How long can you tread water?

Richard Weiss, a member of Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 8-2, inspects a life jacket during a vessel safety check. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lindberg.

Richard Weiss, a member of Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 8-2, inspects a life jacket during a vessel safety check. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lindberg.

Written by Geralyn M. Ryan, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Flotilla 15-8.

While many boaters don’t think to wear their life jackets, most people also don’t think they’ll be treading water for more than half a day. To learn just how it feels to be lost at sea, and the difference a life jacket makes between life and death, just ask Arlen Gastineau.

It was a winter morning when Gastineau, an experienced boater from Orlando, invited two out-of-town friends to join him for a day fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Gastineau filed a float plan with his family telling them where he planned to go and when he hoped to return.

The Coast Guard strongly urges mariners to be prepared in case of emergencies and to bring survival equipment such as signalling and sound devices, a personal Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, cell phone, radio and lifejackets while underway to increase chances of survival in the event something goes wrong. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Barbara L. Patton.

The Coast Guard strongly urges mariners to be prepared in case of emergencies and to bring survival equipment such as signalling and sound devices, a personal Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, cell phone, radio and lifejackets while underway to increase chances of survival in the event something goes wrong. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Barbara L. Patton.

Transiting out to Gastineau’s favorite fishing spot 40 miles off the coast of Clearwater, Fla., they encountered rough seas, and dropped anchor closer to shore. Despite choppy conditions, they had a nice day, sharing stories, exchanging news and even catching a couple of grouper. In the late afternoon they decided to head home. That was when they noticed the boat was taking on water.

The three men put on their life jackets and began bailing out the boat. As the waves increased, Gastineau attempted to set off a flare but it did not ignite. He tried to issue a mayday call just as the boat capsized.

One of Gastineau’s companions was an Air Force veteran who had undergone survival training and tied a rope to the boat urging others to tie themselves to the rope as well. By staying with the boat, they increased their chances of being found.

When Gastineau did not return as planned, his family became concerned and alerted Sector St. Petersburg. Using the float plan provided by the family, Coast Guard crews began searching for the missing boaters. Air Station Clearwater dispatched planes and helicopters but despite looking for the men throughout the night, the missing boaters were not found.

The next morning, the search area continued and the Coast Guard Auxiliary was called in for assistance. Auxiliary pilot David Lemon was one of many who joined the search mission at first light. Just before noon, a Coast Guard pilot spotted the overturned boat and the three men tied to it.

They had been in the water for 18 hours.

Inflatable life jackets are compact, lightweight and comfortable and in some instances have the best in-water performance, or if you are buying a life jacket for general use, a Type III vest that has an impact rating is an excellent option.

Inflatable life jackets are compact, lightweight and comfortable and in some instances have the best in-water performance, or if you are buying a life jacket for general use, a Type III vest that has an impact rating is an excellent option.

When Gastineau set off on his fishing trip he expected to return by early afternoon, and spending 18 hours in the water was not on the agenda. But despite not knowing what lay ahead, his foresight into filing a float plan and having life jackets aboard undoubtedly saved his life. Gastineau says he “never would have made it” if he had not been wearing his life jacket.

Not many boaters begin a trip thinking they might have to be plucked out of the water by the Coast Guard. But should things take turn for the worse, wearing a life jacket can increase your chance of surviving a boating accident by more than 80 percent. Before your next boating trip, you might want to remember Arlen Gastineau and put your life jacket on.

Eighteen hours is a long time to tread water.

For more information on this case and boating safety, check out this video feature.

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  • Eddiemje

    Many of you may recognize our last name, Midgett. I was blessed to become a Coastie 6 June, 1968. ( hope you recognize the date, not the year ). Since the early to mid 70′s I have lost at least 4-6 friends & family members plus family of friends etc. Most, if not all, would of been saved had they only had their jackets on. For the most part we are VERY conservative.I hate to admit it but at the SAR station I severed at
    , off the coast of S. Jrrsey, we only wore our jackets once. Ther’re are other stories I could, but won’t, tell. My point is, if we don’t have one, every state plus the USA shoud mandate AND strongly enforce such laws. I can give you other reasons to enforce such laws. I just wish I could havvve my loved ones back. I pray you never have to experience such lost!!!