SAN DIEGO — Three fishermen whose aging wooden boat sank in rough seas off San Clemente Island spent 13 hours clinging to a piece of wreckage before they were plucked from the ocean by a Coast Guard helicopter Friday morning and flown to San Diego.
Robert Culwell, 43, of West Covina; his nephew, John Culwell, 24, of Mira Loma, and David Shakey, 20, of Long Beach emerged from a Coast Guard jet about 10:45 a.m., pink-skinned and swaddled in military thermal blankets but still capable of cracking a few jokes.
"Oh boy, as for myself, I can say I'm not going to fish for a living any more," said the elder Culwell, who said he has worked intermittently as a commercial fisherman. "I might turn myself into a fish broker. I'll let them catch 'em, and I'll sell 'em."
Asked whether he was going to pull through, Shakey answered softly from a stretcher, "I dunno. I haven't decided yet."
The Culwells and Shakey, a crew member, had set off Thursday morning from Terminal Island in the elder Culwell's boat, "Sandy," on an overnight trip to fish for red snapper. Shortly before 8:30 p.m. and 40 miles southwest of San Clemente Island, two large swells struck the boat, a World War II-era surplus Navy vessel.
The swells apparently tore a plank loose from the hull, the elder Culwell said. His nephew quickly radioed the Coast Guard for help. He had time only to give the vessel's coordinates before the ship began to sink. They believe it went down in three minutes.
At first, the three men clung to the boat's dinghy. When that sank, they grabbed the wood-and-Styrofoam cover of their fish box, which had floated to the surface. For hours they floated, waiting for rescue, occasionally watching the Coast Guard planes overhead as they futilely searched the area.
Coast Guard officials said they called off the search about midnight, returning to the scene at about 8 a.m. Friday.
Finally, shortly before 9 a.m., aviation electronics technician William Tuohy spotted the orange of the fishermen's life jackets, which he said looked about the size of a dime from 500 feet in the air. A Coast Guard helicopter pulled the men from the water and flew them to San Clemente Island, where an airplane took them to San Diego.
Asked how they passed their time in the water, the younger Culwell called from an ambulance shortly before heading to the University of California, San Diego, Medical Center for a checkup:"Got wet. Froze our butts off."
Nevertheless, the Culwells asked to forgo the checkups and left the hospital, officials there said. Shakey was treated for hypothermia and was expected to be released late Friday.
John Culwell's mother, Donna, said in a telephone interview that the fishing trip was Shakey's first as a crew member. He had recently moved from Texas, she said, where he had worked as a ranch hand.
She said her son is an experienced fisherman who has been in the business for about five years.