They clung to a cooler and bobbed in the Atlantic Ocean more than six hours Sunday. Despite an episode that could easily have turned fatal, a Hilton Head Island man, his brother and a friend say they were still in good spirits when U.S. Coast Guard crews plucked them from the sea nearly 22 miles from land.
Their peace of mind could be attributed mostly to a tiny locator beacon that sent a signal to satellites, notifying the Coast Guard of the stranded boaters' location after their boat sank near West End in the Bahamas.
The three men -- Dave Mandigo of Hilton Head Island, Bruce Mandigo of Lantana, Fla., and Jhade Woodall of Washington, D.C. -- were found clinging to a cooler at about 6:30 a.m. after Bruce Mandigo's 35-foot Contender twin-engine sport-fishing boat sank during the night, according to an agency news release.
The three, who had set sail from Boynton Beach, Fla., for a weeklong fishing trip, checked into Freeport on Sunday before setting anchor about 22 miles northwest of West End, Grand Bahama Island, for the night, 48-year-old Dave Mandigo said.
Shortly before midnight, Bruce Mandigo went to bed, while Dave Mandigo and his niece's boyfriend, Woodall, decided to have a few beers on deck, Dave Mandigo said.
Darkness kept the men from noticing water gushing into the boat.
"We opened up a hatch and there was about a foot and a half of water," Dave Mandigo said. "I went to wake up my brother, and there was water in the cabin."
The men tried to bail the water out, but couldn't keep up with the rushing water, he said. The boat's batteries also were submerged.
Within five minutes of waking his brother, the boat sank, Dave Mandigo said.
"We just couldn't go fast enough to keep up, so we said, 'That's it, it's time to go,' and grabbed the lifejackets," he said. "My brother grabbed the cooler with the food and threw it in the water, but the latch was open, so we lost the food. But the cooler had handles and kept us floating together."
The men then activated a personal locator beacon, which relayed their position to the Coast Guard on a network of search-and-rescue satellites.
Dave Mandigo said every boater should have a beacon, as the device helped rescuers find them quickly.
"We weren't expected until at least Thursday, so if we didn't have the beacon, it could have been days before they started looking for us," he said. "Most people don't make it."
He said the three men also were lucky they weren't injured in the rush to get off the vessel.
"We were trying not to splash in the water and attract sharks," he said. "No one was cut, so we didn't leave a blood trail in the water. We stayed really calm."
Six hours later, a Coast Guard District 7 airplane in Miami spotted the men and sent their location to crews in Fort Pierce, Fla. An 87-foot patrol boat picked them up not long after, Petty Officer 2nd Class Nick Ameen said.
All three were cold and hungry but in good health.
Ameen said officials don't know what caused the craft to sink. They agreed the beacon probably saved their lives.
Coincidentally, Monday marked the start of National Safe Boating Week. Ameen said the incident, though unfortunate, serves as a good example to other boaters, who should have a beacon and test onboard equipment to make sure it works.
On Monday, Dave Mandigo was back at his brother's Lantana home. The pair decided to try to make the best of the few days of vacation they had left together before he returned to his wife, 19-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son on Hilton Head.
"We still don't know what happened," he said. "We've spent all our lives on the water, and it's one of those things you never want to happen. But it did."