Six island youths and three North Americans are lucky to be alive after their boat ran out of gas off Utila and drifted for nearly four days, according to the people who coordinated their rescue.
“If it hadn’t rained, they wouldn’t have survived,” said Andy López of COPECO, the Honduran disaster preparedness agency.
López said people who go without water more than two days in this climate usually don’t make it, but this group survived by collecting rainwater. They also caught and ate a sea bird and drank their own urine before the rain came.
A US Coast Guard plane out of Florida spotted them the morning of July 3 about 55 miles northwest of Utila, and a helicopter from the Soto Cano Air Base in Palmerola, on the Honduran mainland, retrieved them and brought them to Roatan, according to a Coast Guard press release. All were in good health and returned home that same day.
Tasha Brown, 20, a Canadian who had been taking divemaster training at the Utila Dive Center for the past month, said Honduran friends Luis Gustavo (Tabo) Paz, 23,and Gary Zelaya, 22, invited her on a boat trip to Roatan Saturday morning, June 29, along with five other young people, including Amber Burkett, 16, of Louisiana, who had beenon Utila two weeks visiting her uncle.
Sources on Roatan said the group were at Foster’s in Roatan’s West End around 4 p.m. Saturday when a fight broke out between Brown and Burkett. Brown would not say what the fight was about, but witnesses said she was badly beaten and bleeding. Someone called the police, but before they arrived the group got back in their boat and went out beyond the reef in front of Foster’s.
The West End Tourist Police, who have no watercraft, asked the Roatan Marine Park to transport a policeman out to the boat to check for weapons.
“Our rangers were the last ones to see that boat,” on Roatan, said Giacomo Palavicini, the Marine Park’s executive director. “They were definitely drinking on the boat,” he said. But a police official said they found no contraband or other reason to detain them.
Palavicini said the youths told police they were going back to Utila and the police said, “Go ahead, just be careful.” But they had been able to purchase only three gallons of gas on Roatan.
After that accounts differ. Brown said the group indeed headed directly back to Utila, and Palavicini said a water taxi reported seeing them departing Roatan that afternoon – but more in the direction of Belize (they had no navigational aids). López said they returned to West End after dark and proceeded to drink in another bar. Police said there were only seven people on the boat when they searched it. But there were nine when it was found, including Roatanian Fredy Zuñiga, who apparently joined them on Roatan and had not been reported missing.
Whatever the case may be, López said, “They tried to make it to Utila with three gallons of gas in a 29-foot boat and a Yamaha 100hp motor … absurd.”
When the group did not show up on Utila Sunday morning as expected, their families reported them missing and began searching for them. Authorities on Roatan were notified that afternoon and joined in the search.
“We searched for three days non-stop,” said Palavicini.
López said as many as seven boats took part in the search, including Navy boats from Guanaja, Utila and Cayos Cochinos and private boats from Roatan and Utila, as well as a Honduran Air Force plane. COPECO, the Marine Park, the Roatan Harbor Master and the National Police all took part. The US Embassy was notified because two US citizens were on board (in addition to Burkett, Utila resident Leon Martin Coello, 18, was a US passport holder). Aircraft from Palmerola and Florida were deployed.
Meanwhile, out at sea, Coello had found a sea bird Sunday morning sleeping on the back of the boat, trapped it and wrung its neck, said Brown. She said Zuñiga then skinned it, and they laid it on the bow in the sun to cook. “It tasted like turkey jerky,” she said.
On day three Brown said she thought she saw land on the horizon and tried to swim for it. She said she swam about 45 minutes before tiring and losing sight of the land. She said she had to swim against the current to return to the boat and was so dehydrated when she got back in that she and two others decided to drink their own urine. It was the only liquid they had consumed since leaving Roatan.
That night she said two storms hit the boat. “We flipped over every surface we had” to trap rainwater, she said, then struggled to keep out the seawater that was crashing over the gunnels into the boat.
The following day, said Brown, Zelaya, Coello and Zuñiga tried to swim for land, also to no avail.
The search was expanded Tuesday, July 2, to take account of the boat’s drift. López enlisted the aid of Loren Monterroso, a Roatan fishing charterer with search and rescue experience, as well as knowledge of local currents. Monterroso accompanied four fathers of the missing youths in a fast boat provided by an American friend on Utila that had greater range than the other boats taking part in the search. He said said they searched more than four hours, going out 52 miles northwest of Roatan before turning back at 4 p.m., just miles short of where the US Coast Guard plane spotted the missing boat the next morning.
“Can you believe that?” said Monterroso.
He said he had calculated 30 miles of drift but miscalculated the spot where the boat had run out of gas – apparently only 2-4 miles off Utila.
“They were closer to Belize” said Palavicini.
On day five, Brown said she was in the water trying to tow the boat toward land while others paddled from behind when those inside the boat spotted the US Coast Guard plane. At first she thought, “Oh, yeah, another one,” said Brown. “We’d seen lots of planes overhead,” mostly airliners. But when she saw this plane was different and had seen them, she said she got out of the water and knew she was about to be rescued.
Brown said the helicopter from Soto Cano arrived about a half-hour later. When it arrived, she said all she could think to herself was, “I always wanted to ride a helicopter.”
López said all nine rescued passengers walked off the helicopter under their own power at Roatan’s Galvez Airport, and all appeared surprisingly fine. Waiting ambulances took them to Roatan Hospital to be treated for dehydration and exposure. But most didn’t want to be put on IVs, including Brown.
“No, no, I don’t want that. I just want food,” Brown recalled saying.
Daine Etches, the Canadian warden on Roatan, said she brought Brown some mashed potatoes and gravy. “She was an angel,” said Brown.
Etches said the rescued boaters were supposed to remain in the hospital until 6 p.m. for observation. But Brown said after about two hours someone said there was a boat returning to Utila, and she and the others said “screw this” and walked out to get on it to go home. Her eagerness to get home was balanced by trepidation about getting right back in another boat after just surviving a four-day ordeal at sea. But she said a boy on the boat said, “Don’t worry, man,” there was plenty of gas.
“From now on, every time I get on a boat I’m gonna ask the captain is there gas.”
Brown flew back home to Canada a few days after her rescue. She said she had planned to go home for a week the previous weekend but missed her flight while lost at sea. Now she expects to stay at least a month. But she is determined to return to Utila to complete here divemaster training. Her family cannot imagine why.
“They don’t want me to go back. But they understand that it’s my dream and I’m going to do it.”