The captain had few words to say after he got off the airplane, but most of them were about his former deckhand.
"Carl Sheperd was the best man, best friend," Capt. Edward Potter said. "I can't say anything more … but I love that man."
It was just weeks before that the men had set off on Potter's shrimp boat, the Capt. Eddie, from Pelican Point Seafood in Tarpon Springs for a shrimping trip to the Florida Keys.
About a week into their journey, Hurricane Irma developed and came barreling west toward the Florida Straits. Potter, 61, on just the start of what is typically a 30- to 40-day excursion, thought they could outrun it. But the storm caught up with them, pummeling the boat, the two men on board and their feline passenger, Motorboat.
Only Potter made it back alive.
"It's been a trying few days," he said from Tampa International Airport, where he embraced family and friends, many in tears.
At Pelican Point on Wednesday, the conversation centered on Sheperd. Everyone spoke of his infectious smile, his ability to make anyone laugh, and his willingness to help and ask nothing in return.
"He was always the first one to throw the lines off and the first one to catch them coming in," said Rick Shalansky, the captain of the fish house's sister boat, the Julie Ann.
The talk also swirled around what exactly happened in those hours at sea.
The men were stationed about 40 miles south of Fort Jefferson, said Jack Russell, the owner of Pelican Point and its restaurant, Rusty Bellies Waterfront Grill.
Potter called Russell and left him a message, saying they were going to stay down there during the storm because Irma was projected to go up the east coast. But, like many on the mainland, Irma caught them by surprise when its track shifted. Potter and Sheperd's plan was to run from it to the west.
Around Sunday — no one could quite keep track of the days in the post-storm haze — Sheperd answered the phone when Russell called back, the fish house owner said. He sounded calm but had a bleak message: The engine room was full of water.
Potter's wife, Jayne Jurgensohn, was on the phone nonstop after that, cycling between her husband and the U.S. Coast Guard. She said the Coast Guard told her its rescue vessels had been relocated to prepare for Irma's impact. But there was a Carnival cruise ship en route to Freeport in the Bahamas to undergo maintenance at a dry-dock facility.
The crew on the Carnival Elation received a distress call from the boat Sunday.
"Despite very strong winds and swells and near complete darkness, Carnival Elation responded to the call," said Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Carnival.
Potter had inflated the life raft, ready to abandon the sinking ship. He hopped on holding Motorboat in a cat carrier, Jurgensohn said. He doesn't know how he lost hold of it, but the cat never made it onto the raft.
And neither did Sheperd.
The last thing Potter saw looking back at the fiberglass trawler was the deckhand calling his name, Jurgensohn said.
"Captain Eddie. Captain Eddie."
As Sunday night turned to Monday morning, Irma made its way up to Tarpon Springs, where Shalansky and the other boat captains were on the docks keeping an eye on their vessels. They heard about 1:30 a.m. that both their friends had been rescued by the cruise ship. In the sideways rain and thrashing winds, they celebrated with a round of high-fives.
The next morning, Shalanksy heard the news from Jurgensohn, who came in person to the fish house. Sean Okeefe, a tug boat captain who was with Shalansky during the storm, woke up from a nap to a phone screen full of text messages asking if he'd heard about Sheperd.
"I said, 'Yeah, it was awesome,' " Okeefe recalled.
Then, the next message came. "No. The story changed."
No one could say why Sheperd, a fourth-generation fisherman with many a storm under his belt, didn't make it onto the raft. Shalansky guessed the seas were just too rough to get in, which was a struggle even practicing in a swimming pool, he said.
As he emerged from the terminal Wednesday, Potter, who Shalanksy said was usually "larger than life," said little. He was rolled away in a wheelchair, his head in his hands.
Shalansky, standing misty-eyed to the side, knew people would ask: Why didn't the men turn back when Irma developed?
"You get it while you can get it," he said. "That's a fact of life for this business."
Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.