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Hudson men say their day stranded offshore was 'an adventure'

Rick Smith, 68, and Joseph Merten, 25, both of Hudson, went through a long ordeal after the boat they were on lost power and was blown out into the gulf by stormy weather.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Rick Smith, 68, and Joseph Merten, 25, both of Hudson, went through a long ordeal after the boat they were on lost power and was blown out into the gulf by stormy weather.

HUDSON — Judging by the position of the sun, it was about 9 a.m. Tuesday when Joseph Merten and Rick Smith emerged from the boat's cabin.

They looked around. They saw none of the shoreline houses from the night before. No sea wall, either. Just acres and acres of thick, knotted mangrove.

Their boat was out of gas. Neither man had a cell phone or a clue how far from home they were.

• • •

The two had just met a week or two before at the Thirsty Moose bar near Smith's home. They talked boats and music over a game of pool. Smith, a 68-year-old former Marine and Vietnam veteran, invited Merten over Monday night.

Smith lives in Sea Ranch, a neighborhood where canals are as common as streets. His 26 1/2-foot 1982 Chris Craft Scorpion boat was docked just behind his house. About 11 p.m., the two went out on Smith's boat for what they thought would be a short ride.

The sky was clear, the moon bright as they skirted out past the sea wall into the gulf. Smith said the boat's fuel gauge was acting up. That's why he didn't notice they were running out of gas.

The boat's motor cut off about 25 feet from the sea wall. It was getting late. Smith and Merten, 25, figured they would just spend the night on the boat and paddle back to Smith's dock in the morning. They dropped anchor and hunkered down into the cabin, unaware of the storms and cold front howling down from the north.

Sometime around 2 a.m. Tuesday, the wind picked up and rain swept across the water. The boat pitched and bucked in the rough seas. So much that, Merten said, "my head was beating against everything in the boat."

The strain snapped the anchor line, setting the boat adrift into the night.

The men awoke seven hours later two miles offshore, somewhere in the mangroves.

It was low tide, and the water was maybe 3 feet deep. Smith decided they should pull the boat a few yards out to open water where they might be seen by passing boaters who could lend a hand.

They spent the afternoon hours switching between naps, standing lookout, talking and singing their favorite Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd songs. Around 4 p.m., Merten decided to find his way back to land.

He waded 2 miles through mangroves, over sharp rocks, sometimes in thigh-high muck back to the sea wall, his feet black and blue and bleeding. A couple spotted him swimming through a stretch of canal, took him in and offered a shower and warm, dry clothes. Then he called the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and sent them for Smith.

About 45 minutes after the call, and 22 hours after the trip began, a Sheriff's Office marine unit deputy shook Smith awake in the boat's cabin and brought him back to land. He didn't need medical attention. He said his family didn't know he was gone. They thought he was out shooting pool.

"It was just a little adventure," Smith said Wednesday morning as the two planned to bring one of his other boats and a gas can out to retrieve his vessel in the mangroves.

"It was a hell of an adventure, I'll give you that much," Merten said. "It was a good life experience."

He thought back to Monday night, just before they set off. He had considered bringing along his guitar to play their favorite songs.

"No," he remembers thinking, "we'll be right back."

Hudson men say their day stranded offshore was 'an adventure' 02/27/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 9:26pm]
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