Father, son rescued after their boat sinks in bay

Tied together with rope, they found refuge on a beacon.

Published May 22, 2007

TAMPA -- For five hours in the dead of night, the father and son swam through whitecaps in the middle of Tampa Bay, struggling to reach a channel marker where they could wait until morning for rescue.

But a strong current dashed their hopes. Despite their best efforts, they floated right past the marker early Sunday.

"It took us every ounce to get to it, and we missed it by 5 feet," said Fred Meyerink, 67, of Tampa, who was adrift in the bay with his son for 13 hours after their boat sank Saturday night during a fishing trip.

Tied together with rope, the pair found refuge hours later on a barnacle-encrusted beacon and were picked up by a passing boat and taken to safety Sunday morning. Both Meyerink, and his 26-year-old son Stefan Meyering, who spells his last name differently, were weakened by their ordeal, but were otherwise okay. They were treated and released from Tampa General Hospital.

The two men had boarded their 20-foot Cobia about 7:30 p.m. Saturday to fish for mackerel near the Gandy Bridge. Thirty minutes later, Stefan, felt water around his ankles.

Fred was alarmed. "We shouldn't have water in the boat," he remembered muttering. His next thought was to grab a pair of life jackets.

Thirty seconds later, the boat capsized.

They tied themselves together and began swimming toward the channel marker they eventually missed.

After that, Stefan, clad in a child-sized life jacket that his father took in a hurry, said staying positive was difficult.

Crashing waves pulled him underwater several times. He was beginning to cramp. His father was losing strength.

"My dad drank a lot of saltwater. He had some hallucinations," said Stefan, who works in nuclear medicine at Largo Medical Center. His father works in radiology at Harborside Medical Tower at Tampa General Hospital.

Discouraged but not beaten, the two kept swimming for another hour or two. At one point, Stefan said, he was towing his exhausted father by rope.

Sometime around 3 a.m., they reached a beacon, and Stefan lassoed some rope around it. Barnacles scraped his arms on his climb to the top. Fred stayed in the water, severely dehydrated.

National Weather Service reports indicate temperatures stayed in the low 70s throughout the night. Winds had reached 20 mph.

"No matter what, son, we'll make it," Fred told Stefan.

Several long, cold hours passed, and the sun began to rise. Fred Meyerink called daybreak a godsend.

But at least six boats passed his son, who had been perched atop the beacon. He was waving his orange life jacket frantically each time he saw a vessel, he said.

Asked why he thought no one stopped, Stefan trailed off.

"If it was me personally, if I saw somebody waving a life jacket. ... How did these guys get out there? There's no boat."

Finally, at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, an unidentified couple came by and scooped the two into their 32-foot cruiser and called authorities. The two men were brought in on the Pinellas side of the Gandy Bridge and taken to Tampa General Hospital.

Investigators are still trying to determine exactly why the boat sank.

"All the plugs were in," said Gary Morse, a spokesman with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "We don't know why, but it did."

Interviewed by phone Monday, Fred and Stefan described themselves as experienced mariners. Saturday's incident was a fluke, Stefan said.

They said they felt lucky to be alive, although a little shaken and bruised.

"We're awfully sore from swimming," Fred said. "It's not like we do this every day."

Casey Cora can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or at ccora@sptimes.com.