TAMPA — The small boat rocked wildly in 6-foot waves. More than 30 miles from shore, the four men knew it was time to go back, time to pull up anchor.
But it wouldn't budge.
By turns, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith and former University of South Florida football players Will Bleakley and Nick Schuyler all heaved mightily to no avail.
They decided to retie the anchor line from the bow of the 21-foot boat to the stern, then gun the engine to jerk the anchor out of the gulf's bottom.
It only made matters worse. The thrust pushed the anchor deeper, tightening the anchor line and pulling down the stern of the boat, exposing it to sloshing seas.
In one swift moment, the boat became swamped, overturned and dumped the four men into 62-degree seas.
Thus began the series of events that forever changed one life and ended three others.
In a report Friday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission concluded the men improperly anchored the boat during their Feb. 28 fishing trip.
The 12-page report detailed the boaters' attempt to free the anchor, which ultimately submerged and capsized the vessel.
It also revealed information about the harrowing moments that followed, based on an interview with the sole survivor. All four men were on top of the hull until, one by one, three of the men died or purposefully slipped away.
"They made a mistake that turned out to be a tragic event," said investigator James Manson.
One man, Schuyler, survived the fishing trip.
Three others — Cooper, Smith and Bleakley — vanished in the cold and choppy waters of the Gulf of Mexico sometime after the group left shore Feb. 28.
Their bodies have not been found.
The Coast Guard discovered Schuyler during an air-and-sea search that scoured more than 20,000 square miles.
Clinging to the motor of Cooper's capsized boat, he had been in the water some 42 hours.
From his hospital bed, 24-year-old Schuyler told a story of loss and survival. Details of his account — he was "very articulate," according to Manson — were used in the state's investigation of the accident.
The report says about 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 28, the men attempted to pull up the anchor of Cooper's boat and head back to port.
But they were unable to move anchor, nestled 138 feet below. Bleakley suggested re-tying the anchor line from the front of the boat to the rear, then gunning the motor to yank it loose.
That was their first mistake, Manson said. The anchor always should be tied to the more stable bow.
Cooper told the men he already had lost an anchor the same way the previous weekend, Schuyler told investigators. An offshore anchor costs about $80 to $100, Manson said, and the men probably did not want to lose another one.
"Again, that's a mistake," said Manson. Cutting the line might have saved lives.
The men tied the anchor line to a bracket at the back left side of the boat, leaving little or no slack to the line.
Cooper started the 200-horsepower motor and the boat thrust forward. Moments later, if flipped, submerged and rolled to its port, or left, side, the report said.
The men were thrown into the gulf, where they clung to the capsized boat. They couldn't upright the boat.
Bleakley retrieved three life jackets for the men and a throwable flotation device for himself.
The four struggled to stay atop the hull in rough waters, the report said. The water was up to their chests while they hung on. At some point, Schuyler cut the anchor line with the propeller of the motor.
"Mr. Schuyler had been wearing a watch affixed with a light and was able to record approximate time of events," the report said.
After hours in the water, 26-year-old Cooper was the first to show signs of hypothermia before dying about 5:30 a.m. Sunday, March 1, Schuyler told investigators.
The other men removed Cooper's life jacket as his body began to drift from the boat. Bleakley, 25, put on Cooper's life jacket, the report said.
An hour later, 29-year-old Smith was next to show signs of "extreme hypothermia," and he slipped off his life jacket and left the boat. Almost 24 hours later, Bleakley appeared to die in Schuyler's arms, and Schuyler released Bleakley into the water, the report said.
Bleakley's father, Bob, said he saw the report Friday afternoon, though none of the details surprised him. He only hoped some lessons could be learned from the accident that killed his son and friends.
"I don't need any more information from investigative agencies," Bob Bleakley said. "However, the public might."
The fish and wildlife report concluded the accident was caused by three factors: improper anchoring of the boat to the port side transom eye bracket; Cooper using the motor to throttle forward in hopes of releasing the anchor from the gulf's bottom; and failure to leave enough slack in the anchor line to compensate for top-water gulf conditions, which resulted in pulling the stern of the boat into the water.
The boat was eventually retrieved, but the anchor was never found.
Times staff writer Brant James contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (727) 893-8452.