Deadly Waters

Our Local Waters are Beautiful But Deadly

Every year, Florida boaters are injured, killed or lost at sea. It doesn't have to be that way.

By Tom Bayles Illustrations by Andrew Theophilopoulous February 1, 2017 Published in the February 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

On the morning of June 19—Father’s Day—last year, easterly winds were light over the waters of Sarasota Bay and seas were calm.  Ace Kimberly and his three children motored away from the downtown bayfront in the sailboat on which they lived.

The boat was packed with supplies and towed a pair of green kayaks. The 29-foot sailboat, weighing at least 6,000 pounds, was powered by a 9.9 horsepower, manually operated outboard motor designed to propel tiny boats weighing less than 100 pounds. But did it matter? The temperature was beginning its climb to a high of 92 degrees, typical for a summer day. The sky was clear and visibility was excellent at 10 miles. The moon that Sunday evening was nearly full.

Kimberly, 45, set out with daughter Rebecca, 17, sons Donny, 15, and Roger, 13, and puttered south toward Fort Myers, where he planned to make repairs to the aging sailboat. No one knows if Ace heard reports from the National Weather Service in Tampa that afternoon, warning boaters about a weak cold front heading south, likely to bring worsening weather, higher winds and rougher seas. But by Sunday night, the Kimberly family was about 37 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico off Englewood—and in trouble.

Ace called his brother, Joseph, who lives in Fort Myers, sounding less than panicked but more than concerned. Ace said that a squall had whipped up six-foot seas, he was fighting hard to keep control of the boat and “attempting to survive” with his children. “Can you do me a favor?” Ace asked. “Will you text-message me the weather to let me know when it’s going to break?”

In a summertime squall in the Gulf of Mexico, the seas are choppy and uneven. Waves well up from underneath, while others smack the vessel from every side. There is little rhythm to the roiling seas, just unnerving questions. What direction will the next heavy spray come from? Is everyone still on board? And when, dear God, will it stop?

Whatever questions may have flooded Ace’s mind that night, the call to his brother was the last time anybody heard from him—or the rest of the Kimberly family.

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Donny, Roger, Ace and Rebecca Kimberly lost their lives when their aging sailboat broke up in rough seas in the Gulf of Mexico.

On Tuesday, when the family had not arrived as scheduled, Ace’s brother called authorities, and the U.S. Coast Guard initiated a multi-agency search and rescue effort that would cover more than 33,000 square miles of Gulf waters during the next five days. On the morning of Wednesday, June 22, searchers found a debris field about 37 miles west of Sanibel Island. The items recovered were consistent with what would have been on the Kimberleys’ sailboat—water jugs, life jackets, a life ring, a tennis shoe, a basketball.

And floating in the debris field, still cloaked in a life jacket, was Becky Kimberly’s body. The Cape Coral Fire and Rescue team found Ace Kimberly’s body early Thursday east of Boca Grande and about four miles southeast of his daughter’s. He was not wearing a life preserver. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection airplane spotted the mast of the sailboat about 100 miles out in the Gulf off Fort Myers that same day. As of press time, the two Kimberly boys had not been found. 

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A friend of Ace Kimberly’s would later tell investigators that the sailboat was “water worthy, but not seaworthy.” Another friend said Ace, who was regarded as an experienced captain and was well-liked, had asked him to borrow a marine radio that could be used to summon help, but he left Sunday without it.

“It was a tragic accident,” says Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). “It’s something you never want to see happen.”

In September, the boating death of Miami Marlins’ all-star pitcher Jose Fernandez, 24, made international headlines after his 32-foot SeaVee named Kaught Looking slammed into a rock jetty sticking out from South Beach in Miami. The collision killed the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year and two other passengers. The Miami-Dade County medical examiner reported Fernandez had cocaine in his system and his blood-alcohol level was far above the legal limit, but with all the carnage and wreckage, they couldn’t determine who had been driving the speedboat.

The tragedies occurred months apart, on opposite coasts of the Sunshine State, and received different amounts of media attention. But their common denominator was the same as in most accidents: the boat operator’s inexperience or inattentiveness to basic safety procedures. Common mistakes in such accidents include not wearing life jackets, running into other vessels or fixed objects such as channel markers, and boating under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Most deadly boating accidents, experts say, are completely preventable.

“Sarasota is typical of any boating region, and the same stuff happens here as every other,” Morse says. “You have to be aware of the conditions around you at all times.” Most boating accidents can be prevented through training and the application of that training, he says. “And common sense.”

Year after year, week after week, Floridians seeking fun on the water are injured, killed or go missing in boating accidents. The number of registered vessels in Florida waters has been inching higher every year since 2012, when there were 901,969 registered watercraft compared to 915,713 in 2015. On the waters of the Sunshine State in 2015, an average of two boating accidents happened every day and each week brought another boating-related fatality, a total of 737 and 55, respectively, according to the FWC. (In recent years, the number of annual boating deaths in Florida has seesawed, ranging from 55-75.) Six boaters who headed out and never returned are included in the fatality count.

When accidents happen on the water, they happen fast. Carefree fun turns to horror in an instant. A turn taken too sharply. An unexpected weather event. Running aground on a sandbar or oyster bed that’s hidden just inches under the water, which stops the boat while the occupants keep going.

Many who died would today be going about their lives, arriving at work, hugging their children, pursuing their dreams, had they only been wearing a life jacket. Drowning, by far, is how most people die when tragedy strikes on the water. Many victims drown after falling overboard; others drown after a collision; more die that way after their boat goes down at sea. Hitting another vessel or a fixed object accounts for more than one-fourth of boating accidents statewide. Collisions can be violent. When a speeding boat hits a channel marker, sandbar, jetty or other obstruction, wood and fiberglass crumble. Passengers are thrown out of the boat, slamming into whatever is in front of them or falling into the water, conscious or not. The lucky end up with cuts or broken bones. Others will suffer serious injuries and internal damage. Two people last year lost limbs.

Some 87 percent of people who died in boating accidents in Florida in 2015 were not wearing a life jacket, and 45 percent could not swim. A “large number” of those deaths could have been prevented if they had been wearing jackets, reports the FWC, which is tasked by the Florida Legislature to promote safe boating practices and to investigate accidents.

In 2015, Sarasota County ranked 11th of Florida’s 67 counties for boating accidents, with 19 reported events caused for reasons in line with the state as a whole. Nearly half the accidents involved boats colliding with something else, usually another boat. And the most common reason, in 11 of the 19 events, was the same as everywhere else: the captain’s inexperience or lack of attention.

In Sarasota Bay and surrounding waters in 2016, nary a month went by without a moment’s mistake or a bad decision by a boater turning at least one of its days devastating or deadly.

In May, investigators found alcohol was involved in a collision between two boats that killed a 40-year-old man in St. Petersburg, within sight of the U.S. Coast Guard station at the Bayboro Marina.

In June, a 23-year-old man died when his boat, not moving while he was fishing, was hit by another vessel near Boca Grande Pass bridge late at night.

In July, a 7-year-old boy who had fallen overboard was killed near Stump Pass Marina when his father put their boat into gear and his son was struck by the propeller.

In August, a 76-year-old man crashed a 17-foot Boston Whaler into rocks lining the Intracoastal Waterway in Venice at midday, breaking bones in himself, his 78-year-old wife and 9-year-old grandson.

In October, a Tampa man whose rental boat hit a sandbar and got stuck jumped into the water to free it. He surfaced twice, but when he failed to come to the surface again his fiancée called authorities. His body was discovered the next morning.

In November, the U.S. Coast Guard launched an exhaustive search for a 48-year-old Englewood man who left on a Friday morning and whose boat was found full-throttle but out of fuel 15 miles offshore. The search was called off three days later. A life jacket thought missing from the speedboat was later found at the man’s home, authorities reported.

Nearly three-fourths of captains in fatal accidents last year had no formal boater education, not even the most basic online courses.

In Florida, those born before 1988 do not need any training or proof of competency to board a boat and drive it away. Not even a driver’s license. They can simply hop into a boat, push the throttle and hurtle away.

Sarasota Bay is 455 square miles of water 56 miles long, from the Anna Maria Sound to the north to just shy of Venice Inlet to the south. To its west lies a necklace of barrier islands from Anna Maria south to Casey Key. The bay is considered a coastal lagoon, and features a series of smaller embayments including Palma Sola Bay, Roberts Bay, Little Sarasota Bay and Blackburn Bay.

While the average depth of Sarasota Bay is 6.5 feet, it varies widely in different places and is always changing. It’s critical to constantly assess and respond to the changing depth, but many boaters don’t do that. Depending on the tide, an oyster bar or a sandy shoal can be a safe distance above the fast-spinning, sharp blades of the propeller or a deadly obstruction. In other places the tidal change is not enough to matter, with mere inches between high and low tides, but too few boaters have the local marine knowledge to discern the difference.

Each of the embayments has differing characteristics, differing depths, differing bottoms, differing shorelines. Some have lots of piers sticking out, rock revetments and seawalls. Others have none. The way the water circulates and the boating popularity of that particular segment should also considered. Experienced captains know every part of Sarasota Bay has to be approached differently if they want to stay safe.

Sarasota County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Watson is one of two marine officers who patrol the county’s waterways. He’s also a member of the search and rescue dive team. Inexperienced boaters are his biggest challenge, he says. 

“If you’re not familiar with the rules of the road, you really have to take a safe boating course,” Watson says. “You need to know what you are doing.”

But he notes that not everyone is open to instruction.

“When I see someone doing something they should not be and I pull up to talk to them, their attitude is important,” he says. “If they want to learn, and listen, I educate them and send them on their way. It’s those who are making major errors, who say, ‘I’ve been boating all my life,’ and don’t listen who will get more than a warning.”

And the marine officers have zero tolerance for boating driving under the influence. The penalties for drunk boating are about the same as drunk driving; however, unlike on land operating a boat while drinking is not illegal.

“Captains need to maintain a 360-degree lookout at all times, or designate someone else to watch the area surrounding the boat for dangers,” Watson says. “You never know what the driver of another boat is going to do next. You or your lookout have to be ready for anything at any time.”

Such vigilance is especially important because boats don’t have brakes. The best a captain can do in an emergency is glide to a stop. Putting the boat in reverse to counteract forward motion is just a backwards invitation to disaster for the passengers.

As the state and local statistics prove, Watson agrees the single most important—and ignored—thing boaters can do to stay safe is to wear a life jacket. Putting that life jacket on and keeping it on even when anchored can be a decision to live or to die.  

Renting a boat for the day from one of the many marinas that ring Sarasota Bay is popular, especially with tourists. Some renters are more experienced than others, says Jim Reilly, operations manager at Siesta Key Marina on Old Stickney Point Road, who has been advising boaters for 32 years.

Those born on or after Jan. 1, 1988, who don’t have a Florida boater’s education I.D. card get an abbreviated version of Florida’s basic boater safety course at the marina before they can go on the water. Reilly says he starts with basic instruction—which way is north, which way is south—and progresses to more complicated issues such as how to follow and understand the different navigational markers along the Intracoastal Waterway. He also explains symbols on the charts they provide—for example, dots indicate shallow oyster beds in that spot—and how and when to use to USCG-mandated equipment provided with every rental.

“I get very thorough,” Reilly says. “They start to understand the seriousness of having local knowledge.”

A full-day rental costs hundreds of dollars, and is often the highlight of someone’s vacation, Reilly says. “You have to make sure they have a good time but also pay attention to staying safe. I try to intimidate them a little bit, but still end up with a smile.”

And whether you’re a first-time boat renter or an experienced captain, he says, knowing and following the rules is essential. If you ignore them even once, the results can be fatal.

Tom Bayles, a longtime recreational boater, has won the Waldo Proffitt Award for Excellence in Environmental Journalism in Florida for his coverage of coastal and maritime issues. He wrote “Sand Storm,” about the controversy surrounding plans to dredge Big Pass, in our July 2016 issue.

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