MADIERA BEACH, Fla. -- 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 their 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 charter captain who operates out of John's Pass near St. Petersburg. "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 Monday by the Coast Guard.
Cooper's family and friends, holding out hope that he is still alive, spearheaded the private effort.
Heath, a board member of the Merchant Marine Captains Association, which is organizing much of the private search, 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. And they're still in touch with the families.
Another captain, Dane Karcher, said his charter company's four vessels would be making 12 fishing trips to the area through the weekend.
"We're keeping our eyes open," he said.
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.