FWC releases report on investigation into November 2020 incident that resulted in one death and two injuries
Editor’s note: This article was updated late in the evening of March 15 with a statement from the Sarasota Youth Sailing program.
Having concluded its investigation into the November 2020 Sarasota Youth Sailing program incident that resulted in the death of 10-year-old Ethan Isaacs, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) found probable cause that an 18-year-old man serving as a program instructor was guilty of careless operation of a vessel on the water, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.
The applicable state law, Florida Statute 327.33(2), says that that charge is a noncriminal violation. As further defined in Florida Statute 775.08, that means the person may be punished by “fine, forfeiture, or other civil penalty.”
Melody Kilborn, the public information officer for FWC’s Southwest Region, told the News Leader in a March 9 email that FWC representatives “have been working closely with the State Attorney’s Office throughout this investigation and have consulted with them on many aspects of this case, including any charges. As a result of this investigation, the operator of the 20-foot vessel involved in the boating accident, [Riley] Baugh [of Bradenton], was issued a citation for careless operation of a vessel.”
In a statement it released with the report, FWC said, “Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with Isaacs family, as well as all who were affected and continue to be impacted by this tragic incident.”
The 27-page FWC report — which the News Leader received after making a public records request — says the Youth Sailing incident occurred about 11:12 a.m. on Nov. 21, 2020. The vessels involved were just north of the Ringling Causeway Bridge.
Baugh, an instructor with the program, was operating a 2011 20-foot Caribe inflatable, and multiple children were on 8-foot Optisailor sailboats, the report notes. Baugh “was lying on his stomach assisting a sailor whose vessel had taken on water,” the report adds. Baugh’s head and arms were hanging over the port side sponson while his feet were on the starboard side,” it says.
MarineMax explains that “a sponson is a feature on any watercraft that extends from the hull or other part of the vessel to aid in stability while floating, or to act as a securing point for other equipment.”
“Baugh’s foot struck the throttle,” the FWC report continues, “causing it to shift into gear which ejected him into the water.” The inflatable “began spinning a tight uncontrolled counterclockwise rotation when it struck several Optisailor sailboats.”
While Ethan was killed, the report says, two other children sustained injuries. Ethan who could swim and who was wearing a lifejacket, was sitting at the stern of his vessel at the time the Caribe struck it, the report explains.
One of the other children, who suffered a laceration to the back of the head, also was ejected from his sailboat, as Ethan was, the report says. The second child suffered a contusion to the lift side of his ribs. He was not thrown from his vessel, the report adds.
Both the other injured children were wearing lifejackets, as well, the report notes. They were not identified because of Marsy’s Law, which allows victims to opt out of being named in law enforcement reports.
The Caribe vessel Baugh was using “has a fiberglass hull with a rubber sponson and is powered by a single, 90-horsepower outboard gasoline engine,” the report says.
In response to the FWC report, the Sarasota Youth Sailing program provided the following statement:
“Sarasota Youth Sailing (SYS) will be forever changed with the loss of Ethan Isaacs. We will always remember Ethan. We have and continue to offer our heartfelt love and prayers for Ethan and the Isaacs family.
“We also recognize the others impacted by these events. In coordination with the Blue Butterfly Family Grief Center and independent counselors, we facilitated getting all individuals the help they need to begin to heal — including Coach Baugh, who has been a part of the SYS community for many years.
“SYS thanks the Blue Butterflies and the counselors who graciously supported our sailing community. We would also like to thank the Sarasota community at large and the entire sailing community for their outpouring of support for Ethan and his family.
“SYS remains dedicated to fulfilling our mission to encourage youth sailors to experience the joy of sailing in a safe and fun environment. To that end, we also thank the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) for its thorough and professional investigation. SYS, which is accredited by US Sailing, will continue to work closely with them and other professional organizations to maintain and enhance our sailing programs.”
From the beginning
On the day of the incident, the report explains, Baugh told an FWC investigator that he arrived at Sarasota Youth Sailing on City Island about 9 a.m., with the students expected around 9:30 a.m. He and a second coach, Julie Forbes, had been planning a youth training event for several days, the report continues. He and Forbes “saw that the winds were higher,” the report adds, but they still felt the wind was “reasonable for their students.”
“The weather conditions for the day,” as detailed in data taken from multiple apps, showed the wind was 11 knots and gusting to 16 knots, the FWC report notes.
Baugh told the FWC investigator that Sarasota Youth Sailing has established a wind speed limit for children learning to sail, but he did not know what it was. Nonetheless, he added, “[T]he other coach and I had set a limit of 14 knots for them, and that is sustained 14 knots.”
(Baugh spoke with the investigator at the office of his attorney, the report points out.)
Because conditions were forecast to be “extremely windy” by noon or 12:30 p.m., the report adds, Baugh said he and Forbes planned to have the students return to shore about 11:40 a.m.
Their plans called for the students to head south toward Bird Key “and then work their way back north into the [Sarasota Sailing Squadron] mooring field,” the report adds. Baugh and Forbes split the students into two groups, with Baugh handling the larger number.
Once Baugh and his sailors reached their turnaround spot, the report says, “Baugh told the students to relax and take a water break.” Then he “noticed the wind and waves were picking up,” the report continues, “so he decided to have the students head back to [Sarasota Youth Sailing].”
He radioed his intentions, the report notes, and Forbes acknowledged them.
As the vessels were turning to make the return trip, the report continues, Baugh saw that one sailor was having trouble, so Baugh went over to that sailboat. Baugh then saw that the vessel was full of water, and the bow was underwater. The report does point out, “Optisail boats are designed with airbags so that they will not sink.”
When Baugh pulled up next to that sailboat, the report continues, he put the Caribe in neutral. “I leaned down to try and help him get some water out of his boat so that he could get going again,” Baugh told the FWC investigator. “At that point,” Baugh said, “I don’t know what happened but all the sudden I’m in the boat, next thing I know … the boat takes off on me and I am thrown from the boat.”
The Caribe “did a total of three turns,” the report says. “On the first turn,” Baugh continued, “I was shoving the kid I was helping out of the way and yelling at others to get out of the way.”
The Caribe flipped hit one child in a sailboat on that first turn, and it flipped the boat over, the report notes. That child was thrown far enough away “that the boat coming around again did not … hit him,” Baugh explained to the investigator.
Baugh attempted to jump back into the inflatable, he added, but he was unable to do so.
On the inflatable’s second pass, Baugh said, “it slammed into Ethan’s boat” and threw him from it. Since Baugh was still trying to get the first child out of the way of the Caribe, Baugh continued, he was unable to make another grab at the inflatable.
On the Caribe’s third pass, Baugh said, “it slammed into Ethan’s boat [again] and then he went under the boat towards the prop. On that third pass Ethan’s boat got stuck underneath mine,” Baugh added, “so that slowed [the Caribe] down enough even though it was still going full throttle.”
Baugh finally was able to get back into the inflatable and kill the engine, he told the investigator.
The Caribe’s propeller struck Ethan “multiple times,” the report says, causing fatal trauma.
Baugh told the investigator that he found Ethan “floating face up in the water with almost no clothing on his body,” the report continues. “The lifejacket had been ripped off, his shoes had been ripped off, shorts had been ripped off,” Baugh said.
The parent of one of the other injured children told an FWC investigator that her child “could see Ethan trying to scramble to get away [as the Caribe approached him], but he was trapped.”
That child then turned his attention to his own sailboat, the parent added, “as it was drifting away.” When the child looked back at Ethan’s boat, the parent said, he did not see Ethan, but he did see Baugh climbing up onto the Caribe by using blue lines on the side of the inflatable.
“[T]he only thing I was worried about was Ethan,” Baugh told the FWC investigator. “I jumped into the water and I grabbed him, saw the extent of his injuries” and tried to get him into the Caribe.
A father and son who were in a vessel nearby, fishing, saw what was happening and called 911, the report notes. The father told an FWC investigator that they pulled up their anchor and went over to help Ethan and Baugh.
They finally were able to get Ethan aboard their boat, the report says.
Afterward, the report notes, Baugh “took off his shirt and gave it to the father — who was referred to as the “Good Samaritan” in the report — to assist with controlling [Ethan’s] bleeding.”
When two officers of Sarasota’s Marine Patrol arrived on the scene, they loaded Ethan onto their vessel and transported him to the north side of the Ringling Bridge, “where they were met by Sarasota County Fire/EMS,” the report adds. Ethan “was conscious during this time,” it notes.
A death and two injuries
Although the Fire Department/EMS crew requested to have Ethan transported to a hospital via helicopter, high winds and incoming stormy weather made conditions impossible for the helicopter to land, the report explains. Therefore, the crew took Ethan to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where he later was pronounced deceased, the report adds.
The other two injured children also were taken to the hospital for treatment, the report says.
The District 12 Medical Examiner’s autopsy on Ethan said that he died from “Multiple Blunt Force Trauma Associated with Drowning.” He suffered fractures of the skull, the upper right arm, the right side of the jaw and both the left tibia and fibula, the report noted. Additionally, it said, lacerated skeletal muscles in his lower left leg were associated with “abundant hemorrhage,” with two deep lacerations extending “to almost encircle the left leg beneath the left knee.”