FWC investigation continuing
Riley Baugh of Bradenton, an 18-year-old working with the Sarasota Youth Sailing program, has been identified as the operator of a motorized vessel that reportedly struck several sailboats during a youth practice event on Nov. 21, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has confirmed.
One child, 10-year-old Ethan Isaacs, died following the incident, FWC said.
A May Sarasota Youth Sailing (SYS) “Senior Spotlight!” post on the program’s Facebook page featured Baugh, The Sarasota News Leader found. That post quoted the young man: “For the past 4 years, Sarasota Youth Sailing has been a second home for me. My coaches and teammates made me feel welcome even though I did not grow up sailing Optis with the program. [He was referring to a type of sailboat.] SYS provides many opportunities for people looking to either have fun and enjoy sailing with friends or push their sailing abilities to the next level,” Baugh continued. “Being able to participate in 4 different teams helped me make multiple contacts in the sailing world and further my knowledge and skills in the sport. Thank you to everyone involved for making the past few years of sailing the best part of my high school career. Thank you SYS, and good luck in the future to everyone who goes through the program.”
The post noted that Baugh was planning to attend the University of South Florida in Tampa this fall, where he would study mechanical engineering and compete on the university’s sailing team. The News Leader also located information online showing that he had attended Manatee High School.
Although the News Leader found online links to SYS information indicating that Baugh was a coach of the club’s Green Fleet group, the pages appeared to have been removed from the SYS website.
On its website, SYS says it “offers our deepest and heartfelt condolences to the family of the Green Fleet Sailor who was involved in [the Nov. 21] tragedy. This sailor was one of our new and amazing team members and a beloved member of our program, as is his entire family. This is a tragedy for the entire family, the sailor’s friends, schoolmates, and all those who knew, loved and sailed with him. Sarasota Youth Sailing is supporting all individuals involved as they process [the Nov. 21] event.”
A document available through the SYS website offers specific details about the Green Fleet Sailors. It says, “Green fleet is for intermediate and advanced level sailors to learn the skills necessary for competition.” The website adds, “During green fleet practice, sailors will concentrate on skills and habits that will help them progress to handle their boats more efficiently around a course. … Children ages 8-14 are welcome to join the green fleet.”
The News Leader also found registration forms indicating Baugh’s participation in sailing races, including the 71st Annual Sarasota Sailing Squadron Labor Day Regatta in September 2017 and a Sailing Squadron regatta in 2019. Sarasota Youth Sailing was identified as his club on those forms.
The youth sailing program operates out of the Sailing Squadron’s facilities located at 1717 Ken Thompson Parkway on City Island, near Mote Marine Laboratory.
An ongoing investigation
In FWC’s most recent formal statement about the Nov. 21 incident — released on Nov. 25 — FWC announced that, based on preliminary information from witnesses as of that time, the operator of a 20-foot powerboat that was involved in the Sarasota Youth Sailing (SYS) practice on the morning of Nov. 21 was assisting a child “who was experiencing issues with his vessel.” During that process, the statement continued, the operator of the powerboat — identified this week as Baugh — “lost his footing and fell, resulting in the vessel being activated into gear and the operator being thrown from the vessel.”
The powerboat continued, unmanned, and struck several 8-foot sailboats that were part of the youth sailing practice, the statement pointed out. The powerboat operator eventually was able to regain control of his vessel, it noted.
When the News Leader asked about the latter part of the statement, Melody Kilborn, FWC’s Southwest Region public information director, explained during a Nov. 30 telephone interview that, apparently following the collisions, the powerboat slowed down enough that the operator was able to climb back on board and get the vessel under control.
The child who died as a result of the incident — Ethan Isaacs — appeared to have been struck by the propeller of that motorized vessel, according to a person who called 911. The caller, who was on a boat not involved with the SYS program, told the 911 dispatcher that the child was wearing a lifejacket and that it appeared the child’s boat had capsized.
A News Leader review of the Nov. 21 weather data from Weather Underground showed average wind speed that day was 9.54 mph with maximum wind of 22 mph and a gust up to 31 mph. In two of the three 911 calls the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office released with reports of the Youth Sailing incident, the News Leader heard wind noise. One caller was difficult to understand because of that noise.
When the man who made the first 911 call came upon the scene to offer assistance, he told the dispatcher, the child was hanging onto an inflatable boat. The man added that an instructor with SYS appeared to be trying to help the child.
(A video on the Sarasota Youth Sailing website shows what appear to be rigid inflatable boats — RIBs —in the water near youth sailors. An RIB, as described by Wikipedia, is “a lightweight but high-performance and high-capacity unsinkable boat constructed with a rigid hull bottom joined to side-forming air tubes that are inflated with air to a high pressure so as to give the sides resilient rigidity along the boat’s topsides. … The inflated collar acts as a life jacket, ensuring that the vessel retains its buoyancy, even if the boat is taking on water.”)
A woman who took the phone at one point during the same 911 call reported that the child had been brought aboard the bystanders’ boat and that he was bleeding from the back and head.
After the man on that boat took the phone back from the woman, the dispatcher asked if the man had a T-shirt or towel that could be used to try to stop the bleeding.
“No. No.” the man responded.
The caller insisted several times that help was needed right away. “It’s pretty bad,” the man said.
The dispatcher continued to assure the caller that the Sarasota Police Department had officers on the way. Just before the nearly 10-minute call ended, a siren could be heard in the background.
Early during the call, the man explained that “a lot of small sailboats” were in the bay. The injured child was near the Ringling Causeway Bridge when the man went over to try to offer assistance, the man told the dispatcher.
(All mentions of identification related to the man and woman who spoke with the dispatcher were eliminated from the recording.)
Asked on Dec. 2 about the potential of charges being filed against Baugh, Kilborn of FWC wrote in an email, “Every boating accident that is investigated by FWC has the potential for criminal charges and this accident is no different. Examining the potential for impairment is standard procedure with each accident investigation,” she added. However, she continued, “I cannot comment regarding what evidence was collected from the scene at this time. Charges have not been ruled out but I cannot speak to whether they will be filed in the future because this investigation is still active and ongoing. If charges were to be filed, they would come from the FWC. We are working closely with the State Attorney’s Office.”
During the Nov. 30 telephone interview with the News Leader, Kilborn emphasized that representatives of the agency were continuing to interview witnesses of the Nov. 21 incident.
“It’s been pretty difficult getting all those witness statements,” she added. Because the Sarasota Youth Sailing club was conducting a practice session at the time of the incident, she added, a lot of people were on the water.
“It’s been a very difficult situation,” Kilborn said.
Kilborn also stressed FWC’s continued concern about the family of the child who died, as well as the families of two other youngsters who also suffered injuries. The names of those children were protected under Marsy’s Law, FWC pointed out in one of its statements.
A Nov. 23 update from FWC noted, “Both [of those] juveniles received medical care for their non-life-threatening injuries.”
The original FWC statement, issued on Nov. 21, said that, at approximately 11:30 a.m., the agency “received a report from the Sarasota Police Department of a boating accident in Sarasota Bay” that involved two vessels operating just north of the Ringling Causeway that were taking part in a youth club sailing practice.
The SYS calendar for November indicated the Green Fleet practice was to begin at 10 a.m. that day.
“The FWC, Sarasota Police Department and Sarasota County Fire all responded to the scene,” the FWC’s Nov. 21 statement continued. “One person, a juvenile under the age of 13, sustained serious injuries from the accident and was transported to the hospital. Sadly, the injured juvenile passed away from his injuries. We send our sincerest condolences to the friends and family of those involved in this accident and will continue to keep those impacted by this tragic incident in our thoughts and prayers for the difficult days ahead.”
The second FWC statement was issued on Nov. 23. That reported, “There were numerous individuals that were present during this incident and FWC investigators are working hard to interview each and every one of them. While this may impact the speed of the investigation, it is a very important aspect of conducting a thorough boating accident investigation. The FWC continues to be the lead and will provide additional updates when they are available.”
The earlier statements and the one on Nov. 25 emphasized, “If anyone witnessed this incident or has any additional information, please call the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922).”
Genevieve Judge, the public information officer for the Police Department, also told the News Leader on Nov. 30 that she would be unable at that time to release any of that department’s reports of the incident. “FWC is the lead on everything so all information would need to come from them,” Judge wrote in an email.
The Sarasota Youth Sailing program
Sarasota Youth Sailing is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, its website points out.
After it began as a summer camp program, SYS grew to the point at which it had approximately 400 youths ages 5 to 18 participating each year, its website notes.
Then, in 1994, the website continues, “[T]he SYS Race Team was formed. Sailors competed locally, regionally, and nationally,” sailing in Optimist, 420 and Laser sailboats.
About 80 sailors participate in the year-round program, the website points out.
On its Guidestar page, the club says, “We strive to impart a love of sailing as a life sport while providing the fundamental skills necessary for participants to advance in the sport as far as their desire, skill and hard work may take them. SYS promotes ethical behavior among its sailors and encourages the teaching of life-long lessons which seek to build character, foster teamwork, self-reliance and strengthen respect for the marine environment.” (Guidestar provides details about nonprofit organizations.)