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    Lost divers survive stormy gulf

    High waves made them hard to spot, but a family friend in his small plane manages to find them.

    ©Associated Press

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001


    SARASOTA -- Three men whose boat capsized during a storm were cold and badly dehydrated when they were rescued Monday after spending two nights struggling to stay afloat in the Gulf of Mexico.

    They were spotted by a family friend who was flying his small plane on a search mission about 7 miles off the coast of Venice in southern Sarasota County.

    "We were right on top of them," said spotter Shane Steinberg, who said they almost flew by the three men.

    "You'd see them a minute then you'd lose them for a couple seconds," pilot Rich Godoy said.

    Because of the waves, Godoy said, it would have been difficult to spot the men had they not been directly overhead. Ironically, Godoy was a mile off course. He should have been a mile farther east, but he'd been talking to his brother Ted -- also a spotter in his plane -- and the control tower and turned late.

    A Coast Guard C-130 airplane dropped the men a life raft and a helicopter retrieved them. The men were taken to Bon Secours Venice Hospital where they were in fair condition.

    Neal Obendorf, 38, of Venice; his friend Lew Lipsit, 66, of North Fort Myers; and his son Bill Lipsit, 37, of Niagara Falls, Ontario, had not been seen since Saturday when they set out for a diving trip.

    Family members said the men had told them the boat capsized and sank about 2 p.m. Saturday as a storm approached.

    The men were being held overnight in the hospital for observation, said Holly Obendorf, Neal Obendorf's sister-in-law.

    Clinging to an empty dive tank and wearing life vests, the three managed to stay afloat for nearly 48 hours, several times watching as search planes flew by but did not notice them in the high waves.

    At times the three drifted close to shore, but waves took them back out.

    "Last night they got so close to shore they could see the windows of the condos, and then they drifted back out again," Holly Obendorf said.

    The three had left Saturday morning on Obendorf's 30-foot twin-engine Wellcraft Scarab for a quick diving trip, even though they knew rough weather was approaching.

    Obendorf is an experienced diver and boater. Bill Lipsit was certified to scuba dive about a year ago in Canada.

    Obendorf told relatives he was spearfishing underwater about 15 miles from shore. When he surfaced, a wave had washed over the bow of the boat, which quickly began filling up with water.

    The men scrambled to gather as many pieces of survival equipment as they could, Holly Obendorf said. They inflated their life vests and hung on to the floating dive tank.

    By the time their families returned from a trip to Tampa's Busch Gardens at 10 p.m., the men had been in the water about eight hours. Relatives called the Coast Guard and a search began.

    Family friends who were pilots assisted in their own planes. With Sunday came a storm.

    "The guys said the rain was a blessing in disguise because it gave them a chance to get some fresh water and keep the sun off them," Holly Obendorf said.

    "We had our fingers crossed, hoping for the best."

    - Information from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune contributed to this report.

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