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Date of Issue: November 16, 2006

Cortez hopes Medusa will fish again

The Medusa will fish again, Cortez is fairly confident, after spending a week on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Crews have been on the job ever since the 42-foot commercial fisherman was swamped and sunk by a rogue wave 60 miles off Sarasota Tuesday, Nov. 7, with its crew of four and the ship's dog rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter.

The salvage operation has been under way virtually around the clock, first locating the boat with a "bottom machine" used in commercial fishing, checking the damage by divers, inserting heavy air bags in the hull and filling them with air to float the crippled boat, and towing her home for repairs.

That's if all goes well. The sea is seldom kind enough to let everything go right, Cortez fishermen pointed out.

It didn't go right for the Medusa last week, when a rogue wave piled over the port bow and swamped the boat, leaving the captain and his crew of three and their dog in 10-foot seas, with a strong wind blowing.

As the boat filled with water and killed the engine, Capt. Gary Key, 55, radioed a "mayday" distress call as he and his three shipmates abandoned ship. With the Bradenton captain were his son Brian, 20; Hector Melendez, 38, Bradenton; and Shaun Olschewski, Sarasota.

And Budweiser, the ship's dog, which the younger Key took with him over the side.

The boat, sinking stern first, dragged the life raft with it, but the raft resurfaced and the men climbed aboard. Melendez said its beacon and flare were loose in the water, but the men managed to salvage them as they floated by.

A Coast Guard helicopter followed the Medusa's radar signal and spotted the red flare, the orange raft and finally the men. Mike Gerent, an aviation survival technician, went down at the end of a cable with a rescue basket attached to fish them one by one from the Gulf.

He swam to the raft, and the first words Capt. Key spoke were to make sure the dog would be saved, Gerent said. He would be, he assured the skipper.

He helped each one of the crew swim from raft to the rescue basket, hauling them in "a cross-chest carry." The captain was last, and Gerent let him carry the dog - it is part Labrador and part pit. Key held onto Budweiser as Gerent swam both of them back to the waiting basket under the hovering helicopter.

By that time the wind had pushed the raft some 75 yards away, but Gerent had no problem with that long final swim. "We stay in pretty good shape," he said.

The Medusa is around 30 years old and is owned by the FV Medusa Inc. of Cortez, whose principals are Calvin Bell and Glenn "Rabbit" Brooks. The boat is uninsured, as are other commercial fishing craft. They can't afford the high insurance rates, said Karen Bell, of A.P. Bell Fish Co., headquarters of the fishing industry there and owner of several long-line fishing boats.

The boat was about halfway through a planned two-week long-line trip and had 800 to 1,000 pounds of grouper aboard.

Pickett Reynolds and his grouper boat "Karen" were first at the scene from the historic fishing village, and found the Medusa's fishing gear on the bottom about 175 feet down. Grey Bowman, of the Bowman firm that does much of the salvaging in the area, is directing the diving and salvaging operations.

Several air bags are on hand in the village, Bell said, but they haven't been used or tested for several years and "we will probably have to get some newer ones."