Big Bend Paddling Tr - Trip #4 Report
(trip #4)

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Report By:  gbailey    Date: 2/24/2005 
Rating:Trip Rating     Photos: None     Map & Directions: View

Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail (Steinhatchee to Suwannee) part 2 of 2

My Report:

... continued (part 2 of 2)

Amid another morning shower, he told us of their overnight efforts to locate a group of missing paddlers in kayaks and canoes. It seems that 2 adults and eight teenagers had paddled out of the Suwannee River into the Gulf, sometime Saturday afternoon. They encountered strong winds and some in their group became separated and spread some distance apart as night fell. The group leader (Chris), eventually rounded everyone up except for two, and secured them to his powered pontoon / supply boat. Unfortunately, around that time his boat engine failed. Showing more concern for the missing boys' life than his own, he and one of the older youths decided to paddle off to search for them. During the search he was finally able to make an eight-second cell phone call to his wife in Georgia, and was able to indicate that they were in trouble and needed help. She phoned the Sheriff and got the U.S. Coast Guard involved, and sometime around 3:30 am a USCG helicopter found the pontoon boat, with the attached six paddlers, approximately 5 miles offshore. Although wet and terribly frightened, they were able to direct their rescuers toward the other missing paddlers, and a while later the leader and his paddling partner were located and hoisted aboard the rescue helicopter. However, their search for the remaining two was unsuccessful throughout the night and early morning, but was continuing even as we stood and talked in the cool rain. With the cloud cover, blowing rain and foggy overnight conditions, the Coast Guard reported that only by using their heat seeking infrared detection radar, were they able to locate the missing paddlers. We could barely see just offshore some of the surface ships and helicopters still conducting their search, as well as what appeared to be a C130. The FWC SAR guys took some coffee and headed back to continue their search, but not before suggesting to us that we should not proceed further with our trip, with worsening weather expected to roll in later that day. We thanked him for his advice, wished him luck and soon they were off again. He was now beyond his 24th hour of duty time, having started his duty early Saturday morning. Searching throughout the night and into Sunday, their mission was to continue the search until the last ones were located.

So we had a decision to make. Knowing our paddling abilities, the weather forecast and the advice we just received, we had to decide if we should continue south or head back to Horseshoe Beach and end our trip there, instead of at Suwannee. Our planning had us prepared for the rain and cool conditions, but it was really hard to continue in light of what happened overnight and the rescue efforts occurring just offshore. What were the risks ahead of us that might require us to request help if we encountered problems, and what would that effort do to the search offshore? While we pondered that decision, most of the tents and gear were loaded into the boats and secured. A heavier rain forced all of us into my large tent, so it was time to talk the options through and go with Plan B if we were to forego the last leg of our trip. Our automobiles were located in Suwannee so if we decided to come out at Horseshoe Beach, we would have to find transportation to get down there to retrieve them. After weighing all the factors, the group decided to backtrack and paddle the two miles back to Horseshoe Beach and not temp Mother Nature anymore that weekend. Live to paddle another day was a thought common to many of us at that time.

The last thing I had to pack was my now very wet and sandy tent, so I just stuffed it into the forward hatch of my boat, hoping nothing underneath it would mind. We launched amid the sea of oyster beds, slowly making our way back the way we had just come the evening before. Still we had several close encounters with the shallow bars but within a few minutes we had made it back around the point. All we had to do now was locate the public boating ramp and surely we'd find someone sympathetic to our plight. We located the ramp and a very convenient, small patch of sand next to the ramp's bulkhead and pulled ashore. It felt good to be back on the mainland and out of the wind, so as everyone else wandered around a bit, Franklin and I began walking. Not really sure where we were headed, just to find someone to talk with. Horseshoe Beach being a small southern town, I thought it would be quite easy, and sure enough, the first person we spoke with indicated that they would be willing to drive us the 50 miles or so down to Suwannee. However, they would need about 30 minutes to unload their boat and come back for us. So we walked back to our paddling buddies and collected some greenbacks for our promised ride and sat down to wait. While waiting we were visited by several locals driving through the scenic point, and many of them were thinking we were the missing, and now found, kayakers. One very nice couple lived in Jacksonville (Arlington) but owned a beach house on the Gulf. They offered to give us a ride if the original offer failed. Soon enough, our ride arrived and Franklin, Mable and Gus hopped aboard. Larry, Bob and I sat down again and fed the seagulls some of our remaining food, with grapes surprisingly being one their favorites.

While the shuttle drivers were gone we noticed a marked increase in the wind speeds, to maybe a constant 20-25 mph, and easily gusting over 30. Those conditions were affirming our decision to shift to Plan B, as being the correct one. Waiting also allowed the sun to reappear so we began to unload some of the boat's contents to aid in loading the vehicles once they arrived. In a short time we were all on the road home, home being Orlando, Jacksonville, Middleburg, Palm Valley, Ponte Vedra and Fruit Cove.

Unfortunately, the bodies of the two lost paddlers were not discovered until the next day, two days after their disappearance. It was sometime Monday afternoon before they were found, still wearing their PFDs, offshore about eight miles. The Jacksonville Medical Examiner's Office officially ruled that they had died from hypothermia. Again, our condolences are with the affected families and friends and wish them strength in their time of sorrow.

Finally, the Florida Times-Union recently reported that another paddling group, paddling on the trail but quite a bit north from us, also experienced the adverse weather conditions and lost track of one in their group. That group started near the Aucilla River and their missing person was later found alive, safely on Rock Island.

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Location Data:

Distance (miles): 35
Fees/Costs $: n/a

Special Interests and Comments:

Special InterestsBig Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail

Post Date: 2/28/2009

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