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Coast Guard rescues three men off sinking boat in gulf

The accident had the makings of an all-too-familiar tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico.

Three men in a sinking boat, struggling as their body temperatures dropped in the 60-degree sea. In the middle of the night. In the middle of nowhere.

But this accident, unlike the one that claimed the lives of three football players earlier this year, had a happy ending. This crew had a device many said could have saved the football players had they had one aboard.

The Coast Guard received an automated signal from the emergency position indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB (pronounced e-perb), about 1:05 a.m. Wednesday, after the men's 32-foot private fishing boat was swamped. They were about 60 miles northwest of Anclote Key.

"Thank God for the EPIRB," said Adam Triplett, 29, one of the men on the boat. "We would not have made it to daylight. That's what saved our lives."

Triplett said he and two of his best fishing buddies, brothers Matthew and Christopher Whalen, set off from Clearwater Pass about noon Tuesday.

The men, who all live in Largo, were looking mostly for grouper or snapper, which they then planned to sell.

"We were just going to do a 2 1/2 day trip, get some extra Christmas money," said Triplett, who works in construction.

By late Tuesday, they called it a night.

About an hour later, shortly after 11 p.m., Triplett said he heard a loud crash.

"It completely woke me up from a dead sleep," Triplett said. "It just sounded like a boat hit us or something. It was so loud."

Triplett woke his friends, who own the vessel.

They realized a large wave slammed into the boat, the Rubicon.

"The water came in so fast that it covered the batteries," he said. "It was just pouring in."

At first, panic set in.

The men had no power, the water was rising and their only source of light came from a lighter and cellphone Triplett had in his bag.

As the water reached the deck, the men dumped about 1,000 pounds of ice and dozens of boxes of live bait that was near the stern.

They used whatever they could to bail the water, Triplett said.

About midnight, they got the EPIRB activated.

The device automatically sends the Coast Guard a boat's GPS coordinates if the boat is filling with water or overturns, said Petty Officer Mariana O'Leary.

But as time wore on, the men began to worry no one was coming. At one point, they got together and prayed.

The men were convinced that at some point, they'd have to take the raft into the water.

Triplett made his way back to the cabin to change into dry clothes.

That's when he heard the helicopter.

The men did not call rescuers or send out a distress signal, but because of the EPIRB alert, the Coast Guard sent a helicopter from Clearwater and started searching, O'Leary said.

Just before 2 a.m., search crews saw a red flare and then the EPIRB's strobe light. With night-vision goggles, crews saw three men on deck, but the boat had sunk so low that getting close with the helicopter might kick up waves that could pitch the men into the sea.

Instead, O'Leary said, a rescue swimmer was lowered into the water to take the men away from the boat, where they were hauled up to the helicopter one by one in a basket.

The sinking boat was left behind.

The three men had minor injuries from being knocked around and were treated when they landed at the Coast Guard's Clearwater base, O'Leary said.

She said they were lucky injuries weren't much worse. If it weren't for the automatic EPIRB signal, rescue crews may not have arrived in time to save them.

They also had life jackets and life rafts, she said.

"This was a textbook search-and-rescue case," O'Leary said. "They were prepared. We were really happy to be able to go and get them."

EPIRB devices aren't mandatory on private vessels, but they are highly recommended, she said. "Right up there with an emergency cell phone or radio."

The EPIRB's importance was tragically highlighted in March, when NFL players Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith, and former USF football players Will Bleakley and Nick Schuyler took a fishing trip without the device and wound up overturned and stranded.

Only Schuyler survived. The Coast Guard never received a distress signal.

EPIRB devices vary in size and usually cost between $400 and $1,400.

Said Triplett: "I will make sure that any boat I go on has an EPIRB."

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Coast Guard rescues three men off sinking boat in gulf 12/23/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 23, 2009 11:03pm]

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