That would be my worst nightmare, to be clinging to a cooler three miles off Gay Head . . . Things happen so fast. Life is precious.

Three men were rescued from the waters off Aquinnah on Monday afternoon after the boat they were in sank in heavy seas. The rescuers were three derby fishermen.

Caleb D. Nicholson, 37, of Oak Bluffs was out fishing with two friends when they spotted three men clinging to a cooler in chilly, rough seas.

The dramatic rescue took place at about 3:30 p.m., three miles northwest of the Gay Head cliffs. Mr. Nicholson and his fishing colleagues transported the three men, all suffering from exposure, to the Menemsha dock where they were met by police, EMTs and the Coast Guard. Mr. Nicholson said he believes the three were from New Bedford. Only one spoke English.

“One of them said to me: ‘This is a miracle you were here to save us,’” Mr. Nicholson recounted in an interview with the Gazette on Tuesday afternoon at his business office in Vineyard Haven.

Caleb Nicholson holding a cooler
Caleb Nicholson displays cooler the fishermen used to stay afloat. — Mark Lovewell

Coast Guard petty officer Jason Chapa of station Menemsha said the Coast Guard met the boat when it returned to the dock. It is understood that the fiberglass boat the three men were in measured 20 feet in length and sank.

An investigation is underway. No names were released.

“We have a pretty good idea where the boat is,” said Michael E. Leathers, petty officer first class with the Marine Safety Detachment for Cape Cod at Otis, speaking with the Gazette on Tuesday. “We are working with the responsible party to determine salvage.” He said the boat was believed to contain about 20 gallons of gasoline and was not considered a severe environmental hazard.

Mr. Nicholson said he was out fishing for blues off Gay Head, competing in the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. He is captain of a recreational 30-foot Grady White boat called Sea Dog II. He keeps the boat in Oak Bluffs. He is a landscape designer and managing partner of Contemporary Landscapes. His mate JT Maher, works for the firm. Also on board was Neal Farrell of Edgartown. The three like to fish together.

Mr. Nicholson said they had left the dock at 11 a.m. and were winding up what was an otherwise lackluster fishing trip three miles northwest of Gay Head when they decided to head home.

He said they had done most of their fishing near a government buoy known as the green can, and had monitored the movement of five boats in the area as they fished. The boats were about 200 to 300 yards away, Mr. Nicholson estimated. He said that as the afternoon progressed the seas grew higher and the northwest wind stronger, and the number of boats at the site dropped. Seas were building to from four to eight feet and winds were up over 20 miles per hour by the time they thought of heading back. By 3 p.m., Mr. Nicholson said there was just one boat fishing in a spot not far from them, about halfway between Gay Head and Cuttyhunk. He now believes it was the boat that sank.

In the last minutes of their trip, Mr. Nicholson said: “I looked and all the boats were gone.”

Gathering consensus from his crew, Mr. Nicholson said they decided to revisit the area where that one boat had been, thinking there might be an opportunity for catching a fish. He believed the fishermen had been chumming, and there might still be fish there, the avid fishermen speculated.

At first, Mr. Nicholson said he saw what looked like lobster pot buoys bobbing in the water. He was corrected by his mate. “‘Look there are three people in the water,’ John said to me,” Mr. Nicholson recounted.

When they got closer, they found the three men holding tight to a white Igloo cooler. No one was wearing a life jacket, Mr. Nicholson said, and all were in street clothes.

He said after shutting off the engine to his boat to protect the men in the water from his propeller, Mr. Maher tossed a safety line to them. The line had a float at the end. One of the men began swimming for the boat on his own. The other two were pulled in. All three were rescued.

“One of them wasn’t a swimmer,” Mr. Nicholson said. “My concern was that we were drifting away from them. The current was strong.” The water temperature was 68 degrees, he said, and it was clear to him that all three had suffered from being in the water.

Once all were aboard, Mr. Nicholson said he alerted the Coast Guard on the marine distress channel 16. They gave the men warm, dry clothes and motored Sea Dog II to the Menemsha gas dock where they were met at 4 p.m. by two ambulances, Chilmark police and the Coast Guard.

Mr. Nicholson said the men rescued were lucky and he was happy to have made that last call to stay and fish. And he praised his crew. “This was a team effort,” he said.

Mr. Maher added his thoughts. “That would be my worst nightmare, to be clinging to a cooler three miles off Gay Head,” he said.

Mr. Nicholson concluded: “Things happen so fast. Life is precious.”