It’s been a year since Geoff Varell, 38, and his two sons were plucked from the ocean by the Coast Guard after they abandoned their boat off Cape Canaveral, yet the resident of Sanford, Florida, says the experience still haunts him. “I don’t know that it will ever leave us as a family,” he says. “It was traumatic for me because my kids were involved, but I don’t mind sharing the story if someone else can learn from it.”
Varell, a lifelong boater, launched his 20-foot, outboard-powered center console from Jetty Park on May 28 in the hopes of catching dolphin at a popular spot called The Cones. With him were his sons Gregory (9 at the time) and Grayden (7), and his friend Chris Westhelle. The weather looked promising, with predictions for 1- to 2-foot seas. Once the crew got offshore, though, a small storm system had emerged and seas were running 3 to 4. But because the kids seemed okay and there were other boats nearby, the men went ahead and put out lines to troll. That’s when Varell saw water coming into the engine well.
“We kicked on the bilge pump and tried to diagnose the problem, but within minutes, the well was submerged and water was coming over the transom,” said Varell. Remaining calm, even as seas swelled to 4- to 6-footers, the men called in a Mayday over Channel 16. After a few attempts, they received a reply from someone on the other end who confirmed the boat’s coordinates. They thought it was the Coast Guard; later the crew would learn the Coasties never received the call. Assuming help would arrive soon, Varell moved his group to the bow to wait for a rescue team. It was then the boat dipped sharply to starboard and took on water over the gunwale. The captain gave the order to abandon ship. “That decision still troubles me, because I know the safest place to be in this situation is with the boat, but I was concerned we would roll. And if that happened, it’d be too tough on the kids.”
Before leaving the boat, Varell grabbed flares and his ACR ResQLink personal locator beacon. While floating in the water with his son Gregory lying face up on his chest (Grayden was in the same position on Westhelle’s torso), he quickly shot three flares, assuming the boats nearby would respond. Those crews never saw the signals and eventually left the area. Varell also powered on the ResQLink, a device he’d bought for about $250 a few years before at the urging of a good friend. Varell never imagined he’d have to use it.
The ResQLink successfully transmitted a distress message to the Coast Guard. Two hours after Varell and his crew abandoned ship—and just as Grayden’s lips were beginning to turn blue—a plane spotted the group. A cutter arrived on the scene shortly after.
“I only bought the ResQLink because my friend encouraged me to. He said he wouldn’t go fishing with me unless I had one on my boat. At the time, I viewed it as extra equipment that would never be used. My boat had all of the federal- and state-required safety devices. I thought that was enough. But there’s no doubt about it, that beacon saved our lives. I’ll never go offshore without one again.”
Boating Safety Tip Sheet
Geoff Varell learned life-changing lessons about boating safety the hard way when he had to abandon ship off Florida. Here are a few more tips he wants to share.
♦ Get a ditch bag. On that day, all of our safety gear was stored in a waterproof box, which I had never tested to find out if it could float. And because it was hard to maneuver, I left the boat without it. That left us in the water without our whistle, mirrors and other gear. I should have had everything stowed in a ditch bag.
♦ Talk safety at the dock. Once we started to take on water, things happened fast. Chris was doing all he could to help, but he didn’t know where things were and how all of the equipment worked. Now I understand the importance of doing a safety briefing before casting off lines.
♦ Don’t forget a safety line. My boat had the required safety gear, but it didn’t have a safety line, and that’s the thing we really needed once we were off the boat.
Safety & Rescue at Sea
Boaters University Unveils Its Latest Course. “Safety and Rescue at Sea” is replete with practical tips for dealing with emergencies on the water, but the most valuable insights it offers are about preparation and evaluating risk. Knowing how to prepare and how to parse danger create a boating environment in which crises are far less likely to happen, and if disaster does strike, the course will have prepared you to cope more effectively.