Search ends for missing boat with 20 people aboard, but questions abound

Wayne K. Roustan, South Florida Sun Sentinel

Was it a pleasure cruise or a human smuggling operation? These are just two of the many questions surrounding the disappearance of a 29-foot boat with an estimated 20 people aboard that the U.S. Coast Guard stopped searching for about noon Friday.

The search covered more than 17,000 square miles, over 80 hours, between the Bahamas and Florida since the vessel — described as a blue-and-white Mako Cuddy Cabin — was reported overdue in Lake Worth Beach on Tuesday by Bahamian authorities.

The volunteer Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association [BASRA] was among those searching. Operations manager Chris Lloyd said Saturday there are several reasons it looks like a smuggling operation that either evaded detection or was swallowed up by rough seas.

“It left Grand Bahama, we understand, with 10 people and went to Bimini and picked up more people and, already, 10 people is over capacity for that boat,” he said. “To go to Bimini is totally the opposite direction of going to Lake Worth, so the purpose of going to Bimini is to pick up more people.”

That information was received from mariners who regularly chat with BASRA, he said.

Seas were very rough last week with 8- to 12-foot waves.

“It was awful, awful, awful weather with no boating whatsoever,” he said. “When you’re overloaded and the conditions are like that, things can happen terribly quickly.”

Lloyd said smugglers might head for Lake Worth Beach thinking there are fewer law enforcement patrols near inlets in Boynton Beach or West Palm Beach than busier inlets in Broward or Miami-Dade counties.

Coast Guard air and sea crews and aircraft from Patrick Air Force base in Brevard County were assisting the Royal Bahamas Defence Force and BASRA volunteers during the search.

Lloyd said it’s difficult to know where to look when there is so much vague information. No one seems to know the name of the boat, the names of people on the boat, exactly how many people were on the boat, and whether the boat was stolen. No signal was received from any Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) either.

While the official search is over, Lloyd said boaters are still keeping an eye out for any vessel or debris matching the missing boat’s description.

Anyone with information can contact the U.S. Coast Guard District Seven Command Center at 305-415-6800 or Nassau-based BASRA at 242-325-8864.

Wayne K. Roustan can be reached at wkroustan@sunsentinel.com or 561-379-6119 or on Twitter @WayneRoustan