Kevin Derlon, right, and Chuck Williams ride to
safety after being pulled from the water Sunday
morning after their boat capsized in rough water.
CORTEZ – He can joke about it now, but floating near his capsized boat surrounded by chum off Egmont Key last Sunday morning, Kevin Derlon wasn’t laughing.
Derlon’s 18-foot Gulf Craft fishing boat, "Shark Bait," was capsized by the third wave that hit it after his two fishing lines became entangled in a crab trap.
The buckets of floating chum that he and his friend, Chuck Williams, had brought along as bait had just transformed the two Cortez men into prey in an area known for sharks.
"We went out to shark fish," said Derlon, 52, a seasonal resident from Michigan. When the waves came up, he and Williams, 43, headed for the calmer leeward side of the island, where their fishing lines hooked a crab trap.
They never saw the buoy, which was submerged, Derlon said.
"We saw some other buoys around, but that one was under water," he said."We have to dodge these things like little land mines," Williams said, adding that the buoy also was in the channel, a violation of state law.
The incident was an eerie reminder of the recent tragedy when four men capsized 30 miles out in the Gulf and only one survived. That sole survivor stayed with the overturned boat, which is what the U.S. Coast Guard recommends in such emergencies.
But Derlon and Williams found that almost impossible, since all but a corner of the boat was submerged. And, the two had just filled the water with bloody chum, which was floating in the water all around them.
"My biggest thought was to get away from the boat," Derlon said.
Williams, the better swimmer, had a similar thought, and said his goal was "To get him (Derlon) out of the water and stay away from sharks."
Wearing life vests and holding a floating cushion, they swam with the wind behind them toward Egmont Key, but the current was headed the opposite way - toward the Gulf of Mexico.
"We got within 200 yards (of Egmont). I couldn’t quite read the signs on shore," Derlon said. "Chuck was blowing a whistle and a fishing boat started heading our way, but didn’t see us. We held up a white throwable cushion with handles on both sides, then they saw us," he said.
Holmes Beach resident Bob Hageman and a friend fished them out of the water and marked the submerged boat.
"It was a moving tide," Hageman said. "Egmont wasn’t too far away, but after an hour of swimming, they had only gone about 100 yards," he estimated.
After the rescuers delivered the men to Annie’s Bait and Tackle in Cortez, the Eckerd College Search and Rescue Team arrived. The group of students provides maritime search and rescue services to the Tampa Bay boating community, and recovered "Shark Bait" later that day.
The deep claimed two cell phones, a GPS, a stereo, fishing poles, reels, lures and other equipment, and ruined the boat motor, Derlon said.
But the sharks went away hungry.
If boaters find any gear marked "KD" or "Shark Bait," please call Derlon at 989-598-0154.