Three teen boys from Orange County, California, were rescued from their capsized boat in rough waters off the Florida Keys an hour before sunset

By Rose Minutaglio
December 28, 2016 11:53 AM
Monroe County Sheriff's Office

Three teen boys from Orange County, California, were rescued from their capsized boat in rough waters off the Florida Keys an hour before sunset on Tuesday.

Zachary Sowder, 18, Jacob Sowder, 16, and Brent Shishido, 18, were on board a 22-foot rental boat about three miles off of Little Torch Key when their boat suddenly capsized.

Luckily, one of the teenagers had a phone and was able to call for safety.

“They are so, so lucky,” Monroe County Sherriff’s office Marine Deputy James Hager, who helped rescue the teens, tells PEOPLE. “If we hadn’t found them by sunset it might have been a different story.”

James Hager

Hager says he received the call from dispatch regarding an “overturned vessel” at 3:15 p.m. and immediately set out with Fish and Wildlife investigator David Bingham to search for the missing teens.

“I kept thinking about the (recent) incident in (Florida) with the two teen boys and became frantic to find these guys,” Hager says in reference to Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, both 14, who set out from Florida’s Jupiter Inlet on a boating excursion in July and were never seen again. “It was getting close to sunset, within an hour of it, when we finally spotted them.”

James Hager

The boys were on vacation in Florida with their families and rented the boat, although they were the only ones on board. Zachary, Jacob and Brent had anchored the vessel in 30 feet of water when their boat started “taking on water,” according to a statement released by the Monroe County Sheriff’s office. When they finally cut the anchor line, the boat had taken on too much and began to capsize.

“I told the dispatchers to tell them to stay on the boat, since the water was so rough,” explains Hager, who says the waves ranged from 3 to 5 feet that afternoon. “We almost didn’t see them they were so far off land, but when we saw each other it was like this huge sense of relief.”

Monroe County Sheriff's Office

Because the boat capsized so quickly, Hager says the teens were unable to grab life vests before it overturned.

“Of course, it’s an unwritten rule that you should be wearing a life jacket even on the boat if the seas are rough,” he says. “They probably shouldn’t have been out on a boat at all in the condition.”

James Hager

Hager instructed the teens to stay on the boat until he could get close enough to assist them to his rescue vessel.

“They were so numb. They had a mix of emotions they seemed happy we were there, but upset about what happened,” he says. “I told them their parents may be upset, but at least you are alive and well.”

The boys were reunited with their father back on land, who was “just really happy to see them.”

“We talked and shook hands and hugged it out with the boys and they were very thankful when their dad showed up,” says Hager, who did not know why the boys were boating alone. “Their dad explained that he had only been to the Keys a few times and each time they go out fishing and spearfishing. They just wanted to go out and catch fish.”

After the incident on Tuesday, Zack posted about the rescue on social media: “Make sure your bilge works before you run 5 miles offshore and realize its to late… other than that great day on the water,” the teen tweeted.