Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Brian Huth, 9th Coast Guard District public affairs.
Normally, the Coast Guard’s shipmate of the week is someone with ties to the Coast Guard – uniformed member, civilian employee, dependent. This week, however, we would like to recognize four well-prepared boaters from Michigan who helped turn their own tragedy into triumph because they took personal responsibility for their own safety.
There’s an old English proverb that says, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” That proverb would be best served carved onto every boat that enters the water. Things can change in a moment’s notice, and boaters have to be prepared.
And, it’s because they were prepared that Ryan Miller and his son Cody Mack, Brian Nelson, and Jack Fischer Jr., all from Michigan, are still alive to tell their harrowing story of spending 14 hours in the waters of Lake Huron after their boat capsized July 9.
A day of walleye fishing was in store for the four friends and family members on a boat they borrowed from 10-year-old Jack’s grandfather. The crew took off for their adventure at 10 a.m.
By about 5 p.m., the winds began picking up, so the crew called Jack’s grandfather and told him they were heading back to his house. As they began their journey back, the winds whipped up and three large waves tumbled over the bow, capsizing the 18-foot fishing vessel. As the boat began capsizing, the two adults, Miller and Nelson, quickly grabbed Jack and his friend Cody, 12, and threw them out of harm’s way to assure the boat wouldn’t roll on them. After the boat rolled the rest of the way over, the men just as quickly got the boys onto the hull of the overturned boat.
After about an hour, the stranded boaters found a glimmer of hope when they saw another fisherman in the area. Miller quickly jumped in the water and started swimming toward the boat while the others began screaming and waving their arms to get the boater’s attention. However, due to the high winds and engine noise, they could not distract the boater from his fishing expedition. Unfortunately for Miller, he swiftly began drifting away from the overturned boat and spent the next 13 hours attempting to swim to shore.
Since Jack’s grandfather expected the group to return no later than sunset, at 6:40 p.m., he contacted Sector Detroit to report the boaters overdue. The notification, as well as critical information concerning their intended route – Au Gres., Mich., to Saginaw Bay – allowed the Coast Guard to begin searching in the vicinity of their last known location, five miles southwest of Au Gres, which helped the Coast Guard better pinpoint the search area. The Coast Guard recommends boaters always remain in contact with someone onshore and also file a float plan. Float plans do not have to be written or submitted anywhere, but as long as someone knows the general facts of a boater’s planned outing, they can report it to the proper authorities in case of an emergency.
As the day turned into night, the stranded boaters kept themselves occupied by counting the falling stars. They also prayed, and the two boys even managed to sleep for a few hours.
“I tried to take their mind off of what I thought was going to be the inevitable,” said Nelson. “We talked a lot about what we were going to eat when this was over. Cody wanted turkey.”
What Nelson suspected was inevitable did not come to pass, however.
A rescue aircrew from Air Station Detroit located the overturned fishing vessel and Mack, Fischer and Nelson, all wearing life jackets, at about 7:30 a.m. A nearby boater pulled them out of the water and transferred them to a rescue boatcrew aboard a 41-foot Utility Boat from Station Saginaw River, in Essexville, Mich.
“The three people were wise to stay with the overturned boat,” said Chief Petty Officer Gabriel Settel, supervisor of the Sector Detroit command center, who coordinated the search.
“It doesn’t matter if our crews are searching from the air or the from water, the hull of an 18-foot boat is much easier to spot than three people floating in the water,” Settel said.
Miller was found floating in his life jacket about an hour later and was picked up by a rescue boatcrew aboard a 41-foot response boat from Station Tawas, in East Tawas, Mich.
“The boys never go out on the water without a life jacket,” said Jack’s mom, Heather Secco. “Their life jackets helped them make it through this ordeal.” The Coast Guard recommends that life jackets be worn at all times when out on the water. For boaters 13 years old and younger, a life jacket is legally required to be worn while boating.
Before their near-fateful trip, Jack had always resisted his mother’s insistence that he wear a life jacket.
“I learned a lot this trip,” he said. “The most important things I learned are to always wear a life jacket and to stay with the boat.”
“This case illustrates how quickly a boating accident can happen and the importance of wearing life jackets,” said Frank Jennings Jr., recreational boating and water safety program manager for the 9th Coast Guard District, which comprises the entire Great Lakes region. “Even though water temperatures are warmer now, spending 14 hours in Saginaw Bay without the benefit of a life jacket most likely would have resulted in a very tragic outcome.”
The Coast Guard strongly encourages boaters to purchase and carry a personal locator beacon. When the signal is received, Coast Guard and other rescue personnel can respond accurately and appropriately.
“These boaters should definitely be commended for their preparation and quick-thinking,” said Settel. “They were communicating with someone back onshore, who reported them overdue; they put on, and kept on, their life jackets; and, with the exception of Mr. Miller, who swam off to get the attention of another boater, they all stayed with the boat.”
By preparing for the worst, they were able to hope for the best during an adverse situation and lived to tell about it.