Four men and three children clung to an ice cooler floating in the ocean off Charleston, the bow of their sunken boat sticking up alongside them. Morning turned into evening, evening turned into night. They were 30 miles out to sea.

"No EPIRB (emergency position- indicating radio beacon), no signalling device. ... All they had was they were wearing their life jackets," U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Evanson said. Early Saturday, the Coast Guard had received a lone small radio transmission: "Mayday. We're going down." That was it, no more, and no fix on location.

Helicopters took off and searched the wide sea for six hours before returning to base. At midnight a new call came to the helicopter crews: Launch. A woman had called the Coast Guard and said her husband's boat never returned. The 38-foot powerboat had left from Shem Creek at 10 a.m. Saturday morning.

She knew about where the boat had headed. A helicopter took off from the Coast Guard base on Johns Island, joined in the air by a second helicopter out of Savannah and a C-130 aircraft out of Elizabeth City, N.C.

Aboard the helicopter from Johns Island, Petty Officer 2nd Class Ben Rosen began to scour the sea with his night-vision goggles. There was only a slim moon and little light. The aircraft were searching an area 60 miles wide by 30 miles deep. Rosen is 22 years old. It was his first search and rescue. For six hours, his eyes went back and forth, back and forth.

At 6 a.m. Sunday they had to call it quits, too little fuel, time to head back. They were on their last leg of a search pattern.

It might have been first light, it might have been a little glow from the moon. But Rosen caught something in the swells.

"I couldn't tell what it was. It could have been seaweed. It could have been a flock of pelicans," he said. It was a debris field from the boat sinking. The pilot turned around and spotted the people, the bow of the boat. A rescue swimmer dropped in and reported them all alive. The three children and two of the men were hoisted aboard Rosen's helicopter. The others were rescued separately.

They were wearing swim trunks, a few had T-shirts. They were shivering cold and had been stung repeatedly by jellyfish. But they were all right. The Coast Guard transported them to Medical University Hospital in Charleston.

"By that time they were exhausted. They were definitely happy to get out of there," Rosen said.

Evanson said among the people rescued were Jody Gouge and Xander Gouge, but the others were not identified. The Gouges could not be reached for comment.

The rescue "was kind of surreal," Rosen said. "Obviously, you have someone out there and you want to find them. But it was pretty dark and you have no signal where they are. After six hours of searching, to just find them under those conditions and get them home safely, that was just awesome."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or bpetersen@postandcourier.com.