Lone survivor: Louisiana man tells of 37 harrowing hours near Alligator Point floating in Gulf of Mexico
Eight months ago, a few miles off the quiet beach of Alligator Point, Beaumon Rogers endured the loss of both his older brother and his best friend to the lonely waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
He nearly perished along with them; his 60-year-old body pummeled by a day-and-half clinging to a seat cushion in the 75-degree mid-October waters.
“I was in pretty bad shape, seconds away from death,” said Beau recently, from the Bogota offices of ERM, a global provider of environmental consulting services, one of more than 160 offices in over 40 countries. “The rescue swimmer said he thought it was too late. I was sinking when he pulled me out.”
A senior partner in the firm, Beau left his home in Madisonville, Louisiana, just upriver from Lake Ponchartrain, on the last flight out in late March, and is weathering the coronavirus pandemic in the capital city of Colombia, a country in the northwest corner of South America, with a coastline that stretches from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
But back on that Saturday night, Oct. 19, he, older brother Sands, and best friend Darren Loyal Peterson did what they could to outlast a catastrophe with long odds of survival, a sudden dump off a sinking 49-foot cabin cruiser into rough Gulf waters, whipped up by a departing Tropical Storm Nestor.
The tragic trip began a week earlier, in Edgewater, New Jersey, according to a report assembled by Investigator James Bryant of field work done by a team of officers working out of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Carrabelle office.
Boat needed repair before setting out
Peterson, who would have turned 47 two weeks ago, paid $27,500 to purchase a 1989 Cary Marine twin diesel motorboat, a classic high-performance express cruiser. After doing all he could to get the vessel seaworthy, he set out Oct. 12 for New Orleans with his wife Lisa aboard as first mate, and best friend Beau, to help operate the watercraft.
“(He) made several trips performing maintenance repairs prior to getting underway on the voyage,” wrote Bryant.
The trio steered the “Old School” down the Hudson River and south to Ocean City, Maryland, where they docked at Sunset Marina for the night.
They headed out early at 5 a.m. But just before 1 p.m., the vessel encountered problems with a fuel filter off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, which forced them to overnight in Wrightsville, North Carolina, to refuel and make the needed repairs.
On Monday, they continued south to Charleston, South Carolina where they dropped off Lisa Peterson to fly back to the couple’s home in Montrose, Colorado, and continued on to Jacksonville.
There they picked up Wallace Sands Rogers, Beau’s older brother by two years, who flew there from his home in Little Rock, Arkansas, to join them for the rest of the trip.
On Tuesday they stayed the night in Stuart, and the next day cut across the peninsula, through Lake Okeechobee, arriving on Thursday afternoon at Twin Rivers Marina in Crystal River, for refueling.
An FWC interview with a marina employee said he told the captain the starboard engine was steaming more than it should have been, and that the stern was too low in the water, but was advised the vessel wasn't having any problems.
On Thursday, gale force winds were observed off the Panhandle coast. After they weakened and slowed, they were at first defined only as an extratropical cyclone, but by evening were named Tropical Storm Nestor. By Saturday the storm’s remnant had made landfall in St. Vincent Island, with winds up to 45 mph.
As a post-tropical cyclone, Nestor hurled devastating tornadoes at Hillsborough, Polk and Lee counties, and birthed four-foot storm surges and flash flooding in western Florida. By Monday, Oct. 21, it was absorbed into another extratropical storm off the Atlantic coast of the Southeast.
That same morning a Coast Guard helicopter pulled out of the Gulf of Mexico a fragile Beau Rogers, on the verge of drowning.
Trouble with an engine two miles from land
The Old School left Crystal River on that fateful Saturday about 10 a.m., and was on the water close to eight hours as it hugged the Panhandle coast all day. West winds gradually decreased to 25 knots, with gusts of close to 40. The morning’s 23-foot seas slowly subsided to six feet, and protected waters from very rough to a light chop.
At around 8 p.m., “we were less than two miles from the inlet at Alligator Point. We had cell phone coverage and would have been in in five minutes,” said Beau.
He told investigators “the vessel had been getting pounded hard from the waves for hours and he had noticed the vessel steering was sluggish and then one of the engines went down.
“He then opened the engine hatch and noticed water halfway up the engines, so he shut them down. Immediately after both engines went down, the wind turned the stern of the boat into the waves. Two big waves hit, and the boat went down in probably three minutes but seemed liked seconds,” wrote Bryant.
“The stern is quite lower and with water in it even lower,” Beau recalled, over the telephone. “The waves broke over the back of the boat and flooded it. The boat lost power with a stern full of water, and a second wave took the boat.”
Beau, who returned to work in January, said he has since examined charts for the wave period and height for that time and place, and believes there were three waves, six seconds apart. “It took about 18 seconds,” he said.
The force of the water trapped him in the cockpit, as he struggled to grab life vests and the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) which would have sent an alert that likely would have brought rescuers to the men in short order.
“Darren swam down and got me out. I was completely disoriented and it was dark,” Beau said. “I didn’t realize the boat had settled vertically; I kept running to the canopy. I would still be there if Darren hadn’t swam down and got me. He pulled me out.”
Sensing the boat was going under, the men grabbed all they could to stay afloat. These turned out to be seat cushions, a life sling (a horseshoe-shaped flotation collar) and a life ring, and they managed to stay together while the wind and currents swept them away from the boat. Peterson was in the ring, Sands Rogers hanging on the sling and Beau Rogers holding on the cushions his brother had grabbed.
“We couldn’t catch the boat,” he said.
The men tied the cushions together with some rope, and as the current pulled them east, they could see lights from the shore in the distance.
“All three men kicked for hours in an attempt to make it to the shore but realized it wasn't helping due to the rough sea state,” wrote Bryant.
“We could see shores the whole day on Sunday. We could see people walking on the beach,” Beau said.
’He couldn’t hear us, couldn’t see us’
As the men waited, Beau said they saw two boats pass in the vicinity, one a shrimp boat coming out of the inlet at Alligator Point, and the other the size of a dinghy with an outboard, possibly a tender for a larger boat.
“The closest was actually on Sunday morning, about 200 yards from us,” he said. “He couldn’t hear us, couldn’t see us.”
It wasn’t until around 5 p.m. on Sunday that a local shrimper saw the boat sticking up in the water about four miles offshore, with no one aboard. It was then authorities soon discovered exactly who they were looking for.
The FWC and the Coast Guard quickly launched a massive search operation, analyzing everything from where and when the GPS signal Lisa Peterson had been tracking had stopped transmitting, to cell phone forensics, to calls made to the previous owner, to a swarm of personnel brought in to see what they could in the waters up and down that western end of the county.
The men spotted the Coast Guard search and rescue efforts underway, but despaired when it seemed that as the search efforts progressed, the helicopters and planes were searching further to the south of their location.
“It was at this point where they began to lose hope and feared they may not be located and rescued. So, they decided since they believed to only be a mile or so offshore, it was their best chance to try to swim to the shore since the seas had calmed down,” wrote Bryant.
“Darren Peterson being the youngest and in the best shape, he would attempt to swim to shore while still in the life ring. All three men agreed,” wrote the investigator. “Beaumon Rogers advised he looked at his brother Wallace’s watch and it was 8:30 p.m. when Darren Peterson left the group and swam for shore.”
Rogers said they caught frustrating glimpses of the Coast Guard’s MH-65 Dolphin and MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters, and the 25-foot and 45-foot response boats dispatched out of Coast Guard Station Panama City.
“The hardest part was watching them search in the wrong place,” Beau said. “Darren left us Sunday to try to swim to shore to call someone to come get us.
“He never did make it, and we’ll never know exactly what happened,” he said. “They never found his body.”
Life ring reveals shark bite marks
Before the search for Peterson was called off by week’s end, during tense days when family members had flown in and gathered, the Coast Guard located a broken life ring.
After consultation with Dr. R. Dean Grubbs, associate director of research at the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory, it was determined an eight-foot bull shark was linked to Peterson’s death.
Because bite marks were in a matching pattern on both sides of the ring, they were consistent with both the upper and lower jaw making contact, Grubbs wrote in his report.
“In some series, the tooth pattern arches as a majority of the teeth in jaws punctured the ring,” he wrote. “The shape of the marks on both sides of the ring provides some indication of the likely shark species.”
One side of the ring created slices, and the opposite side punctures, so a tiger shark could be ruled out, since its teeth all have the same shape and often produce a slightly curved slice, wider on one end, when they penetrate.
“Many requiem sharks, such as bull sharks, sandbar sharks, dusky sharks, have teeth in the upper jaw that are more triangular (producing a slice) whereas the lower jaw teeth are narrow (producing a puncture),” Grubbs wrote. “From the angle of the bite arch, the shark’s was quite large and this is also supported by the fact that once the life ring was broken, the shark was able to fit the diameter of the ring tube in its mouth and bit it multiple times.”
His conclusion of the most likely candidate was based on the width of the upper jaw teeth, the tooth spacing and the bite radius. “This is also Florida's most common large requiem shark that would produce such bite marks,” he wrote.
Sands slips quietly into the sea
By midnight Sunday, and into the pitch black early morning hours, Beau and his brother could see the Coast Guard aircraft overhead, but had no way to signal them. And not long after Peterson had left for shore, Sands’ energy was severely waning.
“(He) began displaying signs of hypothermia and was making statements that made no sense,” wrote Bryant. “Beaumon continued to tell Wallace that they were going to make it and survive in attempt to keep his hopes alive.”
Utterly exhausted from more than a day in the water, the two men would fall asleep periodically.
“Beaumon had to pull Wallace (Sands) up from the water several times because he kept slipping off from the seat cushions,” read the report. “Sometime during the night, Beaumon awoke and his brother was gone. He knew he had gone under the water and didn’t have enough strength to hold onto the seat cushions any longer.”
Beau said his brother was at his side for about 32 hours, the final ones in his arms.
“My brother died watching the helicopter, he died before it got light,” said Beau. “By the time my brother died, I knew Darren didn’t make it.”
Beau said he has no recollection of seeing the aircraft, he had passed out, as it zoomed in and divers lifted him from the waters by 9:30 a.m. Monday, a good 37 hours from when he had been catapulted into the sea.
“I remember sinking and the next thing I knew I was lying on my back in the helicopter,” he said.
Ravaged by hypothermia, a primary factor in his brother’s drowning death, and in critical condition from kidney and liver failure, Beau was rushed to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, where he slowly regained his strength.
By Friday, against the advice of doctors, he decided to travel to Little Rock to say the formal goodbye to his brother that the cruel waters had forbidden.
“I had to go to my brother’s funeral. They would have kept me through the weekend,” Beau said.
Not long after the church service, he traveled with Sands’ daughter to the lake house in Arkansas, where they scattered her father’s ashes.
After that, Beau hired a recovery company to tow the Old School closer to shore, where it sat for a few months. The remains are now in the yard of the Carrabelle FWC office.
“They moved it into shallow water and it was just sitting there and people started stripping the boat,” he said. “Vandals had destroyed the boat, ripping the transom out of it, and stealing one of the outdrives.
“These are 40-year-old electronics; they must have thought they were worth something,” he said. “They stole all our clothes, they stole everything. They stripped everything out of it; I have no idea why.”
Beau also is reckoning with why the tragedy unfolded as it did, coming from a man who has crossed the Atlantic three times in small 50-foot sailboats.
“I didn’t want to die,” he said.