Two men adrift in an inflatable raft in the rough waters of the Gulf for days during Tropical Storm Debby were rescued Thursday evening about 90 miles northwest of Tarpon Springs, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
Vance Bryan, 48, and Gerald Chessher, 57, were dehydrated but otherwise appeared in good health when a good Samaritan aboard the tug barge Rikki S. plucked them from the sea, the Coast Guard said.
"It was terrifying," Bryan said in St. Petersburg after stepping off a Coast Guard cutter early Friday morning. "We knew somebody was looking for us. Thank God for the U.S. Coast Guard."
The men said they were on their way from Captiva Island, near Fort Myers, to Cancun, Mexico, when their barge sank in heavy seas created by Debby, the Coast Guard said.
The storm formed Saturday in the center of the Gulf of Mexico and lingered more than three days before making landfall in north Florida on Tuesday.
The men left Captiva on June 18 – days before the storm formed – and within a couple of days were in 20- to 30-foot seas, Bryan said. They fought the seas for about seven days before the boat sank, he said.
"The boat didn't have enough power to stay ahead of the waves, to stay bow to the waves, and the seas overpowered us," he said. "Thank God we had the equipment on board. Without that life raft behind you, we wouldn't be here now. We wouldn't have survived a day without it."
The men spent the first three or four days zipped up in their life raft because the seas were so rough, Bryan said.
"But today (Thursday) it got so hot that the reality of our situation become clear," Bryan said. "We knew we had two or three days left."
The men had limited supplies, with maybe a three-day supply of small packets of drinking water remaining, Bryan said.
A friend of one of the men called Coast Guard watch-standers in St. Petersburg about 11 a.m. Sunday to report they did not arrive in Cancun as expected Saturday.
The Coast Guard launched an aircraft to search for the men at 1 p.m. Sunday and continued to search roughly 22,000-square-nautical miles by air and sea until the men were found, Coast Guard Lt. Ben O'Loughlin said.
The tropical storm made the search very difficult, O'Loughlin said.
"With the south winds with the storm, they could have been anywhere in the Gulf," he said. "We're very glad we had a good outcome. It was a massive, massive effort for this search."
"Just happy to be alive," Chessher said. "I was more concerned with my family and loved ones and about their feelings than about myself."