TALLAHASSEE — In his 25 years of spearfishing, Dean Brodley had never seen anything like the situation that played out in the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday.
Brodley put in his 28-foot power boat at Carrabelle, Fla., in the morning. Accompanying him on the boat were his friend Brandon Phillips, Phillips’ girlfriend and another friend. Carrabelle is about 54 miles southwest of Tallahassee along the Gulf of Mexico.
“We met down at Carrabelle early, loaded up with ice and everything. We were out and about, hitting several dive spots,” said Phillips, who began spearfishing about a year ago. “We were coming back in and were going to hit one more dive spot when I saw something I didn’t recognize.”
Brodley said Phillips pointed to an object off the boat’s starboard.
“He spotted what looked like a buoy, just floating. And on a whim, we headed in that direction just to see what it was," said Brodley. "About halfway to them, we could see them splashing.”
As they approached, the men couldn't believe the sight of four men, exhausted, hanging onto a floating Igloo cooler. They were 23 miles offshore.
“As we got closer, we saw it was people in the water, splashing, waving their hands, yelling and shouting,” Phillips said.
Brodley navigated quickly over to the men in the water. He and his passengers pulled them aboard.
According to the men’s account, their boat sank just after they had set out at 8 that morning. Phillips spotted them at 4 p.m., after they were floating for eight hours. They were only about three and a half hours from sunset when the situation could have turned deadly.
“You have to understand, they had no safety gear whatsoever. No life vest, no radio, did not have an EPIRB which is a distress signal, which works by GPS and sends out a distress call,” Brodley said.
The only things the men had at their disposal, other than the cooler they were clinging to, was the boat’s anchor with 200 feet of line attached. Brodley said the men were able to grab it out of the boat’s anchor locker as the nose of the boat was in the air.
Brodley and Phillips said the men told them that their 23-footer had sunk rapidly from what they believed was a crack in the vessel’s hull. They told their rescuers several boats had passed during the day, but none had noticed them in the water.
Once on board, the men were offered food and water. They were shaking, muscles cramping from dehydration and treading water for hours.
Brodley notified the Coast Guard as they approached land.
The rescued men had a sense of humor and fisherman’s goodwill after the whole incident.
“On the way back, they actually asked ‘Are you guys done fishing? Don’t stop fishing on account of us,’ ” Brodley said. “That was true fisherman form right there.”
After the rescued men got to their cars and were able to grab dry clothes, they gave their new-found heroes a parting gift of three cases of beer.
“The funniest thing that was said all day was by the boat’s owner, who was about 65,” Brodley said. “As we were headed into shore, he said ‘The cooler paid for itself today.’ ”