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Trip paddled into danger

The bodies of the two 14-year-olds, lost since Saturday, are found about 10 miles out in the Gulf.

Published March 1, 2005

[AP photo]
Relatives of the two canoeists who were found dead grieve outside the Suwannee Baptist Church after being told that the two boys had been found.

Clay McKemie

Sean Wilkinson
[Gainesville Sun photo: Michael Weimar]
Jay Russel Jr. of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission inspects the canoe of the teenagers who died. The canoe could not withstand the 3-to 5-foot waves encountered during bad weather.

SUWANNEE - Eight young paddlers from a north Georgia prep school launched their small boats near the mouth of Suwannee River, heading to the Gulf of Mexico for a weekend camping trip.

Each stroke drew them closer to peril.

The Coast Guard had warned that high winds were kicking up in the gulf. Seas were getting choppy. Conditions could get dangerous.

Within hours, the paddlers and their two adult guides were in trouble. The lead boat, a motorized raft, suddenly conked out. A canoe carrying two teenagers strayed from the pack.

On Monday, searchers found the bodies of Clay McKemie and Sean Wilkinson, both 14, about 10 miles northwest of Suwannee. A frantic cell phone call led to a massive rescue attempt and probably spared further tragedy.

The deaths left the Darlington School reeling with grief and raised numerous questions about the safety and planning of the trip.

This trip, the Coast Guard said, "exemplifies the importance of checking the weather before getting under way."

Why did the group fail to heed the weather warnings? Why did paddlers use a mix of boats that travel at different speeds? Were they appropriately equipped for trouble?

Warren Crabb, a Lake City fisherman, was out in his 21-foot Kenner when the helicopter rescuers saw one of the bodies. A canoe could not withstand that frothy mess, in particular the 3- to 5-foot waves, he said.

"God help 'em," he said.

* * *

The teenagers, a mix of boys and girls, came to this sleepy fishing town on Florida's west coast in search of a spring break adventure. The classmates, and two chaperones, set off early Saturday afternoon from a public boat ramp in Suwannee, said Capt. John Burton of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

In three kayaks, three canoes and a motorized catamaran raft, they headed north into the Gulf of Mexico from the mouth of the Suwannee River. They planned to skirt the coastline for 41/2 miles until arriving at Coon Island, their overnight destination.

Northeasterly winds quickly turned the shallow seas into a choppy mess. As darkness fell, one of the canoes got separated and the catamaran's motor conked out. The other boats tied up to the catamaran as waves built to 3-feet. Rain began to fall and the winds freshened.

Steve Hall, 48, a Darlington teacher and experienced outdoor leader, lit a propane lantern to use as a beacon. The missing boat, carrying McKemie and Wilkinson, was nowhere in sight, said Burton.

Hall and another of the stronger paddlers set off in a canoe to search for the missing boat, aiming for what they believed was a flashlight in the distance. The light went off and they became lost, paddling for hours until they drew near some lights onshore.

Suddenly, they got a cellular phone signal. Hall called his wife, Christina Hall, in Georgia sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight, and she called Coast Guard, Burton said.

About 3 a.m., a Coast Guard helicopter located the group tied up to the raft. A boat rescued the six people. An hour later, a helicopter located Hall and the other searcher, hoisting them out of the water.

All day and night Sunday, the Coast Guard and fish and wildlife rescuers searched for the missing boys. Airboats motored up inshore areas. Searchers patroled the rural marshy shoreline on foot. The 82-foot J.J. Brown and other large boats cruised the gulf. Helicopters and C-130 planes checked from the air.

Late Monday morning, searchers discovered a paddle.

At 11:20 a.m. they found the first body. Around noon, a Coast Guard helicopter found the second, said fish and wildlife spokesman Chris Jones. One boy was found near the overturned green canoe, the other floating about a half-mile away.

A Jacksonville medical examiner will decide whether the boys drowned in waves that could have been as high as 5 feet. They may also have suffered hypothermia in water temperatures as low as 58-degrees.

"Right now, our thoughts are with the families," said fish and wildlife spokesperson Karen Parker. "We wish we'd been able to come with a happier ending."

* * *

Coon Island lies in the southern end of the 105-mile Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trial, where the shallow and placid waters can quickly churn themselves into a deadly chop.

Early Saturday morning, the National Weather Service had broadcast an alert for small crafts to exercise caution in the waters around the Suwannee. The winds, the alert said, would be blowing from the northeast and creating 2- to 4-foot seas.

It's unclear if the Darlington group had heard the alert or had the proper radio equipment to listen to broadcasts. Hall and other members of the trip declined to talk to reporters about the incident.

Fish and wildlife officials said the group was unwise to venture out in winter, when winds can change in an instant. But FWC officials also praised Hall for tying up the rest of the boats, possibly saving six lives.

"Steve put himself at risk to do what he had to do," said Greg Griffeth, dean of students at Darlington. "The motor quitting is probably the thing that allowed this to happen. Had the motor not quit, they would have been fine."

Some local kayak experts weren't as sure.

Russell Farrow, a British Canoe Union-certified instructor with Sweetwater Kayaks in St. Petersburg, said one mistake usually doesn't spell disaster.

"Things go bad in multiples ... one bad thing leads to another," said Farrow who has led expeditions all over the world.

George Stovall, a St. Petersburg chiropractor who has been paddling canoes and kayaks for more than 40 years, has traveled that section of coast in both groups and by himself.

"It is very rugged," he said. "The weather is unpredictable. It can be nice one minute and the next you are dealing with heavy seas."

Stovall, who has worked as an outfitter, said it is a bad idea to mix watercraft. Kayaks are faster and more stable in choppy seas.

"Whenever you mix kayaks and canoes people are going to get spread out," he said.

Each boat should have both passive lighting (reflecting tape or lights) and active lights such as a strobe, flashlight or navigational lights. And each crew, regardless of what type of craft, should be capable of self-rescue. Everybody should have the proper safety equipment and everybody should be able to make it to the destination alone, he said.

The ability to communicate is also essential.

"Cell phones don't work in the wilderness," he said. "At least one member of the party should have a VHF radio in case of emergency."

Darry Jackson's outdoors store, Bill Jackson's Shop for Adventure, runs dozens of canoe and kayak trips each year. He emphasized the importance of everyone in the group carrying the proper safety gear, including a compass, whistles and strobe lights.

"When it comes to navigation, a compass is the minimum," Jackson said. "At least you know you can head east and hit land."

Farrow emphasized the importance of wearing proper clothing. The two boys, according to officials, were wearing T-shirts and shorts. They had on life jackets.

"You have to dress for the water temperature not the air temperature," Farrow said "If you end up in water that cold without the proper equipment, you won't last very long."

* * *

Family members and friends of McKemie and Wilkinson had driven down from their Georgia homes to be closer to the three-day search. They learned of the fatal discoveries at a small Baptist church in Suwannee.

The families drove to Rick Gooding Funeral Home about 35 miles northeast of Suwannee, where they identified the bodies and quickly left.

The two boys were freshman at Darlington, a 500-acre co-ed prep school established in 1905. The school motto: Wisdom More Than Knowledge; Service Beyond Self; Honor Above Everything.

McKemie was outgoing. Friends remember him break-dancing at a school formal as other students sat by, according to the Rome News-Tribune . Wilkinson liked his coffee and chocolate chip cookies. He had to have them, friends say.

Chris Tumblin of Rome, a freshman at Darlington, knew McKemie from childhood. The two had lived on the same street, Tumblin said.

"It's just not right what happened," Tumblin said. "They lived a fraction of what they should have."

School spokeswoman Tannika King said the boys participated in the school's winter musical and were members of the steel drum band. Wilkinson played the double tenor, McKemie double seconds.

Wilkinson was trying out for the school tennis team. McKemie had participated in previous outdoor programs, she said.

"They were both really good kids," King said. "Their loss is felt throughout our community."

Hall, the trip leader, grew up in Rome, Ga., and graduated from Darlington in 1975. To help pay for college at the University of Georgia, he worked on weekends as a professional river guide and also conducted canoe clinics for the Sierra Club.

Hall managed a rafting post after college. He went on to obtain a master's degree from Clemson and began a teaching career. He joined the Darlington faculty in 1993. He also operates Orr-Treks, an outdoor adventure company that has run dozens of trips.

Darlington parent Jack Niedrach said he always felt comfortable sending his son Lee, a senior, on such excursions. "He went last year on a similar trip to Florida and had a great time," he said.

Hall has guided several past trips to Coon Island and the Suwannee area.

Hall's wife, Christina Hall, said Hall was devastated by the loss.

"He's very distraught right now," she said. "He's so concerned about the families."

The Rome News-Tribune , Times staff writer Lauren Bayne Anderson and news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Graham Brink can be reached at (727) 893-8406.

[Last modified March 1, 2005, 04:50:21]

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