Snorkeler who lost arm to boat strike, boater who hit him co-star in new water safety video
Updated: May 31
COMPELLING AND DRAMATIC are not words that would describe most educational videos about boating and water safety.
While offering important information, the messages are usually delivered in a manner conducive to a classroom setting: A boat captain demonstrating proper vessel operations. A law-enforcement warning about zero tolerance for drinking alcohol while boating. A narrator reviewing safe seating arrangements on a boat.
The latest release from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is not your typical boating safety video.
It features two unusual and engrossing co-stars: Carter Viss, a Jupiter snorkeler who lost his right arm to a boat strike on Thanksgiving Day 2019, and Danny Stanton, the Palm Beach man behind the wheel of the triple-engine pleasure boat that hit Viss that day.
As Viss and Stanton share their recollections of the accident, never-before-seen footage of the actual incident is shown, as shot from a security camera north of The Breakers hotel on Palm Beach.
Also in the video: photos of an unconscious Viss in the hospital, where he spent eight months recovering from catastrophic injuries, and a distraught Stanton moments after helping bring Viss ashore to a waiting ambulance.
A little more than five minutes long, the film ends with scenes, shot last summer, of Viss and Stanton talking to each other, at times smiling, about their shared mission to prevent accidents like that from happening again.
Released May 27, ahead of Memorial Day weekend as part of FWC’s National Safe Boating Week campaign, the video was a mandated requirement of Stanton’s sentencing in 2020, part of a plea deal in which a judge reluctantly agreed to Viss’ request for Stanton to avoid jail time.
Stanton could have spent up to a year behind bars after pleading “guilty best interests” to charges of reckless operation of a vessel. He was sentenced to a year of probation and ordered to conduct two safety initiatives: Make and pay for the safety video (about $2,000) and work with a legislator, state Sen. Bobby Powell, on safety reforms.
Viss eagerly agreed to work with Stanton on both initiatives, in keeping with a pledge he made not long after regaining consciousness at St. Mary’s Medical Center to use his experience as a safety platform.
“I think (the video) will make a big impact,’’ Viss, who also reached a confidential civil settlement with Stanton, said in an interview. “It can be a little difficult to watch in some parts because it really brings me back to the accident, but it's powerful and very moving.’’
It’s the first FWC safety video featuring both an accident survivor and a boat operator who caused the accident. Agency officials believe the participation of the two unusual co-stars will inspire and educate the public in a way most typical safety videos cannot.
“Seeing Carter, the victim in this, working with the operator of the boat was impressive. It's a testament certainly to Carter but also to Danny that they worked together in seeing something positive come out of a really tragic situation,’’ said Brian Rehwinkel, the FWC's boating and waterways outreach and education coordinator.
Even the West Palm Beach company that produced the video was impressed.
“I thought it was a beautiful thing that they were coming together and working together toward this common goal of keeping people safe,’’ said Dan Doskey, vice president of video services for Legal Graphicworks.
“We do a lot of work with litigants for criminal cases, civil cases. Most of the time, as you’d think when people are going to court, it’s adversarial. There’s not a lot of warm fuzzy feelings with participants in litigation. In that way, it was unprecedented and inspiring to see the two of them work together toward a common goal.’’
The video starts off with a soundtrack personal to one of the co-stars: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major as performed on piano by Viss, with his left hand, roughly a year after the accident.
As the music plays, both Viss and Stanton recreate the day of the accident in separate interviews.
“I hear this especially loud boat sound,’’ Viss says in the video. “I look to my north … and I saw the large hull of a boat headed straight toward me. … I just braced for some kind of impact. First thing I noticed was this right arm is completely gone. ... I looked down I saw my arm on the reef. …’’
As Viss talks, the time-stamped footage of the actual accident is shown. But the footage, shot from a distance and enhanced, is too grainy to show any details. Viss is not visible. Stanton’s 36-foot boat, tiny in the footage, can be seen as it motors south before slowing to turn back.
“I heard Carter screaming,’’ Stanton says in the video, at times struggling for words. “And I saw a cloud of blood in the water and at that point it was obvious that I'd hit somebody. ... Those images will be with me for the rest of my life.’’
Most of the second half of the video focuses on Viss’ campaign to promote boater safety awareness and the need for legislation to replace the traditional diver-down flag with a larger three-dimensional diver-down flag mounted on a buoy. The day of the accident, he was using a traditional diver-down flag, which Stanton said he did not see.
“This is a huge tragedy,’’ he says in the video, “and out of that tragedy can come something great, and that is now my mission.’’
Although the video was officially released May 27, it debuted in March to hundreds of people at the International Boating and Water Safety Summit in Washington, D.C., where Viss was a guest speaker.
“The response was very, very positive,’’ said Viss, a marine biologist. “A ton of people, right after, reached out to me. They wanted to help get this message out more.’’
As a result of the summit, Viss has appeared on an Australian water safety podcast and has plans to appear on an Italian podcast. He also met Hunter Bland, a professional bass fisherman in Florida who survived a boating accident in 2017. They’re planning to appear together in a series of National Boating Safety Week radio interviews in which Viss will promote the FWC video.
Viss is also working with Waves of Hope, a National Safe Boating Council program that offers help and a platform for victims of water-based accidents.
And with help from Andy Earl, a friend who was the first rescuer to reach Viss immediately after the accident, he’s getting ready to launch a non-profit called Florida Fish Boyz.
Stanton said that even though his probation ended last year, he still plans to work with Viss on lobbying for the legislation.
“I hope to have a relationship with him for many years to come,’’ Stanton said in an interview. “There's still some work we need to pursue on the legislative front. We got a great start but we need to see that through to fruition.’’
Viss plans to make the FWC video an important tool in their campaign for legal reforms
“It will really help the cause. I'm expecting to use it as kind of my main way to share this story to lawmakers, senators and anyone who is interested in helping with these law changes,’’ he said. “I can send it to someone: Here’s the full story. Here’s what we want to change.’’
The FWC, which has embedded the video on its YouTube and Facebook pages, plans to promote its use with boating safety classes.
“I never want to minimize the challenges this has presented for Carter, but in talking with him he's been so positive and genuinely a decent person,’’ Rehwinkel said.
“We can't undo what has already happened but hopefully some good things will come of this and make a difference, maybe prevent this from happening to someone else.’’
Although Viss has publicly shared his account of the accident in dozens of interviews and presentations over the past two years, making the video was at times difficult for both men.
They conducted their interviews at Legal Graphicworks’ studio on the same day last August, in the presence of FWC officials, Stanton’s attorney Doug Duncan and Assistant State Attorney Joseph Kadis, who prosecuted Stanton.
“It was emotional,’’ Stanton said. “Each of us sort of recounted that day. Carter heard a perspective from me he'd never heard beforehand. There were some heavy moments sitting in the back of the room watching him talk.’’
When the shoot ended a few hours later, Viss and Stanton met up at Civil Society Brewing in West Palm Beach to relax over a few beers.
“It was an extremely healing experience for me just to be in a casual place with him and have a normal conversation,” Viss said. “Lawyers have always been around when I've been around him, so this gave us a chance to talk like normal people and get to know each other.’’
By appearing with Stanton in the video, Viss said he also hopes the video sends a message that goes beyond safety and boater awareness.
“A universal message of forgiveness, of moving past conflicts or potential adversaries and working toward better things, which is a message this world really needs right now: Working with the people who wronged you and kind of getting over that and thinking about better things,” he said.
“To get too hung up on holding grudges or caught up in the negative aspects of the story will cause nothing but anger and destruction and really will go nowhere.’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.