Small craft advisories have nothing to do with size of boat

A small craft caution issued Sunday morning to warn boaters of seas expected to reach 4 to 6 feet didn’t deter four people who set off from Stuart in a 24-foot Sea Ray. 

Three of them, including a 9-year-old boy, died. 

But what is considered a small craft? Calls to Fort Pierce tackle stores and local charter captains came up with definitions that ranged from 18 feet to more than 60 feet.

A 24-foot Sea Ray boat washes ashore south of the St. Lucie Inlet . Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy Fernandas Jones, 51, his 9-year-old son Jaden and Willis Bell, drown after the boat took on water and sunk. Robert Stewart, who was on the boat and was found alive Monday morning. (WPTV NewsChannel 5)

A 24-foot Sea Ray boat washes ashore south of the St. Lucie Inlet . Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputy Fernandas Jones, 51, his 9-year-old son Jaden and Willis Bell, drown after the boat took on water and sunk. (WPTV NewsChannel 5)

In fact, the National Weather Service doesn’t define “small craft” and the terms have nothing to do with the length or width of the boat at all, according to a NWS spokesman.

See full coverage of Stuart boaters here. 

Susan Buchanan said she posed The Palm Beach Post’s question about the definition of a small craft to the NWS marine services team. Here’s what she got back:

“The phrases ‘Small Craft Advisory’ and ‘Small Craft Should Exercise Caution’ are not about the length or width of the vessel. They are in fact not about the vessel at all.  They are decision support notices, additional terms added to a forecast to allow the operator or captain of the vessel to pay closer attention to the information which will follow in order to decide if he or she should proceed, and know in advance what conditions are occurring and expected.”

It’s unknown if Fernandas Jones, the Palm Beach County sheriff’s corrections deputy and lifelong fisherman, checked the marine forecast before leaving at about 8 a.m. from Sandsprit Park in Stuart.

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The beach near where a body was found south of the House of Refuge at 301 SE MacArthur Blvd in Martin County on April 11, 2016. Three people died and one survived after a boating accident Sunday. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

But an hour later, his 24-foot vessel started taking on water in the stern.

“They went fishing at 8 a.m. yesterday morning, got outside to 80 feet of water and the boat swamped immediately,” said Martin County Sheriff William Snyder. “They clung to the boat for a period of time and one by one were not able to stay with the boat and drowned.”

The National Weather Service in Melbourne had issued a caution for small vessels on Sunday, an alert triggered when sustained winds are forecast to be 17 to 23 mph and seas are expected to reach 4 to 6 feet.

The caution is a lower warning level than an advisory, which is issued when winds are forecast to reach speeds of more than 23 mph and seas swell to between 5 and 7 feet.

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Still, David Knight, captain of a 65-foot charter fishing boat in Stuart, cancelled a trip he had scheduled for Sunday after reading the forecast. While his Lady Stuart I, at more than twice the length of the Sea Ray, can handle itself when caution alerts are issued, he doesn’t take it out when east winds are forecast to blow more than 20 mph.

“We don’t like to punish our customers,” Knight said. “With an east wind, it has time to gather energy, and the potential to build pretty big seas.”

Knight said he considers any boat under 64 feet to be small because larger vessels fall under different marine regulations.

The National Weather Service says in an explanation of a “small craft advisory” that “any vessel that may be adversely affected by small craft advisory criteria should be considered a small craft.”

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