(NEW YORK) — A pair of Florida boaters are alive today after clinging to parts of a cooler for nearly seven hours when their fishing boat capsized off the coast of Miami.
George Verdecia, 29, and his older brother, who was not named, left for a fishing trip late Monday night but only made it about three miles off the shores of Key Biscayne, Fla., before their 12-foot vessel capsized at around 2:30 a.m., according to Coast Guard authorities.
Choppy water and high waves swamped the boat and caused it to capsize, Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Abeyta, commanding officer of the Miami Beach Coast Guard station, told ABC News.
The brothers had lifejackets on board, but had them stored beneath the boat’s seats. When the boat capsized, the only thing that popped to the surface was a cooler. Verdecia grabbed the lid while his brother grabbed the cooler’s base, according to Abeyta, and both held on, unable to fight the strong current. The two floated all night long and drifted apart.
Verdecia’s brother made it to shore around 9:30 a.m. Monday and was spotted by a woman walking on the beach who immediately called 911. Authorities contacted Abeyta’s Coast Guard officers who were preparing to depart on a training mission and instead diverted their resources to search for Verdecia.
“We launched all available assets to respond because the brother stated that his brother [Verdecia] was still out there hanging on to the lid of the cooler,” Abeyta said. “He was a half mile from shore but the current was preventing him from making it to shore.”
The woman who called 911 could see Verdecia from the shore so she directed Abeyta and his officers on the Coast Guard boat to his location, where they pulled Verdecia to safety, less than 20 minutes from when they first got the call.
“When he came on board our vessel he was physically exhausted and showing early onset of hypothermia,” Abeyta said. “He was barely hanging on to the lid of the cooler. That was basically what saved his life, the lid of the cooler.”
Both Verdecia, who complained of a back injury, and his brother were taken to nearby Mercy Hospital. They were both released Monday afternoon after observation with non-life threatening injuries, according to Abeyta.
Abeyta says the brothers’ harrowing tale of survival is a reminder of the importance of wearing life jackets and having an emergency plan in place when in the water.
“Life jackets don’t work if you’re not wearing them,” he said. “And you have to always file a flow plan. If they’d told someone to expect them at, say, 6 o’clock in the morning and were aware they didn’t arrive, we could have gotten to them a lot earlier.”
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