By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 3, 2005
The miracle rescue is over. Now for the second-guessing.
The Coast Guard is hearing it from family members of the teenagers rescued off the North Carolina coast this weekend after six days adrift in the Atlantic Ocean without food or water. The teens are hearing it from boating safety experts, appalled at their lack of preparation before pushing into the water.
Relatives of the teens are accusing the Coast Guard of ending its search too quickly and failing to listen to local boaters who were urging the agency to look north, rather than south. Others say there would never have been a search to begin with if the teens had not launched on a gusty day with only a single oar -- and no sail or motor -- to propel them.
"What they did was incredibly stupid," said L.J. Wallace, who hosts a radio marine show in Charleston, S.C.
At least everyone can agree on one thing: Josh Long, 17, and his best buddy, Troy Driscoll, 15, are very lucky -- very lucky, indeed.
Long and Driscoll nudged their 15-foot boat into the water off Charleston on April 24, hoping to paddle past a sandbar and do some shark fishing for "a couple of hours," Driscoll said yesterday in a phone interview from his hospital bed in Charleston. They had no water, no food, no life jackets, no flares, no radio.
A rip current tugged them far from shore, exhausting the teens, who futilely tried to paddle against it. Driscoll said that they began to cry and that weariness took over, eventually lulling them to sleep. When they awoke, they were in bright blue water. Driscoll knew that could only mean they had been pulled miles out to sea.
By then, a huge search was underway. The Coast Guard was using computer models to predict the missing boat's course. And the computer was wrong. But, then again, so was the information that went into it.
The Coast Guard had been told by the boys' parents that they were in a Sunfish, one of the most popular small sailboats in the nation. Instead, they were in a JY-15 sailboat, a craft that sits higher in the water and is affected differently by currents.
At the same time, local boaters were challenging the Coast Guard's decision to focus the search primarily to the south and asserting that currents would push the boat north. Ryan Doss, a Coast Guard spokesman, said yesterday that the search mission is being reviewed, but the promise of a second look has done little to pacify angry relatives.
"The Coast Guard needs to give a straight answer and say they made a mistake," Driscoll's uncle, Matthew Driscoll, told the Charleston Post and Courier.
Doss said a lack of information hampered the search. The teenagers' parents did not know where they had launched from, Doss said, so the Coast Guard had to seek help from a cell phone company that pinpointed a signal from one of the boys' phones 20 hours after the search began.
Rescuers were dispatched. All they found was a parked car with a cell phone inside. But, finally, they had a starting point for the wayward trip.
While the search unfolded, Driscoll and Long were feeling almost invisible. Time and again, they tried to signal passing fishing boats. One even came within 150 yards, Driscoll said, but no one saw them.
They looked to the skies, praying for rain, but none came until one evening when they felt drops. For two minutes, Driscoll said, rain came down. But that was it. Still, they leaned onto the bow of their little boat and licked the few drops that accumulated. During the day, Driscoll said, they scooped jellyfish from the water and ate them out of sheer desperation.
By then, the Coast Guard's search mission had become a recovery mission -- a delicate way of saying crews were looking for bodies, rather than live teenagers. Family members gathered at a Charleston church to pray.
All the while, Driscoll was dreaming of banana splits. Long fantasized about a Mountain Dew. But mostly, they prayed.
"I said, 'Lord, if it's your will, take me now -- I can't stand this anymore,' " Driscoll remembers saying on Friday night, five days into his ordeal.
Not long after he asked God to take him, Driscoll was awakened by something that sounded to him like a hurricane. A huge container ship passed within shouting distance, sending a wake that rattled his boat.
In the morning, another boat came into view. This time, it slowed, and the boys were soon on board, guzzling fresh water for the first time in six days. It took only 15 minutes for the fishermen to get them to shore. Not long afterward they were stuffing themselves on macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes at the hospital. But dessert, brought by one of Driscoll's uncles, was the best part. It was the biggest banana split Driscoll had ever seen.