two flares at about 5 minutes apart so that the USCG could locate them quickly. They were rescued within moments of their last flare deployment. The boat capsized almost immediately after the USCG vessel (45-foot metal shark) picked them up.
Michael said the KEY ITEMS he had with him:
- SOS Distress Light
- Handheld floating VHF Radio
- portable electric bilge pump/box (he built the system).
He purchased the SOS Light at Paradise Marine in Gulf Shores, Alabama. They had an SOS sign on the counter near the register and it caught his attention. He did say that the insurance company won’t reimburse for personal safety equipment, i.e. equipment not installed on the boat, which is why he contacted us about a “survivor’s replacement program.” He was reminded to contact us when he saw our ad in Boat US magazine.