SPECIAL REPORT: Device saves life if lost at sea

Posted at 11:34 AM, Feb 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-08 22:39:07-05

SOUTHWEST FLORIDA -- All too often, we report on stories of missing boaters and boats in distress...Sometimes with tragic endings.  In this special report, Four in Your Corner's Karl Fortier talks with a marine patrol officer who says electronic locator beacons can save lives, and a family who was rescued from the gulf who say they won't go out on the water without them.

They're called EPIRB's, which stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radiobeacon.

First responders in water rescues all tell Fox 4 the same thing: these beacons pinpoint the location of boaters in distress and drastically cut down on the time spent searching when lives are on the line.

In Australia, any vessel traveling more than two nautical miles from shore is required to have one. With searches for missing boaters ending in tragedy far too often, should these beacons be required in Florida?

On a Saturday morning in late September 2014, Jaren Catlin was ready for a fun day on the gulf with his two boys, who were five and six. They were competing in a fishing tournament with three of Jaren's friends, and another six-year-old, a few miles off of Sanibel.

"We were fishing on the reef there. We started taking water in the back of the boat when the waves started kicking up."

He says a leak in the transom overnight had added some weight to his boat.  "By the time we noticed the boat filling with water, the bilge pumps and the batteries were already under water."

The waves soon overcame the disabled boat, which capsized and put all four adults and the three kids in the water.  They clung to lines attached to the upside down boat.  "There wasn't enough time to get on the radio...wasn't in a real handy spot to get to it."

Luckily, one of the men had a cell phone in a waterproof case. Jaren called his wife Deirdre, who immediately called the Coast Guard.  "Helpless and hopeless. There's nothing you can do," she says.

Jaren's boat drifted a ways from where they made the call, and it took search crews 45 minutes to an hour to find them.  "It felt like an eternity.  When you know that the search crews are looking, but they haven't found them yet, and just knowing what could potentially happen...but thankfully in our case, it did not," says Deirdre.

"The EPIRB, I think would greatly speed up the search and rescue process and locate them a lot quicker," says Cpl. Perry Mapes with the Collier County  Sheriff's Office.  He patrols the waters from his station on Marco Island, and often responds to boater in distress calls. He says the ones equipped with Electronic Position Indicating Radio beacons are found much faster.  "From a law enforcement and search and rescue aspect, it would aid us tremendously."

He says many boaters get confused about their location when they get away from land, and that even seasoned sailors can find themselves in trouble before they can do much about it.  "You do get experienced people out there from time to time that do get lost, or have accidents, fall off their vessel and they're never found."

He says Personal Locator Beacons that can attach to a life jacket, are another potential life-saver if you get separated from your boat - like the two 14-year-old boys who went missing from their fishing boat near Jupiter last year. Their boat was found capsized about 60 miles off the east coast.  The bodies of Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos were never found.

Jaren Catlin says the capsizing of his boat with his two young sons aboard convinced him get EPIRB's and PLB's.  "We just take extra precautions now. Back then we just never thought it would happen."

"It changed my life forever. Changed the way we do things, changed everything," says Deirdre.

Including researching how to make their love of boating safer, Deirdre says locator beacons were at the top of the list.  "They are expensive, but definitely worth it, there's no question about it."

EPIRB's cost around $300-400.  You register it once you buy it, and if you get in trouble on the water, it will transmit the name of your boat, your call sign and your location.

You can also file a float plan with the Collier County Sheriff's Office before heading out on the water.