Boaters were ‘itching to go’

Josh Gilman was really looking forward to a boat trip to Honduras.

He got the opportunity when Raynell Wood brought him a 26-foot canoe to fix up.

Massive search continued Tuesday

A photo of the 26-foot canoe at the Harbour House Marina Tuesday. Photo: Stuart Wilson

Astor Range and Jamie Avila wanted to go fishing, and 13-year-old Michelle Wood was accompanying her father on what was supposed to be a 12-hour trip around Grand Cayman aimed at testing out the craft’s capabilities before making the longer journey.

At press time Tuesday, none of the five missing boaters who were seen leaving Newlands dock Sunday morning had turned up – and hope that they might still be alive was fading fast.

‘We’re still hoping for a miracle,’ said Ian Tibbetts, one of the hundreds of volunteer searchers who assisted in blanketing the North Sound Monday and Tuesday.

LIME confirmed to police search teams that the five canoe occupants had cell phones kept in a dry bag on board and that those phones stopped working around 9.40am Sunday in the Rum Point area.

The canoe was located by the Cayman Islands Helicopters aircraft at 3pm Monday – a police spotter on board made the sighting. The boat’s anchor had gotten hung up on the North Sound reef near the Rum Point channel. The boat was actually located about 200 to 300 yards outside the reef that protects the North Sound – and search crews said seas were so fierce at that time even the police rescue boats couldn’t approach the craft until it had floated back inside the reef.

When the boat was located it had capsized, but there was no visible damage to either the craft’s hull or its engine.

The condition of the seas Monday made many volunteer and professional rescue crews wonder why these boaters decided to go out the day before when the weather was even worse and swells as high as eight feet were being experienced on Grand Cayman’s north side.

The answer to that question – why – begins around the holiday season, according to Josh Gilman’s father-in-law.

‘They were planning on taking that boat to Honduras,’ said John Gaustad. ‘Josh had made that trip before in a dory (type of canoe).’

‘He was definitely itching to go on that trip. He had that look in his eye – a young man going to Honduras on a boat. He was excited.’

Mr. Gilman is a well-known boat repairman, particularly known in Cayman for his excellent work in painting watercraft. His biological father, Charlie Gilman, did the same work in the Islands decades ago.

Mr. Wood, who owns the craft, sent it to Mr. Gilman to fix. Work in shoring up the hull and outfitting it with a new engine was under way during the two-week Christmas holiday period – and by last weekend the 26-footer was apparently set.

Mr. Gaustad was keeping the craft tied up to the sailboat where he and his wife – Mr. Gilman’s mother – stay in the Rackley’s area of Newlands. The canoe was kept tied to the larger sailboat on the water side so the low craft wouldn’t float under the dock and get stuck or damaged.

He said he heard someone Sunday morning untying the canoe to take it out.

‘It took him eight times before he could get the engine to start,’ Mr. Gaustad said.

Mr. Gaustad said he didn’t realise Mr. Gilman had gone on the boat with the others until Mr. Wood’s wife and Mr. Gilman’s girlfriend came looking for them on Sunday night after 10pm. According to friends of the Wood family, Mr. Wood’s wife was due to go on the trip but didn’t because she had to work on Sunday.

Mr. Avila, who works as a fire fighter at the West Bay station, was initially scheduled to a Sunday shift but took time off to go on the trip.

‘At this stage, I’m just hoping that they find him,’ said Chief Fire Officer Dennom Bodden, adding that there have only been two firefighters who have died while they were still in the employ of the Cayman Islands Fire Service in his 37 years there. ‘I don’t want him to be the third.’

Mr. Range is a long-time employee of LIME (formerly Cable and Wireless) where he worked in IT. His young son spent most of the day Monday standing on the Newlands dock awaiting news.

‘I’ve known Astor for 20 years,’ Mr. Tibbetts said Monday. ‘I don’t want to think about him being gone.’

On Tuesday, both volunteer and marine unit searches continued. At noon, some eight to nine boats were scouring the reef outside the North Sound along with a helicopter. Individual searchers on Jet Skis were leaving periodically from the Newlands dock – police operations were centred out of the George Town Barcadere.

Police said they also intended to put divers in the water to search for the missing boaters. Aircraft from the Mosquito Control Unit, a fixed-wing craft from the Ritz-Carlton and a private helicopter from the Octopus yacht had joined in the search as well.

‘While we remain hopeful, we do have to be realistic,’ said RCIPS Chief Inspector Courtney Myles. ‘With each day that passes we have to accept that the likelihood of finding the five missing people alive reduces.’

Volunteer searchers were welcomed by police, but they were asked to phone the command centre set up for the search at 814-7811 to assist.

Caymanian Compass journalist Basia Pioro contributed to this report.

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