Fishermen pull stranded boys from Gulf

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wem Mellown said he’s always liked stories about small decisions making big differences. This week, he has one of his own.

Tuesday, he went to Destin to take his son Matt and some friends fishing in the Gulf. The boys had been at the helm and had had no luck finding fish.

“I thought we were too close in,” Mellown said. So he took over and took the boat out farther, looking for cobia.

“We were about a mile off shore,” Mellown said. “I saw some splashing and thought it was fish or a porpoise.”

When he saw a splash again, he picked up his binoculars for a closer look.

“There were two people in the water,” he said. “I thought they were out in wet suits and started to veer the other way.”

That’s when the two people started waving frantically.

Mellown reversed course and went closer to them.

“There were two boys in the water and they were freezing to death,” he recalled Wednesday.

It was a cool day and no one on the Mellowns’ boat had planned to swim.

“I had one towel,” Mellown said. “And there were two blankets on board.”

As the boat passengers started to help the boys dry off, they said, “You’ve got to go get our buddy.”

Buddy? They had seen no one else.

“Two or three hundred yards out, there was a head and it was going under,” Mellown said. Quickly, they went toward him. The youngster was literally about to drown.

“We threw a rope to him, and he grabbed it,” Mellown said. The boy had to be physically pulled into the boat.

“They had been in the water for 20 to 30 minutes,” Mellown said, adding that they were wearing short-sleeve shirts and pants.

Even after they had gotten the boys aboard, he said, he didn’t realize how serious the situation was.

“I was thinking we’d drop them near the shore and they would swim in,” he said. “But this one little boy could not warm up. He couldn’t talk or anything.”

They wrapped him in a blanket and one of the two coherent boys called his mom, who was on the fifth floor of the San Destin resort.

The three of them had been out on a two-man kayak with no life preservers, Mellown said, and had gotten separated from the kayak.

“I don’t know if they were paddling to Mexico or what they were doing,” he said. “There was no way they could possibly swim back to shore and the current was pulling them east.”

When he realized the third boy was in pretty serious shape, Mellown had another boater radio a message to the Coast Guard, who instructed him to bring the boys to the Coast Guard station. The Coast Guard sent a boat out to meet the Mellowns, motioned for them to follow, and escorted them through the pass with lights flashing and sirens blaring.

“When we got to the Coast Guard station, there was an ambulance waiting to get them warmed up,” he said.

Later, the mom called Matt Mellown and invited him and his friends to dinner. At the time, she told him, most people were dressed in T-shirts and shorts, but the boys were still cold and were wearing long pants and coats.

“It was an exciting fishing trip to catch no fish,” Mellown said. “These boys are 13 and 14 years old and nobody’s looking for them.”

Many small decisions could have changed the outcome of the story.

“There were no other boats out there,” Mellown said. “San Destin is a long way from Destin Pass.”

Minutes before he had asked Matt and his friends if they were ready to go in, he said.

“They said they were fine, to keep going,” he said.

It also is unusual for the Mellowns to have blankets on board, he said.

“We saw them on sale for $5 each last summer and they were the same color as the boat,” he said.

The take-away lessons for him?

“When kids are 10 or younger, you watch them like a hawk at the beach,” he said. “When they get this age, you think it’s OK for them to be off having fun.”

And those small decisions? They really can make life-changing differences.

Editor’s note: We print this story with apologies to our friend Wem Mellown, who didn’t want any recognition. His co-workers disagreed with him and so did we. Sorry, Wem, and thanks for a great story.