While many boaters don’t think to wear their life jackets, most people also don’t think they’ll be treading water for more than half a day. To learn just how it feels to be lost at sea, and the difference a life jacket makes between life and death, just ask Arlen Gastineau.
It was a winter morning when Gastineau, an experienced boater from Orlando, invited two out-of-town friends to join him for a day fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Gastineau filed a float plan with his family telling them where he planned to go and when he hoped to return.
Transiting out to Gastineau’s favorite fishing spot 40 miles off the coast of Clearwater, Fla., they encountered rough seas, and dropped anchor closer to shore. Despite choppy conditions, they had a nice day, sharing stories, exchanging news and even catching a couple of grouper. In the late afternoon they decided to head home. That was when they noticed the boat was taking on water.
The three men put on their life jackets and began bailing out the boat. As the waves increased, Gastineau attempted to set off a flare but it did not ignite. He tried to issue a mayday call just as the boat capsized.
One of Gastineau’s companions was an Air Force veteran who had undergone survival training and tied a rope to the boat urging others to tie themselves to the rope as well. By staying with the boat, they increased their chances of being found.
When Gastineau did not return as planned, his family became concerned and alerted Sector St. Petersburg. Using the float plan provided by the family, Coast Guard crews began searching for the missing boaters. Air Station Clearwater dispatched planes and helicopters but despite looking for the men throughout the night, the missing boaters were not found.
The next morning, the search area continued and the Coast Guard Auxiliary was called in for assistance. Auxiliary pilot David Lemon was one of many who joined the search mission at first light. Just before noon, a Coast Guard pilot spotted the overturned boat and the three men tied to it.
They had been in the water for 18 hours.
When Gastineau set off on his fishing trip he expected to return by early afternoon, and spending 18 hours in the water was not on the agenda. But despite not knowing what lay ahead, his foresight into filing a float plan and having life jackets aboard undoubtedly saved his life. Gastineau says he “never would have made it” if he had not been wearing his life jacket.
Not many boaters begin a trip thinking they might have to be plucked out of the water by the Coast Guard. But should things take turn for the worse, wearing a life jacket can increase your chance of surviving a boating accident by more than 80 percent. Before your next boating trip, you might want to remember Arlen Gastineau and put your life jacket on.
Eighteen hours is a long time to tread water.
For more information on this case and boating safety, check out this video feature.