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Rescue _ and relief

The New York tourists, noticed 13 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico by a casino ship, manage a sense of humor to go along with their relief.

Cheri Ballard's 17-year-old daughter, Nichole, was six hours late returning from a water scooter excursion into the Gulf of Mexico. Staring out the window of her New Port Richey hotel room early Thursday morning, clutching Nichole's photo close to her heart, Ballard wrote her daughter a plaintive letter that she desperately hoped to deliver in person.

"It's 1:30 and I don't know whether you're dead or alive," Ballard began the three-page letter. "I know if you were here you'd be telling me to be strong."

Meanwhile, Nichole and her boyfriend, Lewis Nameth, were sitting on their stalled water scooter, bobbing miles offshore in the 89-degree waters.

About noon Thursday, after 18 hours afloat, they finally were sighted by a SunCruz casino ship, plucked from the Gulf and whisked back to shore and Cheri's waiting arms.

Reassuring her parents from the bow of the rescue boat, Nichole Ballard described the pair's struggle to get rescued as "kind of fun."

Nichole Ballard and Nameth, 21, rented the watercraft from a New Port Richey dock about 6 p.m. Wednesday. When Nichole saw a dolphin, they cut the engine to catch a closer glimpse. Nameth estimated they were about 2 miles offshore.

The engine never restarted. And the Warwick, N.Y., pair who had been vacationing with the Ballard family spent the night trying to attract rescuers and paddling so as not to drift farther out to sea.

By boat and by air, rescue workers from several agencies _ including the Coast Guard, Port Richey and New Port Richey police and the Pasco County Sheriff's Office _ scoured the waters from Caladesi Island to Hernando County in search of the castaways.

"We did all kinds of things to get people's attention," Nameth said from the docks early Thursday afternoon.

"Yeah, we didn't understand why they weren't seeing us," Nichole added.

"Then we thought they just knew we were from New York," Nameth quipped as Nichole rolled her eyes.

"He was joking all the way through," she said.

When it set out to sea, the two-seater watercraft had three hours worth of fuel in it, said Pat Ferrara, who runs Performance Watercraft Rentals on U.S. 19, where Nameth and Ballard rented the vessel.

The two were due back by 7 p.m. Wednesday, Ferrara said. By 7:30 p.m., they still hadn't shown, and Ferrara and her husband began searching for them.

"They were very, very reliable young people," Ferrara said. "In the end, they did the right thing _ they didn't make an attempt to swim to shore. They stayed with the Jet Ski."

Nameth and Ballard slept in fits and starts, and spent some time holding onto a crab trap buoy in hopes that it might anchor them. Nichole was worried about the weather.

"There were no storms right on top of us but there was lightning around us and we were scared it was going to come toward us," she said. "I was nervous, but he told me not to cry.

"I knew Mom was worrying so much and probably thought I was dead or something, but I'm okay. I thought it was kind of an adventure."

Cheri Ballard, meanwhile, was planning some parenting changes. In her letter, she promised to be a more vigilant parent, even if her daughter saw it as overprotectiveness. "When I was like that you were safe in my arms," she explained.

While stranded, Nameth said he adopted a macho stance.

"I got scared, but I didn't really let her know because she's a little bit more fragile," he said.

But he added that his first time on a such a small watercraft would likely be his last.

They were rescued about 13 miles out in the gulf, west of Aripeka, said Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteer John Balazs, a crewman on the boat that towed the personal watercraft to shore. A SunCruz casino ship sighted the castaways, and a water taxi returned them to shore.

Nameth and Ballard offered this advice to others looking for aquatic adventure: Take two watercrafts _ and some flares.

They said they planned to round out the day Thursday with a shower, some food and some sleep.

And the couple said they planned to embellish the details of their trip wildly now that they were safe.

"We'll exaggerate, and make it seem like there were monsters," Nichole said. Nameth chimed in:

"I'll tell (my friends) I fought off a shark."

_ Staff writers Christopher Goffard and Michele Miller contributed to this report.

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