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Three friends rescued after boat capsizes off Egmont Key

Bart Hauke, 26, examines his boat at Fort De Soto Park after the Coast Guard rescued him and two friends Wednesday morning.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Bart Hauke, 26, examines his boat at Fort De Soto Park after the Coast Guard rescued him and two friends Wednesday morning.

The caller spoke the words quickly: "My boat is capsizing."

He gave his location as off Fort De Soto Park, and the line went dead. The call was so short, the Coast Guard dispatcher thought it might be a prank.

Still, a search was launched just after 10 a.m. Wednesday.

By then, Bart Hauke's 18-foot Hydra Sports fishing boat was capsized off Egmont Key State Park, 5-foot waves crashing over its hull.

Hauke, two of his buddies and 40 pounds of bloody chum, were alone in shark-infested waters.

Their nearest hope, a 50-foot, barnacle-covered range finder used by freighters, was a half mile in the distance. Salvation meant each man swimming on his own toward the only man-made object in sight.

"It was a miracle that none of us died, it really was," Bob Keliher said after the three men were rescued by the Coast Guard and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

The men, who work at a Clearwater marketing company, decided to play hooky Wednesday morning. They even put a "Gone Fishing" sign on the door.

The Clearwater residents launched Hauke's circa 1981 boat from a Fort De Soto boat ramp at 7 a.m., unaware of a small craft advisory warning of strong winds and rough weather for several days.

Keliher, 46, started early, casting his reel off North Beach. Jacks, ladyfish and small sharks were biting. It was 75 degrees under clear skies, according to the National Weather Service, and the seas were relatively calm, with winds at 15 knots.

The boat reached a 90-foot deep hole off Egmont known for good tarpon in the spring and kingfish in the fall. It is also known for big sharks.

Then the weather turned.

Turning back, a steering wheel cable snapped as the 40-horsepower engine was running at 25 mph. "It was like driving in a hurricane," said Hauke, 26.

When they shut off the engine, the weather worsened, with winds up to 25 knots, said Pinellas County sheriff's Deputy Charlie Tita.

With no radio, Erik Houtz, 49, told Hauke to call the Coast Guard. That's when a big wave came at them.

"As I gave the location, I was kind of yelling over the hull," said Hauke, who lost his cell phone in the sea.

The men said the half-hour swim was brutal, and at times felt fruitless. "Every time you took a breath, there was a 6-foot wave crashing at you," Keliher said.

Hauke grabbed an empty cooler for buoyancy, and swam with one hand. By the time the men reached the range finder, no words were spoken.

A Coast Guard helicopter spotted them at 10:34 a.m. A sheriff's boat pulled them aboard about a half-hour later.

As they stood on dry land and watched a boat from Eckerd College's search and rescue team drag their old boat to shore, they pledged to fish again.

They'll stick to calm flats for a while.

Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271. Times staff writer Terry Tomalin contributed to this story.

Three friends rescued after boat capsizes off Egmont Key 10/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 16, 2008 5:15pm]
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