A Florida man, who works as a lifeguard for Destin Beach Safety, was guarding the Destin Harbor on a personal watercraft when he noticed a pontoon boat drifting past him, heading toward the Gulf of Mexico.
DESTIN — A 22-year-old Destin man was the real hero in a dramatic rescue July 12 near the East Pass as a passing tropical storm churned up the surf.
Stetson Miller, who works as a lifeguard for Destin Beach Safety, was guarding the Destin Harbor on a personal watercraft when he noticed a pontoon boat drifting past him, heading toward the Gulf of Mexico.
The operator didn't wave at Miller or show any signs of distress as he approached the open surf, where some of the swells were taller than the canopy of the rented boat. Miller later learned the operator had run over and cut his own anchor line. When he realized the operator was having trouble starting the engine, Miller followed the boat as it drifted out past the jetties.
Waves were between 6 and 9 feet at the mouth of the Destin Pass, Miller said.
Only three of the passengers, which included an adult male, a 2-year-old and three teens ranging from about 14 to 18, were wearing life jackets when Miller reached the boat.
But Miller wasn't the only one to notice the boat's erratic and dangerous path.
David Parish, who has homes in Destin and Denver, was at the base of the east jetty taking family photos with the big waves in the background. He, too, noted that the boat drifted by without the operator indicating that the vessel was in distress.
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He watched and photographed an Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office boat reach the distressed vessel, then turned around after catching a wave wrong and smashing the wind screen, injuring the deputies on board.
That left Miller and his personal watercraft as the lone responder.
"I was staying right next to them the whole time to make sure if the boat did flip, they'd have something to hold onto," he said.
A 45-foot Coast Guard vessel arrived but couldn't get close enough to the boat to help those on board. Miller said he and Coast Guard officials decided passengers should be transferred from the distressed boat to the larger vessel by Miller.
But by the time he reached the boat and got the 2-year-old and a younger teen onto the sled behind his watercraft, the Coast Guard boat had drifted so far out that the beach was closer.
He instructed the older child to lay on top of the younger child and to hold on tightly to the sides of the sled. After getting them back to the beach, he went back for two older teens.
The operator of the boat, an adult male, refused to get on the personal watercraft, telling Miller he didn't want the boat to be damaged. The boat, which at one time had been a mile from shore, was at that point very close. The man rode the pontoon boat until it nearly beached itself and then jumped off and made it safely to shore.
"The only thing I was thinking about was trying to get them to safety as soon as possible," said Miller, who spent more than an hour in rough seas with the boat before everyone was safely back on shore. "It definitely took a lot of focus to keep that thing from rolling. When we have patients on the sled like that, it makes it harder to steer.
"I was just doing my job and luckily I was able to be successful," he added.
For Parish, who watched the rescue unfold from the shoreline, Miller was a real hero.
This story originally published to nwfdailynews.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.