Sept. 18, 2008
By Jenny Andreasson
When Christopher Marino's swim instructor learned the boy had floated for 12 hours in a crashing ocean, he wasn't surprised.
After all, the 12-year-old autistic boy spends hours at a time "frolicking" in the Oviedo YMCA pool, where aquatic coordinator Kent Mullens, along with other lifeguards, taught him swimming skills.
On Sept. 6, Christopher of Oviedo put those skills to the test when he was swept out to sea along with his father, Walter Marino of Winter Park, while swimming in the Ponce De Leon Inlet. The two drifted eight miles out to sea, ending up a mile apart.
At 7:30 a.m. the next day, Walter was located by a boater. Two hours later, his son was spotted by a Coast Guard rescue helicopter. Both were in good condition, a Coast Guard press release states.
Mullens said he saw a photo of Marino sitting in the helicopter on the news. "I was proud, but I wasn't in shock," he said, smiling. "That's Christopher."
Christopher, for the last three or fours years, has been coming to the pool with his father at least three times a week. There he spends hours working one-on-one with the staff, retrieving pool rings from the bottom, dog paddling and floating, Mullens said.
Sometimes when it's time for him to go, the lifeguards have to pluck him out because he doesn't want to leave. It's this comfortable, carefree attitude in the water that many say is the reason the severely autistic boy survived the ordeal.
"His father said that's what got him through — the water is calming for him," Oviedo YMCA Executive Director Lucy Mackuse said.
"I don't think he realized what he did," Mullens added.
Coast Guard officials in 2007 rescued nine swimmers who were pulled out to sea in the Ponce Inlet, said Jacksonville Coast Guard spokesman Bobby Nash. That doesn't include swimmers who were rescued by lifeguards.
"There really isn't a formula for survival when you're out there," Nash said.
People should always let someone know where they're going to be swimming, he said, even if they're just going for a short swim, because finding swimmers is like searching for a needle in a haystack. "That's why we recommend people have a float plan. That way we have less of a haystack to search," he said. A float plan is where you'll go into the water, where you'll be in it and where you plan to come back out.
Authorities were notified by Walter's young daughter when the two started drifting out.
The boy didn't panic and let the current take him, a key survival tactic, said Scott Petersohn, captain and spokesman for the Volusia County Beach Patrol.
"You should lie on your back until the current diminishes," he said, "and then at a 45-degree angle, swim back."
Dealing with rip currents
Think of a rip current like a fast-moving treadmill that cannot be turned off. You have to move to the side to avoid being pushed backward. Swim parallel to shore to get out of the rip current, then swim at an angle — away from the current and toward shore.
And if you see someone in trouble, don't become a victim too. Remember, many people drown while trying to save someone else from a rip current.
Source: United States Lifesaving Association
Sign up for swim lessons
Visit CentralFloridaYMCA.org or call 407-359-3608 for more information on the YMCA Safe Start program for infants and Learn to Swim program for children.