For 18 hours, Randy Waldorf of Lenexa bobbed in the Gulf of Mexico, lashed to a capsized boat with two friends.
They watched aircraft search too far out to sea and got stung as five-foot waves pelted them with jellyfish.
Waldorf, Arlen Gastineau of Orlando, Fla., and Ken Harper of Colorado Springs, Colo., clung to Gastineau's 23-foot boat, School's Out, in an ordeal that passed mostly at night, knowing rescuers could not see them in the dark sea.
The trouble began Friday, Waldorf said, shortly after they motored out for a fishing expedition. They had told people they were headed about 40 miles off shore, but the swells were bad so they stopped after about 25 miles.
The boat drifted as the men fished for a few hours. Then it was time to go, but the engine wouldn't start. Worse, the boat started filling with water. There may have been a problem with the bilge pump — they don't know for sure.
The men knew they had to prepare to survive in the ocean while they hoped for rescue, so they drank water, put on life vests and got rope to tie themselves to the boat. They were ready when it flipped at 6 p.m., dusk.
Friends and family soon called the Coast Guard but told them to look about 40 miles out. At about 8 p.m. back in Lenexa, Kathy Waldorf got the call that the men were missing, she said.
In the water, her husband strained to hold the ropes as waves crashed overhead.
"They were three feet to five feet waves," he said. "I was literally gripping three ropes for all the time we were in the water."
He shut his eyes as the waves hit and the men didn't talk much, he said. "None of us said a
lot but we would check on each other."
About 10:30 a.m. Saturday, the men saw a C-130 airplane come out of the sky.
"They circled four times, dropped some smoke and called every (boat) in the area," he said.
By about noon, a charter fishing boat had reached the men about 20 miles west of Clearwater, Fla., and pulled them out of the 70-degree water. Kathy finally got the call they were safe.
The men transferred to other boats and got to shore in St. Petersburg, where Gastineau, 70, collapsed. His body temperature was 74 degrees, Waldorf said, and he was taken to a hospital, where he seemed to be doing well Sunday.
Waldorf said he couldn't eat or drink much for hours, possibly from swallowing so much sea water. His arms bore marks from jellyfish stings that looked like a dotted rash.
But the experience gave the men new perspective, he said Sunday. "No reason to sweat the small stuff," he said.
He flew into Kansas City International Airport on Sunday, where he hugged his wife, two adult daughters and his 9-month-old granddaughter.
He will turn 50 later this month, and it will be something to celebrate, they said. Waldorf, who works for a title company in Kansas, said he plans to stay close to home and play golf for the time being.
Harper doesn't know if he'll want to go to sea anymore and Gastineau is wondering whether to buy a new boat or take a break.
But Waldorf said he probably won't write off deep-sea fishing expeditions forever. "I did catch the only grouper that was big enough for us to keep on this trip," he said.