Stunning video shows the moment the U.S. Coast Guard spotted Sylacauga High School Coach Chris Smelley stranded in the Gulf

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UPDATE (March 29, 1:15 p.m.):

WALTON COUNTY, Fla. (WKRG) — Chris Smelley is grateful to be alive after he went missing from a Thursday morning fishing trip. His disappearance raised concerns throughout Northwest Florida and Alabama, where he’s the head football coach at Sylacauga High School.

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Now, Smelley is sharing what happened to him during the 11 hours he was missing — stranded, really, two miles offshore of Grayton Beach.

It was an uncertain time when the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office issued an Aqua Alert with a physical description of the 37-year-old, right down to the tattoos on his arms; thousands of people shared social media posts about his disappearance; and two states with worried family, friends, acquaintances, and even total strangers sent positive thoughts and prayers for his safe return.

Smelley tells media outlets he appreciates the turnout.

He knows, he said in a TV interview, that “missing and ocean usually don’t go together well.”

So what happened that night?

Smelley tells media outlets, “I wish there was a story of like, I caught a giant shark that drug me out or I was battling a sea monster, but it was really just nature. It was just the wind.”

According to Smelley, he loves the ocean and spends a lot of time there, but he was not prepared to be out that night.

He noted that he had no phone and no life jacket with him during the incident.

He explains the wind was whipping a lot stronger than it was out shore, and being in a heavy kayak, “My body was just sitting up tall and I was basically just a big sail.”

“I was at the mercy of the wind and getting carried out,” he said.

Smelley described to media outlets how he got by that night. He recounted having a fishing jacket to protect himself from the sun.

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About the rescue

Faced with survival and knowing he needed the energy to keep paddling after spending nearly half the day on the water, Smelley caught a fish.

But luckily for him, rescue came at the right time.

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter came and spotted him. A friend of Smelley’s happened to be in the area at the same time, and the U.S. Coast Guard guided the friend to his location.

Although it was a scary incident, Smelley noted that he felt bad for his family and kept thinking about what they were going through.

“My day was a lot easier than everyone else’s day,” he said.

Despite the scary incident, Smelley says, the ocean is “mine and my family’s favorite place to be.”

He notes that he will be “smarter next time.”

UPDATE (11:39 p.m.): Here is a picture of Chris Smelley, who was rescued after being stranded for 11 hours in a kayak in the Gulf of Mexico.

UPDATE (9:38 p.m.): Pelham High School head football coach Mike Vickery and Chris Smelley are friends.

Vickery spoke with News 5 about Smelley’s disappearance Tuesday.

“I kept sending him text messages hoping maybe he would, maybe he would get one and respond but didn’t hear,” Vickery said. “Obviously haven’t heard anything from him yet. And you know, just happy that it sounds like there is a positive outcome. And, you know, that’s all we were hoping for.”

Vickery said he was worried because of the Gulf of Mexico waters.

“A lot of times you don’t get those positive outcomes when there’s water involved in the Gulf of Mexico involved,” he said. “But thankfully, thankfully, this is one of those that sounds like we’ll have a happy ending.”

Ultimately, Smelley was found around 7:12 p.m., more than five hours after they began searching for him.

“Sometimes you forget the forces of mother nature and how it can turn really really quickly in a negative way, so you always got to be alert,” Vickery said. “And I know I can’t wait to hear his story on how this happened. And, you know, definitely a long day for him and the Smelley family.”

UPDATE (7:50 p.m.): News 5 has learned more about the rescue of Chris Smelley, the Sylacauga High School head football coach who went missing after a fishing trip in the Gulf just off Grayton Beach.

Here’s what we’ve learned from the U.S. Coast Guard:

  • A Coast Guard helicopter from New Orleans spotted Smelley around 7:12 p.m., still on his kayak. He was found 2 miles off shore of Grayton Beach.

  • A friend of Smelley’s happened to be in the area on a boat, and overheard chatter about the 37-year-old coach’s disappearance on a radio. The Coast Guard guided the friend to Smelley’s location.

  • That friend came to the scene and they were able to get Smelley on their boat.

  • Smelley reportedly has no medical concerns.

UPDATE (7:31 p.m.): The Walton County Sheriff’s Office has posted on Facebook that Chris Smelley has been found, and he’s safe.


News 5 is working to learn more about this development. We will share more information, right here, as it becomes available.

UPDATE (6:05 p.m.): Several agencies are actively searching for Sylacauga High School head football coach Chris Smelley, who took a Northwest Florida fishing trip today at 8:30 a.m. and hasn’t returned.

For now, authorities are holding out hope for the 37-year-old who took a kayak into the Gulf off Grayton Beach.

That’s because he had a floatation device, according to the Walton County Sheriff’s Office.

In the meantime, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office has issued an Aqua Alert to help find Smelley.

Here’s a description of him:

  • 6 feet, 2 inches tall; 230 pounds

  • Brown hair, green eyes

  • Cross tattoo on the right arm

  • “Surrender” tattoo on the left arm

  • Wearing a camouflage swimsuit and Orvis zip jacket

WALTON COUNTY, Fla. (WKRG) — An Alabama high school football coach is missing after taking a kayaking trip in Northwest Florida, News 5 has learned.

Chris Smelley, portrait against a blue background and the text 'missing man' along with a logo
Chris Smelley (Photo courtesy of the Walton County Sheriff’s Office)

The Walton County Sheriff’s Office is searching for Chris Smelley, 37, who reportedly was last seen kayaking in the Gulf of Mexico off Grayton Beach.

The WCSO said in a Facebook post that Smelley went fishing in his blue-and-black kayak around 8:30 a.m. and hasn’t returned.

“WCSO and South Walton Fire District have jet skis in the water off of Grayton Beach searching for Chris,” the post said.

In addition, “The United States Coast Guard out of Mobile has been notified. Florida Fish and Wildlife has launched from the Inlet at Destin Pass and is heading east towards Grayton.”

News 5 has learned that Smelley is the head football coach for Sylacauga High School.

Anyone who sees Smelley or his kayak can call 850-892-8111.

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