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Two stranded in ocean overnight after wave topples boat; rescued by Coast Guard

After 17 hours spent clinging to the hull of their capsized boat, Cory Bowman and Justyn Bradley knew their ordeal was finally nearing its end.

A U.S. Coast Guard C-130 plane had just flown overhead and was making another pass. They had wisely avoided the beer in their cooler all night, to stay alert and hydrated, but the presence of the Coast Guard aircraft in the morning sky was cause for celebration.

"Yeah, we cracked a nasty, warm, 85-degree Bud Light, and it was great," Bowman said Monday afternoon.

Bowman and Bradley were rescued Monday morning at about 8:30 a.m by a sportfishing charter boat that been alerted to their overturned vessel by the Coast Guard pilot in the C-130.

Almost a full day earlier, the pair had set out from the Jupiter Inlet area on Bradley's 21-foot Parker to fish for some mahi-mahi. The trip was cut short around 4 p.m. when a 12-foot rogue wave came at them, capsizing the boat and tossing Bowman, 38, of Tequesta, and Bradley, 37, of Jupiter, into the ocean.

"It pitched my buddy Justyn 30 feet out of the boat, it literally just catapulted him," said Bowman, adding that he grew up in Florida and has spent a lot of time on the water. "This thing was just, I've never seen one that sharp, that tall. It was ridiculous."

After Bowman swam under the boat to retrieve two life jackets and their cooler, which they tied up and held on to, their long night began.

When night began to fall, Bowman said, gaffer dolphins started swimming around them, about 15 to 20 of them over several hours. The stars and moon shone light down on the water, and the phytoplankton glowed like lightning bugs. To Bowman, it sounded like his noise machine at home — just constant waves. There was conversation, but also bouts of silence.

At one point, Bowman noted their predicament.

"I told Justyn, I said, 'we're in trouble, dude, we're in serious trouble, dude,' " he said.

Bowman said waves washed him off the boat at least a half dozen times. The entire night, he lay on his stomach on the hull. He didn't sleep at all, and the night went by surprisingly fast, he said.

"Honestly, neither one of us ever panicked at all," Bowman said. "I really, truly believed I was going to get found. I didn't break down really until I got on land, saw my family, my wife."

Bradley's wife, Beth, on Monday described both men as seaworthy and said she alternated between calm and panic.

"I knew that if anybody was going to survive [out there], it was going to be those two," she said. "But the thought crosses your mind, what if they don't come home?"

As for her husband, Beth Bradley said he was too tired and too shaken up to discuss the incident on Monday.

Bowman, as well as Beth Bradley, credited the Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for the "unbelievable" search effort that ultimately got the two men back to their families.

"They definitely love their job," Bowman said of the Coast Guard crew. "They were genuinely good people, that's what they live for."

Petty Officer Jon-Paul Rios, a spokesman stationed in Miami, said he appreciated the sentiment. "This is what the Coast Guard does," Rios said. "We are the premier agency when it comes to search and rescue. It's one of our main missions."

In a press release, the Coast Guard said that on Sunday night, in a bid to find the men, it had diverted the Cutter Bluefin, an 87-foot patrol boat stationed in Fort Pierce, to aid in the search. The C-130 aircraft was deployed from its home base in Clearwater. The search resumed early Monday morning.

Captain Tris Colket, owner of Fort Pierce-based Last Mango Sportfishing Charters, had a group of about a half dozen customers on board when the C-130 flew overheard a few times, getting his attention.

Colket got on his radio and spoke to the pilot, who told him of the two men sitting atop the hull and asked Colkert if he could go over there. Absolutely, Colket said. The C-130 pilot dropped a smoke flare to show Bowman and Bradley's location.

The men had drifted about 45 miles north, and were 12 miles off Fort Pierce when they were found.

Colket said that even as he approached, it was difficult to spot the capsized vessel because of its dark hull.

"If it weren't for the smoke we would've never seen them," Colket said. "We had to be right on top of them before we could see them. As we approached them, we could tell that they were very excited that we were coming at them."

Colket and his crew threw rings to the men, who were then brought aboard the Last Mango. They had some coffee and were given dry T-shirts. After about a half-hour, a Coast Guard smallboat arrived and the men were transferred to it and brought to Fort Pierce.

Bowman said he broke down when he saw his wife, Laurie, and his stepmother and father waiting for him.

Beth Bradley said she was also grateful for the way the situation ended. "I'm relieved, it was a long night," she said.

She also said her husband has decided to take a break from fishing.

As for Bowman, he said he took at least two things away from the experience: he's not invincible, and that while he enjoys a good relationship with his wife, he wants to be a better husband.

"Listen, man," he said, "if you have an experience like that and don't take something out of it, you're not paying attention."

bsclarkson@tribune.com, 561-243-6609 or twitter @BrettClarkson

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