Friday, September 04, 2009

8 Days Adrift

They were fishermen, not sailors, but once disaster happens, it matters not your method of propulsion, merely how well prepared you are, how determined you are to survive, and the common sense you display.

The story of the three fishermen who survived for eight days in the Gulf of Mexico, unaware that the search for them had been called off, is a heart-warming tale of cool common sense, determination to survive - and lessons learned.

They fought depression and hallucinations, were spooked by schools of sharks and kept up their flagging strength by eating a noxious diet of gasoline-soaked crackers, hot beer and tainted water.

Work colleagues James Phillips, 30, Curt Hall, 28, and Tressell Hawkins, 42, set out from Matagorda on Aug. 21 for an overnight trip in their 23ft catamaran, Blessing. After they were reported missing on August 22, the Coast Guard scoured 86,000 square miles of water until Friday August 28, without finding them. They had then called off the search.

“I knew we were coming home; I never had a doubt,” survivor and father of five James Phillips told the Houston and Texas News.

At around midnight on 21st, Hawkins woke Phillips and told him the rear of the boat was awash.

“He said, ‘Jim, we got water in the boat and my beanbag's floating,' ” Phillips recounted. “Within about a minute the boat had flipped over. We didn't have time to do nothing but watch it roll. We couldn't do nothing.”

Hall said he ran to the VHF radio and began to transmit an emergency call to the Coast Guard. It was cut short 15 seconds later when the boat flipped, slamming his face against the water.

“Once we were awake and saw what happened, it flipped over in one minute,“ said Phillips, who recalled leaping to a canopy to try and counter-balance the listing boat. “Then us country boys went into survival mode. That's all we could do.”'

Phillips suspects that the bilge pump on the port side of the catamaran failed or shorted out, allowing seawater to fill the interior hull. He estimated that he and Hall made more than 30 dives underneath the boat, trying to secure whatever supplies they could find. The only food they found was a box of crackers with peanut butter, a bag of potato chips, sunflower seeds and pack of chewing gum.

They eventually found a hose connected to a 30-gallon fresh-water tank. The men were able to cut a hose to sip gasoline-flavored water from it. They cut the blue tarp from the top of the canopy, using it as a shield against the merciless Gulf sun in the day and for warmth at night.

Hall dove under the boat, removed the radio, and was able to disconnect the boat's heavy batteries and hoist them atop the hull. They were able to make a brief radio transmission before the batteries died.

They also found a case of beer.

“We'd eat crackers one day, and then a handful of chips. Everything tasted like gasoline and saltwater,” said Phillips. “It doesn't sound that bad right now, but let me tell you, it was rough.”

‘They weren't there'
Hall said he twice saw U.S. Coast Guard rescue planes fly over their capsized vessel, and a helicopter as well. The Coast Guard, which gave up the search last Friday after the three had been missing a week, never saw them.

“They did drift quite a bit,” said Chief Warrant Officer Lionel Bryant, Coast Guard spokesman.

Phillips said the roughest time for the men was during the heat of the day, when they would try to endure the sun's rays and keep up their spirits.

“About the fourth or fifth day we started hallucinating about people dropping off food and water. And we were talking to them, but they weren't there,” said Phillips.

One evening, Phillips got up and starting walking on the hull, convinced he was going to the convenience store near his home. “I got up to go to get some water and Copenhagen (smokeless tobacco) at the store, and I walked into the water,” Phillips recalled.

Their survival was even more miraculous, as they not only battled waves that washed over the boat, but sharks.

“We had a bunch of black-tipped sharks schooling up under the boat,” Phillips said. “One of them jumped across the back of the boat. So when we dived under the boat, we looked for sharks.”

On the last day of their ordeal, they were frustratingly close to a oil rig that they could tell was manned by a crew. Hall said he kept trying to move the engines as a rudder, in hopes it would steer the boat toward the rig. It seemed so close, he and the other were tempted to make a swim for it.

“It wasn't that far; I was thinking about swimming many times, many times,” said Hall .

The men knew their overturned vessel would eventually sink, since the port pontoon was steadily filling with water.

They tried to get the attention of boaters and the Coast Guard by building distress flags out of their T-shirts and tying them to the boat's metal railing that they kicked out and used as flagpoles.

It was the T-shirts that caught the eye of Eddie Yaklin, who was out on his own 75-foot yacht, Affordable Fantasy, fishing for blue marlin. Yaklin saw something in the distance, flapping. By this time, they were 180 miles southeast of Matagorda.

As Yaklin and his boating party got closer, they found all three men sitting on top of their capsized craft.

“I was trying to help them in the boat,” said Yaklin, laughing. “They jumped in the boat.”

Once aboard, Yaklin treated them to steaks, their first real food in eight days. “They were hungry,” Yaklin said.

The Coast Guard spokesman, Bryant, said the case highlights the importance of carrying an electronic positioning indicator radio beacon, or EPIRB, aboard. Such a device, which starts at about $200, could have signaled for help more quickly and pinpointed to rescuers exactly where the men were.

“We didn't have an EPIRB. I had everything else on there but that,” Phillips said. “But you can bet your butt I'll have one on the next one.”

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