Search for missing boaters ‘subdued’

MADEIRA BEACH — The search for two NFL players and a third man missing in the Gulf of Mexico was scaled back Thursday, but charter boat operators said they still hoped to recover the men’s remains.

Charter captains planned to keep an eye out when they take customers out to fish, but there wasn’t the dedicated effort of Wednesday, when around a dozen boats combed the Gulf off Florida for signs of the missing men.

“At this point it appears to be a recovery effort, and where that would be, is pretty much a needle in a haystack,” said Marti Heath, a board member of the Merchant Marine Captains Association, which is organizing much of the private search, said. “So what we’re trying to do is have the people out there so at least there can be some closure” for the families.

The Coast Guard called off its search Tuesday for Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, free-agent NFL defensive lineman Corey Smith, who played for the Detroit Lions last season, and former South Florida player William Bleakley.

The friends have been missing since their boat overturned while they were on a fishing trip Saturday in rough seas. A fourth man, Nick Schuyler, was rescued by the Coast Guard on Monday.

Cooper’s family and friends, holding out hope that he is still alive, spearheaded the private effort.

Heath said charter captains were changing their fishing locations so they’ll be in areas of the Gulf where they are more likely to find some sign of the men.

Bleakley’s father, meanwhile, is asking people to learn from the accident by equipping their boats with GPS technology. Emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs) can alert rescuers and provide a boater’s location.

“They would have been back on shore by 9 o’clock Saturday night if it had an operated GPS pointer,” Robert Bleakley said. “It would have gone in the water, Coast Guard would have been dispatched, they would have pulled all four aboard safe.”

On Wednesday, Cooper’s 21-foot boat was located and towed in with little visible damage.

The men left Clearwater Pass in calm weather, but heavy winds picked up through the day and the seas got rough, with waves peaking at 15 feet. A relative alerted the Coast Guard early Sunday after the men did not return as expected.

Schuyler, 24, is in good condition and continues to recover at a Tampa hospital. A doctor said it was a miracle that he survived being in the 63-degree Gulf water for around 46 hours before he was rescued, 35 miles off Clearwater.