SAFETY HARBOR — Kathy Daugherty and her friends try not to think about it. They wish they could forget.
But almost nine years later, the memories still wash over them in cold waves.
When they heard about the four football players stranded at sea, their own terrifying struggle came crashing back.
"When you know what they're experiencing out there, you go through it all over again," says Daugherty, 45. "Those poor boys. ... " Her voice breaks.
"It's just scary as hell."
• • •
Last Saturday, four men went fishing in the gulf. Two days later, only Nick Schuyler was found alive — 38 miles offshore, clinging to the propeller of the capsized 21-foot boat.
No one knows what happened to the two NFL players, Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith. But Schuyler said his former USF football teammate Will Bleakley held on for more than 24 hours before he, too, slipped away.
Schuyler hasn't yet shared his story, so we don't know exactly what the men went through.
But Kathy Daugherty and her friends can imagine some of it. They know what it's like to drift in cold saltwater for hours, to be shivering and scared, a tiny speck in the vast, frothy gulf.
"I still have dreams," Daugherty says. "I still feel like I'm bobbing sometimes."
She and her husband, Billy, and their friends Mary Jane Becott and Chris Raines are sitting around a picnic table three days after Schuyler's rescue, talking about the night they all thought they would die. They're all are in their late 40s and early 50s, smoking Marlboro Lights. Beside them is a long, white Igloo cooler — just like the one that saved their lives. The other two survivors, Natalie Lee and Bryan Henegar, weren't there to share their memories.
"It's just this feeling of helplessness," Kathy says. "There's nothing you can do but try to stay alive."
• • •
Memorial Day Saturday, 2000: Bryan had just put two new engines in his 26-foot boat, the Jackie D. He had heard grouper were biting about 50 miles offshore. So he and his girlfriend, Mary Jane, and four of their friends loaded the boat with fried chicken and subs, bait, bottled water and enough Budweiser to last two days.
They shoved off from Belleair Causeway about 5:30 p.m. Three hours later, Bryan cut the engine. They all stood on the deck, watching the sun sink into the sea.
Mary Jane snapped pictures of the tie-dyed horizon. Billy and Chris cast lines into the glassy water. Kathy pulled a sweatshirt over her bikini. The summer night was beginning to cool.
Just after dark, Billy felt water lapping at his feet. "Where's that coming from?" he asked. Within a minute, saltwater was sloshing over his ankles.
Kathy called to Bryan: Get over here! Something's wrong!
Mary Jane tried to start the engines: Nothing. Bryan checked the bilge pump: flooded. He couldn't figure out what was wrong. By the time they grabbed buckets to bail with, the water was waist-deep.
Mary Jane tried to get a signal on her cell phone. Billy tried to light a flare. Natalie grabbed her pack of Camels and three life jackets, all she could find.
The boat's lights stayed on as it sank. They all swam toward the eerie glow and watched it fade as the craft fell 20, 40 feet below them.
"It didn't really hit me until it hit bottom," Kathy says. "This was real."
They were 20 miles from land, drifting in the 70-degree water. No one knew they had gone out. It would be two days, at least, before their families would even realize they were missing.
• • •
Okay, we have to stick together, Natalie decided. She was the cheerleader — at first.
Treading water, she gave life jackets to the other two women, then handed the last one to Chris. Natalie, who weighed less than 100 pounds, was the smallest of the group. Chris, who weighed more than 300, was the biggest. "If I have the jacket, I can't help you," she told him. "But if you have it, you can save yourself and me." She wrapped her thin arms around his wide shoulders.
Soon, a white Igloo cooler sprang to the surface. They grabbed the handles and each other, forming a lopsided circle around it. Natalie put her soggy pack of Camels on the lid to dry.
• • •
At first, the friends all say, you make jokes.
They were the cast of Gilligan's Island: Bryan was the Skipper, of course. Mary Jane was glamorous Ginger. Natalie? With all her gold jewelry she could be Mrs. Howell.
Then things turn serious.
"Take off that jewelry," Billy told Natalie. In the dark sea, he thought, you don't want anything glittery that might attract ... anything.
No one would say shark.
"But we all knew what was out there, circling around us," Kathy says. "And as soon as they got one of us, they'd get us all."
After a while, their feet got numb. But should they keep kicking, to keep warm? Or would kicking attract ... the fish?
Kathy hoped enough of her body would wash up so someone could identify her. She wanted her kids to be able to say goodbye.
They all had kids, ages 2 to 22, who were home with ex-husbands and grandparents. They all talked about their kids. What were they doing now? Why had they yelled at them about their messy rooms? They were only kids.
What would their kids do without them?
• • •
Mary Jane's watch was waterproof. Every 10 minutes, someone asked, "What time is it now?"
By midnight, Chris' legs were cramping so badly he was crying. He wanted to hold his 2-year-old daughter. Natalie was still wrapped around him, shivering. He kept blowing on her face, trying to keep her warm.
Bryan let go of the cooler long enough to reach out and brush Chris's long hair from his eyes.
Mary Jane wanted to go to sleep, so she wouldn't know when the "fish" came. "Don't you dare," Kathy told her. "Talk to me." Kathy chatted about everything and nothing. When she ran out of things to say, she sang the theme song from Jeopardy! ... still waiting.
Out there, she says, you can't let the silence swallow you. You have to do something to drown out your own thoughts.
• • •
It was almost 1 a.m. when Billy saw the light of a small plane arc across the sky. For the first time, they all let go of the cooler to wave and splash and shout. "Help! We're here!"
Of course the pilot kept going. To him, they weren't even a dot on the dark, wide gulf.
"I'm going to die tonight, aren't I?" Mary Jane asked Bryan.
"You're not going to die," he said. "There will be plenty of boats out here in the morning."
"If I don't die," she said, "we're going to get married."
"Okay," Bryan agreed.
On the other side of the cooler, Billy told Kathy: "I'll marry you too."
• • •
Your hands don't feel like hands. You can see them in the moonlight, still gripping the handle of that cooler. But they're all white and puffy, like Mickey Mouse gloves, and they ache.
But you have to hold on even though the sea is bouncing you around and the salt spray is stinging your eyes and you're shivering so badly you can't stop.
Natalie went into convulsions. She started clawing at Chris's life jacket, screaming about how cold she was, how scared, how they were all going to die.
Kathy shouted, "Shut up!" To everyone's surprise, Natalie did.
What if she died? They started worrying. Should they try to hold onto her body? Or let her drift away?
• • •
Sometime after 1:45 a.m., after Mary Jane's watch stopped, after they had been drifting in the gulf for five hours, Bryan decided to swim for help. He could still see a pinpoint of light from the Anclote Key lighthouse. Wasn't that it?
The others pulled him back. We're all in this together.
Billy told them about his old dog Ty, who had just died. He was up there, watching over them right now. "Good boy, Ty!"
• • •
When you're floating, you're eye-level with the horizon, so you see the first slice of sun as it creeps from the sea. Soon, the water was the color of cantaloupe. For the first time in 10 hours, their faces began to thaw.
The soggy cigarettes were still on the cooler.
They saw the first boat soon after sunrise. Jumped up, waved their arms and screamed. It kept going. Later, another boat motored near. And kept going. Then a third.
They were exhausted and hoarse and losing hope when Billy peeled off his South Park T-shirt. He grabbed a fishing net that had floated off the boat and draped the shirt over the long handle. The cartoon character Cartman became a red dot on the white flag.
They're still not sure if that's what the fisherman spotted from his boat. Did he see the shirt? Mistake their cooler for a buoy? He was 25 miles off course when he pulled alongside them. Mary Jane hugged Natalie and cried, "Thank God!"
Kathy called to the guys on the boat: "Anyone up there have a cigarette?"
By 9 a.m. the fishermen had pulled all six friends aboard and called the Coast Guard. Natalie's body temperature was 91 degrees. When the rescue boat arrived, the medic wanted to airlift her to the hospital. She refused to leave her friends.
• • •
Kathy and Billy and Bryan and Mary Jane got married five months later, in a double ceremony on the beach. Natalie and Chris were the maid of honor and best man. The couples promised to love each other in sickness and in health, on land and in water.
Six years later, Bryan and Mary Jane got divorced. Kathy and Billy have a new flats boat. It's name: We Can Walk From Here.
Smoking around the picnic table, they say they want to meet Nick Schuyler, the only apparent survivor of the recent tragedy.
"We're probably some of the only people who know what it was like for him," Kathy says. Then she stops. Shakes her head. "No, I guess we really don't."
All that time the six friends were waiting in the water, they had each other. "I can't imagine having to watch them all just ..." she closes her eyes, shakes her head. "I would never have made it out there alone."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lane DeGregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8825.