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Boater who treaded water for 20 hours recalls solitary night before rescue

Bill Durden, 60, lay in his hospital bed at Oak Hill Hospital in Spring Hill on Friday. His wife Lisa Durden inspects chaffing under his arms, damage from hours of treading water in the Gulf of Mexico. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Bill Durden, 60, lay in his hospital bed at Oak Hill Hospital in Spring Hill on Friday. His wife Lisa Durden inspects chaffing under his arms, damage from hours of treading water in the Gulf of Mexico. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Jun. 4, 2016

HOMOSASSA

Bill Durden didn't have a fishing partner.

The first day of grouper season dawned warm and clear Wednesday, and Durden set out solo on his 22-foot Grady-White.

He motored about 25 miles offshore, setting two lines to trawl the Gulf of Mexico.

About 1 or 1:30 in the afternoon, he's not exactly sure, the nose of one rod tipped. The braided line tensed. Durden, 60, knew he had snagged something. The line was too strong to break. He'd used that rod only once, and he didn't want to lose it.

He wrapped his palms around the foam handle and braced the bottom of the pole against his gut. It was a quick decision that — after an agonizing night for his family and several search crews — Durden would come to regret.

" 'I'm not letting this thing go overboard,' " he told himself.

"Well — it pulled me overboard."

• • •

Durden's fingers were still wrapped tightly around the rod when he hit the water. Dazed, he looked around and collected his thoughts.

He had no life jacket. When he fell off the boat, his flip-flops stayed behind. His phone remained on deck, too.

The boat moved in front of him, banking on a slow curve, drifting back his way. Durden dropped the pole and prepared to jump on.

But the boat slipped by. It carried on straighter, then straighter. Straight over the horizon and out of Durden's sight.

• • •

When he was 24, Bill Durden felt like he hadn't done anything special with his life. He graduated from St. Petersburg High School in 1973, and later from the University of Florida with a degree in biology.

Then he walked into a Navy recruiter's office and asked to be a pilot. He served from 1980 until 1996, reaching the rank of lieutenant commander.

On the water 20 years later, alone, skin puckering and tongue swelling, Durden thought back to his training.

"You can't freak out. You just gotta go with the flow."

Like a turtle, Durden alternated between his back and his belly, holding his breath with his head under water, popping up for air every 20 or 30 seconds.

"This is not good," he thought.

He dog-paddled, just to give himself something to do, all of his movements slow and conservative. There was no way he could cover the distance to shore.

He contemplated his choice.

"So I just started swimming to the east."

• • •

By 8:30 p.m., it was getting dark. Durden's wife, Lisa, called Sea Tow. Bill hadn't reached out to them for help that afternoon.

Her next call was to the Coast Guard.

The couple were on vacation from Reno, Nev. Bill, a FedEx pilot, had gone out on the water alone before and always returned all right.

In the gulf, he watched the sun set and the stars fill the sky. Saltwater burned his nose and throat. His shirt chafed the skin under his arms. Thirst overcame him.

"I'd give my life savings for one bottle of water," he thought.

The gulf was about 85 degrees. A light breeze, just a few miles per hour, drifted over swells of less than 1 foot.

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Earlier in the day, a boat had passed by Durden, maybe 100 yards away. He caught a glimpse and then lost it behind a wave. Another glimpse, another wave.

Durden flailed his arms. He screamed.

The boat disappeared.

• • •

Durden did not think he was going to die, but he was afraid all the same.

Remoras, the shark sucking fish, latched onto his legs as other fish circled and pecked at his skin.

"It was like my own little aquarium around my legs," Durden said.

He passed over reefs that sounded like bacon sizzling in a pan. What creatures were teeming underneath? Something big, maybe a dolphin, bumped at his toes. Durden hoped to avoid bites that would draw blood. He didn't want to attract sharks. He thought he passed one, but it was only about 10 inches long.

Durden saw what looked like a helicopter in the night, but it turned a couple of miles away.

About 1 a.m., Florida Fish and Wildlife officers found Durden's boat nested in mangroves near St. Martins Keys. It appeared in good condition, other than a bent shaft. The two grouper he had caught earlier in the day lay rank on board.

Searchers used the GPS to track the boat's path. They told Lisa the situation appeared more dire than before. She told them her husband was a Navy pilot with survival skills.

"I was lost for words," she said. "But then I clearly said I didn't need the victim people to come in. I don't want anybody here. This is a search and rescue."

• • •

Petty Officer Jacob Latour looked out a small window near the wing of a C-130 plane as the Coast Guard crew scanned the gulf. For two hours Thursday morning, they had seen nothing but water.

Eighteen miles offshore, southwest of Aripeka, Latour refocused his eyes.

"All of a sudden I saw a bright-colored object in the water," he said. "I looked closer at it, and it was waving at me."

Durden in his bright yellow fishing shirt.

Latour dropped a flare and another rescue crew in a helicopter rushed to the spot. Petty Officer Colton Campbell geared up and dove into the water. They loaded Durden into a basket and pulled him into the belly of the helicopter.

"He was cold but he was coherent," Campbell said. "He really didn't seem in bad shape. He was thirsty."

• • •

The Coast Guard pilot steered the helicopter to Clearwater.

Durden had been confident he would be found once the sun rose. The saltwater had begun to ravage his body. He had diarrhea, a headache. He yearned for a morning coffee. Words came to him slowly, and he stumbled over sentences.

Lisa was there when he reached land. She told him she loved him, and he said the same.

Durden called his son and thanked the searchers. The next day, doctors monitored him for symptoms of exposure and dehydration and checked on the sores scattered across his body.

Durden said he'll return to the water. But he vowed to never go fishing alone again.

Times photographer Douglas R. Clifford and news researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com.

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