BRADENTON - For those living on the inland waterways in the Lychee Acres development, it's a tight knit community. Especially when it comes to boating. So when word got out that Patrick Mullins had disappeared while out on his 16-foot Stumpknocker, residents did what came naturally.
They jumped in their boats and headed out.
Nicholas Routh and his grandfather rode in their airboat and cruised up and down the often shallow and sandy channels in search of Mullins.
"It's hard to find the guy, especially within the dark waters we have in everything here," Routh said. Both were joined by other neighbors in various sized vessels scouring the small channels that feed into the Manatee River. Routh said he spent at least six hours searching.
"Yeah, everybody on the river was looking for him today," Routh said.
But Mullins was not found.
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office used a helicopter to search the inlets from overhead. The Coast Guard had larger boats searching the open water. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had investigators in the area. Despite the effort, Mullins' disappearance remains a mystery.
Some of his neighbors speculated he had a medical issue while he was on the boat, and accidentally fell overboard. FWC officials pointed out that the chances for survival in the below-70 degree water would depend upon how quickly one could get out, as hypothermia would quickly set in.
The biggest break in the search came with the recovery of Mullins' boat, which was discovered near Egmont Key, a wildlife refuge located southwest of Fort De Soto Park, at the mouth of Tampa Bay.
It was floating unanchored at sea. The vintage Evinrude 25 engine still worked, although the first of two gas tanks was empty. An emergency whistle was hanging on its hook. Mullins' straw hat was sitting conspicuously in the boat, without its owner.
Considering how far the vessel was found from its home in Lychee Acres, residents speculated the boat was near the Manatee River when the tide caught it and pulled it out to sea.
Routh said it's been tough dealing with the possibility his neighbor is gone.
"I went to school with both of his kids and grew up with them," he said.
It's not the first time Routh has dealt with tragedies at sea. Two of his friends died in the Gulf of Mexico after departing from Sarasota. In one instance, the victim's body was recovered many miles south at Boca Grande, an exclusive island near Ft. Myers.
Coming from a family with decades of maritime experience, Routh said there are always risks no matter how many times you've been out on the water.
"There are a lot of things that can kill you," Routh said. "Especially in a boat."
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