KEY LARGO -- Boat captain Noah Cullen set sail by himself Monday morning from his mother’s house in Key Largo, but something went terribly wrong during his return to shore.
His 28-foot sailboat, Jubilee, was spotted drifting near Dixie Shoal, in water about 300 feet deep and about seven nautical miles northeast of Molasses Reef, at 2:30 p.m. Nobody was aboard, and a lightning storm had just passed through the area.
The boater took a picture of the vessel, which clearly was taking on water and looked like it was about to sink, and alerted authorities.
Since then, the Coast Guard has conducted at least nine searches by air and sea, covering 1,100 nautical square miles, said Petty Officer Jon-Paul Rios of Coast Guard District 7. The Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department’s Emergency Water Team, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office and individuals with boats and aircraft also searched. As of Tuesday evening, there was no sighting of Cullen, 24, or his boat.
“I’m hoping that he just swam and swam through the night,” his mother, Tanya Cleary, said Tuesday afternoon. “He might just be so exhausted that he is sleeping somewhere in the mangroves. That’s the best-case scenario I’m thinking about right now.”
Rob Bleser, captain of the Emergency Water Team, said his team searched all day, from Port Largo to Ocean Reef in North Key Largo. “All we can do now is cross our fingers at this point and hope he is on dry land, making his way back,” Bleser said.
After Cullen started his trip at his mother’s house off mile marker 100, he and his boat with a Bahamian flag were spotted at noon Monday at French Reef by a boat captain with Quiessence Dive Center.
“He had just gotten out of the water after free diving and was witnessed setting sail toward shore,” Bleser said. “The captain watching him was impressed with his abilities.”
At that point Cullen was under full sail, and Bleser said his boat captain watched him go as far as White Bank Dry Docks, which is about 3 miles from shore. About an hour after Cullen left French Reef, the storm rolled in.
“There was lots of lightning, heavy rain and winds up to 25 knots,” said Stephen Chesser, a meteorologist at the National Weather Station in Key West.
At first, when Cleary heard her son was free diving by himself, she feared he might have suffered a shallow water blackout, when a free diver loses consciousness close to the surface.
“But when I saw the report that he got back on the boat and headed toward Dry Rocks, we think he was done free diving for the day and was headed in,” Cleary said.
When the sailboat was seen drifting, its anchor was up, another sign that it was a boating accident and not a free-diving mishap.
The sailboat’s front mast was reefed, indicating that Cullen ran into heavy winds.
The sailboat was seen drifting several miles northeast from the Dry Rocks, which likely means it was going in that direction due to the currents or storm winds.
Cullen recently had painted the boat’s hull and had taken it for a sail with no problems on Saturday. “I don’t think the boat was defective in any way,” Cleary said.
Cullen, a 2008 graduate of Coral Shores High School in the Upper Keys, is an experienced sailor. His mother said he began taking lessons at just 5 years old, and was a natural.
“He is a water boy,” she said.
Cullen also is a dive master and had acquired his 50-ton captain’s license.
He has sailed solo to the Bahamas.
“I worried much more about him doing that than this,” Cleary said. “He assured me when he went to the Bahamas he was tethered to his boat and had a spot locator. I think this time he was so close to home he was comfortable in his environment and was not tethered. I don’t think he had his spot locator on.”
If Cullen was knocked off his boat in the storm, Cleary takes some comfort knowing that her son is an adventurer. “My friend always said if we were on Survivor or some other disaster show, they’d want Noah with us.”
Cullen has read survival books, knew the waters off Key Largo “like the back of his hand,” can navigate by the stars, is a strong swimmer and has camped out in the Everglades, his mother said.
His adventuresome spirit also led to him getting a pilot’s license at just 17.
“I think he soloed after only nine hours in the air,” Cleary said. “He taught himself mostly on a simulator.”
Two years ago, Cullen’s father died unexpectedly. So he started helping out his mother at the family business, Dream Bay Resorts in Key Largo.
“He recently was going to go back to college,” she said. “He had enrolled at FKCC [Florida Keys Community College] for marine biology.”
Cleary is holding out hope that her son will be found soon.
“It really was agony to go through last night, thinking of him floating in the water in the dark,” she said. “But I know if anybody can survive this, Noah can.”