ABOVE THE ATLANTIC OCEAN (AP) — Scouring the vast ocean expanse off Florida for two missing teen boaters is a long, tedious mission for the eight-person crew of the C-130 Hercules Coast Guard plane based out of Clearwater.
On Tuesday morning, the flight crew — including a public affairs officer and an Associated Press reporter — left Florida’s Gulf coast at midmorning and flew eastward.
Once the plane cleared the state’s other coast and was over the Atlantic, it dropped to 500 feet above the murky ocean. The crew eased open the back cargo ramp and two men flopped on their bellies so they could search the sea below.
It wasn’t an easy task. Around noon, the water was the same gray-blue as the sky; the horizon invisible, hazy. Spotting something in the water involves a little luck and a lot of training and experience.
“You search like it’s your mom out there,” Petty Officer Garrett Peck said.
The Coast Guard spent a fifth day searching for the boys while their families coordinated air searches of their own, insistent that Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos were competent seamen and athletic young men who still could be found alive.
But the relentless hunt by sea and air turned up no clue where the 14-year-olds might have drifted from their capsized boat. David Schuhlein, a Coast Guard spokesman based in Clearwater, Florida, told the AP as the went into the night that Coast Guard searchers had found nothing during the day, despite speculation otherwise raised on social media.
The long days aboard the C-130 mean the crew must be focused and determined, Lt. Janelle Setta said.
In the afternoon, conditions cleared. The water turned a clear sapphire and the sky a bright yellow-white.
For hours, the plane flew in a grid pattern. The pilot, 25-year-old Setta, piped music over the plane’s communications headsets, explaining that it keeps morale up, helps the crew stay awake and gives them something to chat about during the long hours of searching.
As 1980s-era rock music played softly in the background, (each crew member gets to pick a playlist) the two petty officers combed the water for hours.
Elsewhere in the plane, other petty officers scoured the ocean from windows. Another crew member used a joystick to manipulate a camera that scanned the ocean, somehow not becoming seasick from the water’s motion. All acknowledged that after a long day of searching, once on land, “it looks like the floor is moving,” Lt. Cdr. Dustin Burton said.
Occasionally, they’d spot something and loop around, sometimes dropping flares. A white rectangular shape that looked like a pillow. A box. Something greenish that gave them hope but turned out to be a fishing net.
“I’m pretty sure this is going to turn out to be algae,” one of the crew said over the communications system.
“Better safe than sorry,” replied another.
Hope came late in the afternoon with the discovery of a debris field east of Savannah, Georgia. A Coast Guard ship met the C-130 in the area and fished items out of the water.
Not what they were looking for.
“Frustrating,” remarked one crew member on the headset.
“Very,” said another.
After nearly 10 hours of flying, without success, the crew looked bleary and tired as it diverted the plane around a lightning storm on its way home.
The Coast Guard said crews would continue focusing on waters off northern Florida and southern Georgia into Wednesday.
The saga began Friday. A line of summer storms moved through the area that afternoon, and when the teens didn’t return on time, the Coast Guard was alerted. The 19-foot boat was found overturned Sunday off Ponce Inlet, more than 180 miles north of where the boys started their journey. The search has continued day and night, as their families try to maintain hope against the fading odds of the teens’ survival.
“As time goes on, certainly the probability of finding someone alive does decrease, but we’re still within the timeframe where it’s definitely possible to find somebody alive,” said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Ryan Doss, noting others have survived days or even a week at sea. “We know it can happen and we’re hoping it happens again.”