CLEARWATER — Nick Schuyler, the lone survivor of a fatal fishing trip involving two NFL players, has never spoken to a local audience about the 43 hours he spent in the frigid waters of the Gulf of Mexico last February.
Immediately after his March 2, 2009, rescue, local and national media wanted his story. Schuyler kept quiet. He said he felt, at the time, like he didn't owe anybody anything. But then rumors of drugs, fights and racism began to swirl.
He heard that he and his best friend, former University of South Florida football player Will Bleakley, lasted longer than NFL players Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith because "we were white and they were African-American."
"There were a lot of things. The main thing was probably the giving up, like they just couldn't go anymore and that was it. The giving up and the swimming away and taking off the jackets just because. It wore on me."
He agreed to write a book, Not Without Hope, which became a New York Times bestseller. He sat down with HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, Oprah and People. On Tuesday, he shared his story with about 70 people at the Clearwater Public Library — 500 yards from the spot where he and the three men started that fateful journey.
After signing copies of his book, Schuyler sat down for his first interviews with bay area reporters. He explained why he decided to open up about what he described as the worst day of his life. He said he wanted to make sure his friends were honored for their bravery. He said he wanted people to know how hard they clung to life before the hypothermia set in.
"I thought after awhile it was time to set the record straight," he said. "For the guys."
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Schuyler also wants to make sure no one else goes through a similar ordeal. "People can learn from our mistakes," he said.
Schulyer said he didn't tell anyone where he was going when the men left a launch in Clearwater at 6:30 a.m. Feb. 28, 2009. "Just because you're not a captain of the boat doesn't mean that you don't have to take precautionary measures," he said.
The boat didn't carry an Electronic Position Indicating Radiobeacon (EPIRB), which is water-activated and broadcasts the boat's exact position via satellite to rescue centers.
The men filed no float plan, which gives a description of the boat, names of the people onboard, where exactly they are going and when they are expected back.
They went 70 miles off the coast of Clearwater with bad weather imminent.
And instead of cutting the line after the anchor on Cooper's 21-foot Everglades boat got stuck, the men gunned the engine, causing the vessel to fill with water and overturn.
"It wasn't anybody's fault," he said. "No one stood up and said, 'No, don't do that.' It was just put the anchor to the back of the boat and forward the engine. Who would've thought this rope would flip this boat?"
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Schuyler said he wanted proceeds from the book to go the families of the victims. Cooper's wife wanted no part of it, he said. He's not on speaking terms with her or Smith's parents. Rebekah Cooper has said that she was not happy about the way her husband was depicted in Schuyler's accounts.
Smith's parents aren't angry at him, the man's sister has told Schuyler. They're just coping with things differently.
He wishes he could tell all of them that "I love them and pray for them often," he said.
"They know I'm here if they ever want to speak. And if they don't choose to, I'll respect that as well. I can't imagine what they're going through and it breaks my heart. I know my mom struggles with it everyday about me. She worries about me. Losing a son or a brother or whatever the case was, I can't imagine. I don't think any mother should have to go through that."
He's started the Nick Schuyler Foundation to promote boater safety and to keep his friends' memories alive. The foundation had its first event in February.
"People have said, 'It wasn't your time. God has a plan for you,'?" Schuyler said. "If that's doing what I'm doing today and promoting awareness and everything else going on, I think that I'm okay with that."