8 rescued from rafts in St. Helena Sound after drifting 2 miles offshore

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comJuly 9, 2012 

This photo, taken from a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, shows firefighters with Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District and Fripp Island Sea Rescue crewmen rescuing the family of eight after their inflatable rafts drifted out into St. Helena Sound.

SUBMITTED PHOTO — Submitted photo

Eight people, including five children, were lucky to make it safely back to shore Monday after gusting winds and strong tides carried them nearly two miles off the coast of Harbor Island in four inflatable rafts, authorities say.

The Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District, Fripp Island Fire Department and Fripp Island Sea Rescue were called at about 5 p.m. to reports of eight people in the water off Harbor Island, said Paul Field, skipper of Fripp Island Sea Rescue.

Field said three adults and five children -- ages 3, 6, 9, 11 and 13 -- piled into four inflatable rafts from a beach on Harbor Island about two hours earlier. They underestimated the strength of the winds and tides and were swept toward the mouth of St. Helena Sound.

One of the adults was able to swim back to Harbor Island where she alerted authorities, Field said.

They later told firefighters they only had a total of two oars among the four rafts, said Lee Levesque, spokesman for the Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District.

Only two of the children were wearing life preservers, according to authorities.

Field and members of Fripp Island Sea Rescue estimated the wind speed Monday at about 15 to 20 knots, or 17 to 23 mph, with seas of 3 to 5 feet.

Soon after being spotted by a nearby shrimp boat, firefighters on a pair of personal watercrafts and members of Fripp Island Sea Rescue made a beeline for the stranded swimmers' last known location and pulled them from the rafts as a Coast Guard helicopter hovered overhead, Field said.

All eight were returned to shore at about 6 p.m.

The only reported injury was a single case of seasickness, Levesque said.

Field said the story could have had a much different ending.

"They are incredibly lucky," Field said. "It's unbelievable. It's not a miracle, but it is very surprising that no one went overboard or that one of the rafts didn't get punctured or something like that. It's like people come down here sometimes, and they're on vacation so they leave their brains at the gate."

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