ST. PETERSBURG — They talked in the Gulf of Mexico darkness all night long. Every half-hour or so, they asked each other, "You still there?"
The longtime fishing buddies clung to the bow of a 23-foot Century fishing boat as 4-foot waves smacked against the hull. Their hands burned from gripping a rope and, at a certain point, they couldn't feel the stings from the jellyfish.
Electrical trouble had killed the radio distress signal. They wondered if anyone would come save them. But about noon Saturday, after 18 hours stranded 20 miles west of the Clearwater coast, a Coast Guard C-130 plane circled overhead.
A few hours later, the fishermen hugged relieved relatives at the Coast Guard Station in St. Petersburg.
"I'm just dead tired," said skipper Gilbert A. Gastineau, 69.
Gastineau and his mates — Kenneth Harper, 55, of Colorado, and Randy Waldorf, 49, of Kansas — suffered from dehydration and bumps and bruises. Gastineau was taken to Bayfront Medical Center for observation after becoming light-headed on shore.
Family members were grateful for their safe return.
"We were just trying to stay optimistic the whole time," said Gastineau's granddaughter, Rachael Fulghum, 20, of Tampa.
The men have been fishing together about 10 years. Gastineau is a retired community college professor who bought the boat and named it School's Out when he retired in 2002. Harper is a former medical physicist for the Air Force. Waldorf owns a real estate title company.
They had set out about 9:30 a.m. Friday from the Seminole Boat Ramp in Clearwater. They planned to fish for grouper about 40 miles offshore but ran into rough seas and dropped anchor.
They had caught nine grouper, including one 22-pound keeper, when the bilge started to take on water. The engine wouldn't start, and they suspected a faulty fuel pump. The radio wasn't working, and the men did not have an emergency position indicating radio beacon, commonly referred to as an EPIRB. As water filled the boat, they tied themselves to the bow and prayed. Eventually, the boat capsized.
"Scary, unsettling, but at the same time, we all kept our cool," Harper said.
At 7:30 p.m., Gastineau's daughter, Dawn Fulghum, 44, of Palm Harbor, called 911 and told authorities where her father might be.
"The fact that his family knew where he was supposed to be going greatly improved the chances in this case," said Petty Officer Robert Simpson, a Coast Guard spokesman.
The Coast Guard searched until after midnight and resumed searching Saturday morning. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also had a boat looking for the men.
During the night, the fishermen held onto the boat and focused on surviving. Time went fast, Gastineau said.
When the C-130 saw them, the Coast Guard issued an alert asking for assistance from nearby boats. The Bucket List, which was participating in a nearby fishing tournament, picked up the stranded boaters and brought them to shore. They ate fruit and cookies and reflected on their good fortune.
Gastineau's boat was hauled back to land, and all the men said they will go fishing again.
Times staff writer Kameel Stanley contributed to this report. Luis Perez can be reached at (727)892-2271 or Lperez@sptimes.com.