MANATEE -- A popular Palmetto High School educator and boating enthusiast, whose 17-foot pilot-less skiff was discovered floating near Egmont Key on Monday, is now the subject of a massive search and rescue operation.
Patrick Mullins, Palmetto High's media specialist, never returned home from a boating outing after he left a note for his wife, Jill, that
he was going out for a "quick spin" around 4 p.m. Sunday to check out the motor in his "Stump Knocker."
After failing to find the boat or Mullins while searching in the shallow stretches of the Manatee and Braden rivers near his home in the 5600 block of 43rd Street East, authorities on Monday expanded their search.
Mullins' boat was finally found with gas can and other items still inside intact in the 30- to 80-foot-deep Egmont Channel, with no sign of Mullins, said Baryl Martin, a spokesman with Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"A tugboat spotted the boat between Marker 8 and 9 and that is quite a distance," said Kim Mullins, Patrick Mullins' sister-in-law and the wife of Patrick's brother, Bert Mullins. "That could be a two- to three-hour trip depending on conditions. He would never have undertaken that. Hopefully, they will find him along the bank. To me, he must have had some medical incident.
"They found his hat and glasses and he was not in the boat," Kim Mullins added. "He probably wasn't wearing his life jacket, but there was one missing from the boat that he might have grabbed."
Mullins' family and friends were shaken Monday afternoon that something could have happened to Mullins, who is said to be an excellent swimmer and extremely experienced boater.
"It was not good news that the boat was found without him," Kim Mullins said. "It would have been glorious if he was found hanging onto the boat."
The boat is being held by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission as part of Mullins' disappearance, Martin said.
"I don't want to speculate on what may have happened to Mr. Mullins," Martin said. "The tides were strong. It was a full moon. We just won't know for sure until we find him."
The Mullins family is well known at Palmetto High and throughout the Manatee County School District.
Patrick's wife, Jill Mullins, is media specialist at Lakewood Ranch High; his brother, Bert, teaches 11th-grade American History at Palmetto High.
Patrick Mullins' niece and Bert Mullins' daughter, Kate Perri, also teaches at Palmetto High. His 26-year-old son, Nason , is deployed by the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. Mullins' 24-year-old son, Miles, is a student at the University of South Florida
Looking for Mullins on Monday afternoon were six vessels from Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission; a patrol vessel, a C-130 airplane and a helicopter from the U.S. Coast Guard; and a search-and-rescue team from Eckerd College, Martin said.
"We can't say strongly enough how important it is for boaters to wear life jackets," Martin said, indicating that had Mullins been wearing one it may have expedited his recovery.
A neighbor, Glynn Westberry, said Monday that he saw Mullins mowing his lawn from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Sunday.
"He left 4-ish," Westberry said. "We heard he wanted to test the motor on his boat."
Westberry said Mullins would be about the last person he could ever imagine getting into a boating situation he couldn't handle.
"Patrick is a very intelligent, hard-working man who is very dedicated to his wife and boys," Westberry said. "He's always in the garage, working."
Westberry figured Mullins would need to accelerate the boat to about 20 mph to test the motor.
"He could do it right out there in the river," Westberry said, pointing about 300 yards to the west of the street where they both live. "He didn't have to go far. What's odd is that even if something happened in the river, you can walk out."
But somehow, Mullins' boat ended up miles away in the Egmont Channel.
"He had to have hit something or had a medical problem," Westberry said, before knowing the boat was found. "It's very sad."
Patrick Mullins' cell phone was found in his truck, said Dave Bristow, a Manatee County Sheriff's Office spokesman.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686 or tweet @RichardDymond.