In February of 2009 four friends left to go fishing offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. All young, athletic and accomplished football players in their 20’s, Marquis Cooper, Corey Smith, William Bleakley and Nick Schuyler went out to have a good time and catch amberjack when the weather started to turn for the worse.
Late in the evening the group went to head home when they noticed their anchor was stuck. Bleakley suggested they tie to the port side of the transom to attempt to pull it free.
When the anchor remained on the bottom and didn’t give in, the boat was pulled backwards and down as the rope acted like a rubber band flooding the back of the boat. They quickly capsized and the four ended up in the water more than 50-miles offshore.
Only Schuyler would survive the ordeal that he detailed in the book Not Without Hope telling the tail of seeing his three friends float away.
Angler John Milligan is an offshore saltwater fishing veteran but found himself in a similar situation as the football friends did in 2009. It all started with a normal fishing trip leaving April 8th out of Longboat Pass.
“I was with my buddy Bob and a friend aboard Bob’s 22-foot Hawk boat. We were fishing all day Thursday and the bite was a bit finicky. We got some here, some there, and most of the fish were caught at night,” the 40-year old Milligan recalled.
“We had a decent amount of fish, yellowtail snapper, mutton snapper, mangrove snapper and vermillion snapper. It was a steady pick but they weren’t blasting. We were catching fish, it was nice and we had a nice box.”
That night taking advantage of the full moon helped catching snapper. On a reef about 30-miles offshore their anchor was stuck but they fished not thinking much of it and decided to deal with it when they wanted to leave. Around 2:30 in the morning the trio went to head home when the weather started to change and wind picked up. In an attempt to free the stuck anchor it was tied off to the back of the boat.
“Bob motored forward in one last attempt to get it free and in seconds we were in the drink. Before I could say anything the boat had flipped straight over and water was everywhere,” said Milligan.
When Milligan came to and realized the dire situation they were in, he couldn’t find Bob.
“We didn’t see Bob anywhere. We were calling out to him and nothing. I thought we lost him. We were probably in the water for a minute and thought Bob was dead. We were banging on the hull in case he was there. After another 30-seconds he popped up with two life vests. He stayed in the boat in the air pocket and did everything he could to get floating items for us.”
Boat owner Bob, real name Robert Bender, posted in reply to the situation on Facebook.
“It was instantaneous, we were rolled over in the water in less than 3 seconds. No time to grab anything but two life jackets to keep the two people I had on the boat afloat. Made several attempts to get my flare gun, could not hold my breath long enough.”
It was 3:00 AM and the group made repeated attempts to get into the boat during darkness and feel around. But with no success they had no way to contact anyone on land or sea. They were cold and the weather was turning for the worse. In attempts to stay safe, they stayed with the boat and tied off floating items to keep themselves together.
“The waves were probably four feet and the anchor was still on the back of the boat keeping the air pocket in the front cabin and boat afloat,” Milligan described. “We were getting washed off and kept swimming back to it. The stress level was max. I’ve been in bad situations in life and on the boat but this was the worst. The sound of the water and waves hitting the hull was so loud. We were wet, cold, and hungry with nothing to help. We had two life jackets and a couple seat cushions. It was the most uncomfortable thing ever.”
With survival on their mind Milligan hoped the weather would calm down and boats would head offshore the next day to come across them for rescue. During the early morning hours they had a cruise ship cross by their path but with no way to flag it down it passed into the darkness.
At 4:30 in the morning the first positive action happened as a book bag floated out from the hull. They knew it was 4:30 since a phone was still working in the bag and gave them a little light.
Milligan had lost track of time until then. “It seemed like forever. Seconds felt like hours. You start thinking this could be the one. We had cut some rope off and tied it to the boat with floaties since we kept getting washed off. We knew we need to stay together. When the sun finally came up we could see Portuguese Man-of-Wars everywhere, they just started coming out of no where. We were worried about those things washing over us.”
Their next hope for rescue came around 7:30 in the morning when a shrimp boat was near. But either they weren’t seen or the crew was asleep as the boat passed by on autopilot only 60 yards away.
“We were seeing boats running by in the distance so knew it was only a matter of time before we hoped to be found. Finally around noon we were able to wave down a boat that came to assist.”
The boat informed the Coast Guard of their position but didn’t offer to bring the trio of anglers on board after their nearly twelve hours of clinging to the floating hull, sparking a debate on social media.
“They were asking us questions, trying to find out who we were, where we put it in at. They took pictures of us and fished there but said we weren’t getting in their boat. It is what it is, I would never leave anyone in the water but I have no hard feelings. They sat with us and I appreciate them for finding me.”
The Coast Guard crew of BM2 Phillips, MK2 Young, MK3 Robertson and BM3 Stonestreet arrived around 2:00 PM finally getting the soaked anglers out of the water and safely home, where there were no reported injuries.
After needing a few days to recover, the reality of the situation kicked in for Milligan. “I lost everything I brought out. Custom rods and reels, my car keys, house key, wallet, ID, credit cards. I haven’t been able to go to the bank because I don’t have an ID. All that stuff takes time to get back,” he said.
“But I’m thankful to have my life and happy to be home. I’ve known guys who didn’t make it home. I always tell people when we go offshore it’s never guaranteed and you have to take that into consideration. Of course we are out there to have a good time but something like this is in the back of your mind.”