Rescue Boat 17 finds man "somewhere in Tampa Bay" on Gasparilla

We have a report of a man overboard in Tampa Bay.

It's Gasparilla night.

There's 3- to 4-foot swells in the bay.

It's dark, and the water is about 60 degrees.

He's somewhere between Davis Islands and downtown St. Pete.


For Hillsborough's Rescue Boat 17 crew working the Gasparilla Day parade in 2015, the day started at 5:15 a.m. with a briefing near the port.

Hillsborough's responsibilities are to be ready to assist with anything that happens outside the chaos of the "Invasion," where revelers follow the Jose Gaspar ship toward Tampa on Gasparilla morning.

The crew had a busy enough day monitoring the bay. At dinnertime they got a call from dispatch that a man on a small, uninhabited island broke his neck diving off a pier. The crew located the diver, put him on a back board, and safely delivered him to Tampa General Hospital in calm seas.

Now dark despite an almost full moon, the seas were choppier, and the crew made its way back to Little Harbor Marina in Ruskin to wrap up the long day.

As they unload their gear off the boat, the dispatch call came in after 9 p.m.: "MAN OVERBOARD SOMEWHERE IN THE WATER BETWEEN COQUINA KEY AND DAVIS ISLANDS."

The call came from the Coast Guard requesting assistance from Rescue Boat 17. The original 911 call came from Coquina Key, where a boater realized upon his return from Tampa's Gasparilla festivities that one of his passengers must have fallen off the boat on the way home.

Dispatch Manager Margaret Hamrick says it is not unusual for a call to bounce among a few agencies before it gets to the rescue crew that can handle the call. The call likely volleyed from St. Petersburg to Tampa and the Coast Guard before coming to Hillsborough County.

The caller did not know where his rider went overboard. "SOMEWHERE IN THE WATER BETWEEN COQUINA KEY AND DAVIS ISLANDS," came the call.


Driver/Engineer Greg McKinney, Fire Medic 1 Eric Trimmer, Driver/Engineer Chris Franceschini, Fire Medic Eric Reyes and Capt. John Raley jumped back in the rescue boat and headed due west to the closest channel marker. Their thinking at the time was that if the boat's driver was experienced, then he would have stayed close to the channel markers on the route out of the bay. If the man overboard was still alive, he'd likely be clinging to a marker.

Fire Marine Chart

Going west out of Little Harbor took Rescue Boat 17's crew to channel markers just outside the mouth of the Little Manatee River.

On a hunch, the crew started going north, marker by marker. The seas were consistently at 3 feet. At the time, Rescue Boat 17 was a 27-foot Boston Whaler Vigilant.

One by one, they would approach a marker, put a spotlight around the base of each marker looking for the victim, and move on to the next.

By Driver/Engineer McKinney's estimation, they had inspected about a dozen markers in rough waters when they heard on the radio a sailboat announcing they had spotted someone clinging to a channel marker. The sailboat was only one marker north of Rescue Boat 17's location.

The crew got to the victim quickly at about 9:47 p.m. They got him safely on the rescue boat. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. He was bloodied by the barnacles that cut him as he clung to the channel marker for almost four hours. The water was cold, and he said he'd been there since about 6 p.m.

McKinney said the victim didn't have much to say on the way to Tampa General. "He honestly seemed like he was in shock," he said.

Their medical concerns for the victim were focused on hypothermia and dehydration.

The trip to Tampa General normally would have taken 20 minutes in calm seas, but that night it took about 90 minutes, so the crew got the victim to the hospital shortly after 11 p.m. Fortunately, he survived the ordeal.

It took the crew another two hours to return to Little Harbor and get the rescue boat secured. They got back to the station at about 2 a.m. - about 22 hours after they started their day on the water.

Hillsborough County's responsibilities during Gasparilla often mean a slow day of monitoring the bay, but when called upon, HCFR's Rescue Boat crew is ready to save lives in some of the most dramatic and challenging conditions.

Image Caption: Rescue Boat 17 finds man on Gasparilla
Last Modified: 2/20/2024, 11:26:29 PM

Was this page helpful?