AVON PARK – The search for an Avon Park boater separated from three other men after their boat capsized early Sunday morning has been changed to a search-and-recovery effort by the U.S. Coast Guard.
However, two boats with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission-Southwest remain on standby, and when the weather improves, crews will resume their search of Enrique Rodriguez, 63, of Avon Park, who was on a 21-foot fishing boat when it tipped over about eight miles from Egmont Key, across from Fort De Soto Park in Tampa Bay.
Petty Officer 1st Class Crystalynn Kneen, based at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station, Clearwater, said Monday the Coast Guard had suspended the search until the next of kin was notified.
She said crews had searched “for quite some time” before deciding to call it off due to factors such as the missing boater’s age, medical history, weight, how long he had been in the water and the water temperature.
“We’ve exhausted all means to find the person,” she said.
In addition, Gary Morse, spokesman with the local office of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), said Monday afternoon, it was “unlikely” anyone would be alive over 12 hours of having hypothermia.
According to Baryl Martin, another FWC spokesman, Rodriguez left Fort DeSoto around 5 p.m. Saturday on a fishing trip with 25-year-old Joaquin Machado, of Greeley, Colo., and Avon Park residents Andrew Hernandez, 26, and Manuel Perez, 41. Rodriguez’s boating companions were rescued without injuries after choppy seas caused their boat to take on water, according to a Coast Guard report. Flooding in the vessel upset the stability of the boat and it capsized around 2 a.m.
Martin said the three men clung to one life jacket and a cooler to stay afloat but were separated from Rodriguez.
Although the Coast Guard has suspended the search, Martin said FWC still has boats docked in Anna Maria and near the C.W. “Bill” Young VA Medical Center in Bay Pines, St. Petersburg.
“We’re going to continue the search as soon as the weather calms down,” he said Monday. “We want people to remember to carry approved safety equipment on board.”
After capsizing, the men made it to a navigational buoy in the shipping channel about eight miles west of Egmont Key. Skyway Buoy number 5 was large enough for the three men to climb onto, and that’s where they were found by a passing boater about 6 a.m. Sunday, who immediately called the Coast Guard.
Kneen said all resources had been “exhausted” to find Rodriguez,but as long there was a chance of survival the searches continue.
“It’s always disheartening when we have to suspend something like this. We want to get everyone home safely,” she said.
Jose Rodriguez, Enrique Rodriguez’s nephew, said Monday his uncle couldn’t swim and wouldn’t go out on the boat during an outing Memorial Day. He said his uncle, originally from the Dominican Republic, had just lost his brother -- Merito Rodriguez -- to cancer two months ago, making it a trying time for family.
Jose said his uncle was an “outgoing guy” who spent much of his free time fishing around Avon Park, Sebring and the Tampa Bay area.
“He never went on a boat. He went out on the boat with his friends. We really don’t know what happened,” said Jose Rodriguez, 38, of Fort Lauderdale. “We’re just in a state of shock and hoping for the best.”
Jose said the boat belonged to one of the rescued men.
In addition to the Coast Guard and FWC, a rescue boat with four students from Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, assisted with the search for five hours Sunday morning, said Emily Sandrowicz, staff instructor with the Eckerd College Search and Rescue Team.