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Kayaker Rescued in Panama City, FL

On March 02, 2021, at 1:45 a.m. 60 year old Alejandro (Alex) Ochoa was holding the hand of his wife Genevieve as she drew her last breath of life. She had succumbed to a long, brutal battle with cancer. In the late afternoon of April 14, 2021, Alex was staring down death himself as he clung tenaciously to his kayak in the turgid waters of the Gulf of Mexico. He thought of how devastating it would be for his daughter Amethyst and his son Austin to lose a second parent in such a short time. He repeatedly spoke aloud “I am not going to quit.”

When I first talked to Alex he was in Chattanooga Tennessee. He had just emerged from the cavern at Ruby Falls, far off the track he intended to take when he departed Texas on a road trip to clear his head. His initial plan was to spend time touring the maritimes on the Gulf and then the Atlantic from South Carolina all the way up to Maine. His harrowing ordeal on April 14 reshaped his plans.

David Rose is a lifelong friend of Alex. David encouraged Alex to come to Panama City to spend some time together. David is a paddle sports enthusiast and knows how much Alex loves the water. He thought the visit would make a great start for Alex on his road to emotional recovery. Eight years Alex’s junior, David looks up to Alex as a big brother. They know each other well and both play hard.

David has a fleet of kayaks, each with a special purpose. The weather on April 14 was cloudy, warm and windy with scattered showers. The surf was up on the Gulf. David figured a short, quick surf-kayaking trip was just the ticket. His 8-foot long, self-bailing, sit on top kayaks were well suited for playing in the surf.

The plan was to put in at St Andrews Park, paddle the 500 yard span of the Pass and play in the surf at Shell Island. Since it was to be a quick trip, there was no need to file a float plan. They were almost guaranteed to get rolled in the surf. That’s half the fun, so they left the cell phones in the van. David had done this many times in the past and was confident it was a safe undertaking as long as they wore their life jackets.

  • Map showing the massive estuary that the pass drains. Photo courtesy Google Maps.

    Map showing the massive estuary that the pass drains. Photo courtesy Google Maps.

The narrow pass at St Andrews Park drains a massive network of inland bays, bayous and creeks. High tide was at 10:32 on the morning of April 14 and the new moon had arrived on April 12. A single red (high hazard) warning flag flapped vigorously and ominously in the breeze. The two men pushed off the beach at St Andrews Park at about 2:30. The trip across the pass to the surf side of Shell Island took about 10 minutes. When they arrived, Alex immediately decided that with his inexperience in surf, the massive breakers, better than 6 footers by David’s estimation, were too ambitious an undertaking.

  • Satellite image of the pass up close. Photo courtesy Google Maps.

    Satellite image of the pass up close. Photo courtesy Google Maps.

They decided to paddle back to the park and essentially scrub the mission. Along the way back, they encountered some dolphin. Dolphin are often curious and interactive. They are especially fascinating to those who haven’t seen them up close. It was a special treat for Alex to get paddle beside them. The two men kind of lost themselves in the moment.

They soon realized that despite the fact that they had been paddling for 15 minutes they were now appreciably further away from St Andrews Park than when they started. The wind had picked up and was now howling. They dug in and started paddling against the forceful flow of the water boiling out of the pass.

With David’s experience, he knew that they would not be able to make it back to the park. They would need to paddle back to Shell Island and portage the kayaks inland as far as they could, then paddle across the pass. Focused on the daunting task at hand, he stopped looking over his shoulder for Alex for a short while. When he finally looked back, his heart sank. Alex was nowhere to be found.

David was faced with a gut wrenchingly tough decision. Go back and battle the elements to try to locate Alex, or fight his way to shore and get some help. David surmised the best chance he could give his big brother was to get to shore and call for help as quickly as possible.

At about 3:30, Alex had been rolled by a freakishly large breaker. He had never practiced self-rescue but intuitively knew that hanging onto the kayak was vital, and hold on he did. He recognized that he may need the paddle so he wrestled the paddle into the tank well bungee straps while maintaining a vice like grip on the seat straps. He struggled to hold on and took inventory as each passing wave worked to wrest control of the kayak.

  • Picture of the kayak that Alex used

    Picture of the kayak that Alex used

“I knew I had to turn the kayak back over and try to get into it” Alex recounted. The self-bailing kayak righted rather easily and Alex slivered aboard, keeping as low a center of gravity as he could. He lay prostrate on the floor of the kayak to collect himself and his thoughts.

In the battering dealt by the set of breaking waves, the seat had broken. Alex couldn’t use it to brace himself for better power for paddling or for better balance. Single minded in focus, Alex lay on his chest and began paddling surfer style toward the beach using a condo as a point of reference. Because Alex is a physically large man he needed to stay low. As a dedicated weightlifter he carries a lot of mass, and that mass made the tiny 8-foot long kayak less stable yet. His size and strength would prove to be a double-edged sword.

“I’m not going to quit, I’m not going to quit.”

David made landfall on Shell Island then carried and dragged his kayak to the inland most point of Shell Island. He pondered his plight. With each foot of forward progress, he’d be set several more feet seaward. The furious current would have him making a landing on the jetty if he was lucky enough to make it to land at all. He wasn’t going to hit the jetty without a herculean effort.

Short, wide kayaks are ideal for playing in a surf zone. They sacrifice speed and tracking though. David was in a race. Would he make it to the jetty or would the current conquer him? Through determination, a little luck and the good fortune of having a few fishermen on the jetties to give him a hand, David was able to make it with just a few feet to spare, narrowly missing being helplessly swept out to sea.

Alex was losing his battle. The current was too much for him to overcome. He was undeterred. He rightly reckoned that a search party would come out and that the closer he could stay to the beach the greater his chance of being located. Stroke after stroke, Alex refused to quit, though he was being pushed further into the Gulf.

On three occasions sportfishing boats passed close. With only a black paddle blade to wave in the tumultuous sea, Alex scarcely stood a chance of getting their attention. Back at the park, while readying for the trip, David had taken time to help adjust Alex’s life jacket to fit him just right. Alex joked about the attached whistle as David gave him a hand. The whistle now represented hope. Alex blew the whistle as he waved the paddle. Howling winds, crashing waves and the drone of the boat’s engines. More futility. At one point Alex passed close to a buoy. He tried to get to it so he could climb aboard, but the current swept him away too quickly.

Alex talked out loud to himself. Many people who have been in such survival situations do. It has a calming effect. Alex’s focus on paddling toward the condo never stopped. Even so, his thoughts and words vacillated. “I’m Screwed” he sometimes shouted in frustration. Alex is a spiritual man, but he even shouted some things that prompted him to ask for forgiveness. Then it was back to “I’m not going to quit, I’m not going to quit.”

Coast Guard Search and Rescue

The record shows that David made the 911 call at 5:03 p.m. Five minutes later, the relay made it to the Coast Guard Command Center at Sector Mobile. Petty Officer 1st Class Angela Corbin, an Operations Specialist at the command center, had Search and Rescue (SAR) Controller duty and took the call. David had high praise for her. “I was very impressed with her professionalism.”

Command centers are typically staffed by a three to four person duty team. A communications watch stander is cordoned off in a soundproof room with dozens of speakers monitoring the Coast Guard’s Rescue 21 Network. A “situation” unit watch stander specializes in ports and waterways type calls. A SAR controller handles SAR and Law Enforcement calls. A Command Duty Officer is the shift supervisor and may or may not be physically present in the command center.

With a small and specialized watch team, it doesn’t take much to push the team to capacity. The time line contained in the Coast Guard’s “MISLE” computer database captures every action the team takes. Each entry reflects the sense of urgency Angela felt. With rough weather and the sun setting rapidly, she knew she had a narrow window of time for optimal search conditions.

The SAR Controller has check sheets for the various types of SAR calls they get. In this case the “Overdue” check sheet was used. It is several pages long and cannot be rushed. Each piece of information can prove critical at some point in the case. Once Angela had collected all of the information she needed, she ensured that the Coast Guard Station in Panama City was launching and that their partners with Florida Fish and Wildlife were heading out as well.

It’s vital to get search teams on scene as quickly as possible, but in order for them to search most effectively and in the most complementary manner, some science has to be applied. That comes courtesy of the Coast Guard’s “SAROPS” search program. The SAROPS program provides the precision search patterns for the boats and aircraft to execute. It is completely dependent upon accurate data input. Accurate wind and sea conditions are critical data points. SAR Controllers get weather data from data stations, response units and in cases like this the person making the call for help. In this case, there was enough conflict in the information from the various sources to make a substantial difference. Angela worked fervently to get quality weather data. Moreover, getting the information plugged into SAROPS is time consuming. Time was working against Angela.

While Angela was struggling to get the best available weather data, she was also trying to find available aviation resources. The aircraft search sensors would be critical for nighttime searching. Sector Mobile has two servicing Aviation units. The Sector can draw helicopters from Air Station New Orleans or fixed wing aircraft from Aviation Training Center Mobile. Each of those units is staffed with one ready SAR crew most of the time. The ready crews from both were involved in the early stages of the case involving the capsizing of the lift boat “Seacor Power” off the coast of Louisiana, and the urgent search for the 19 persons on board.

Out on the Gulf with light beginning to fade, Alex absolutely refused to quit. A double red warning flag (Water Closed to Public) now flew over the beach where he had launched. He continued to stroke toward the condo. He had been pushed out about five miles by his best guess, but had begun making progress back toward shore. “Are sharks drawn to human blood” he wondered. From the continuous, forceful stroking, he had begun to wear through the skin on the inside of his biceps. The skin was raw and blood was starting to appear on the surface from what could best be described as friction burns. More “I’m screwed” and more “I’m not going to quit.”

Before long Alex saw the flashing blue lights of the search boats working methodically back and forth off the shoreline, but none of their tracks appeared to be favorable for locating him. Precious time continued to pass. Was a boat getting closer or was his mind deceiving him in the fog of his fatigue? The mind plays tricks on the exhausted and desperate. Soon the Florida Fish and Wildlife boat made a radical departure from course and headed straight for Alex.

“Someone was watching over you.”

Alex was so drained after his four-hour long fight, that he could barely help the officers help him aboard. He essentially collapsed on the deck of the rescue boat. He described the mood of the officers as “celebratory.” Often on overdue cases, the boater is as likely to be at a waterfront bar or still out fishing as they are to be in any kind of distress. Changes of plans, poor float plans and poor communications all factor in. Everyone in this search knew that a life hung in the balance and that time was of the essence. The officer’s joy in finding Alex three and a half miles out in the Gulf with just minutes of remaining daylight was palpable.

In the phone call during which Alex detailed his ordeal, he did so with a degree of emotional detachment, even laughing at times. As he recounted the odd silence that befell he and his rescuers after the initial celebration, his voice cracked and he wept. The day had been eerily gray and gloomy. The voice of the Wildlife and Fisheries Officer broke the silence, “Someone was watching over you.” Alex looked to the officer who nodded to the west. The clouds had parted, and the sky had opened up revealing a gloriously gorgeous fiery red setting sun. The officer continued, “We usually find the kayak, not the person.”

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