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'Miracle' rescue buoyed by hope and faith

A lucky string of events and quick thinking saves seven family members who floated for 20 hours off Charleston, S.C.

A family fishing trip became a test of faith and survival as seven anglers - ages 5 to 60 - floated off Charleston,  S.C., for 20 hours after their 38-foot powerboat sank. They were rescued when a sharp-eyed Coast Guard helicopter crewman spotted them under a sliver of moon.

Wearing PFDs and staying together near the boat helped save the anglers. Shown here are (from left) Tyler Willimon, Jody Gouge and his son Xander.

"It was pitch dark," says Roger Gouge, 60, of Marion, N.C. "There was a slight moon out, so slight that it was almost non-existent."

For most of the night, the only lights he could see were that wafer-thin crescent moon, a red dot atop a tower 21-1/2 miles away in Mount Pleasant, S.C., and an electric-blue ribbon of bioluminescence every time one of them swept an arm or leg through the 77-degree water. Also on board were Gouge's sons Rodney, 41, and Jody, 32; his grandsons Tyler, 15, Kaleb, 14, and 5-year-old Xander; and his son-in-law, Rex Willimon, 39.

About 6 a.m. Sept. 5 - Sunday of Labor Day weekend - Gouge saw the running lights of a Coast Guard helicopter draw nearer and nearer, its spotlight sweeping across the water. His prayers had been answered. "I knew the Lord was going to take care of us and save us," says Gouge (pronounced gooj), who with Jody owns a masonry and tile shop.

The search pattern brought the helicopter closer with each sweep, but the cold and tired survivors - each wearing a life jacket and tied to one another with line for fenders - had nothing with which to signal. Their flares had been dumped into the water about 10 a.m. the day before when the stern of the $140,000-plus Fountain express cruiser slipped under the water, leaving just its bow bobbing in the 2- to 4-foot swells.

Investigators were trying to determine the cause of the sinking.

The search-and-rescue crew "missed us the first time by," says Gouge, a choir director at his church.

Willimon, of Easley, S.C., had been carrying a hand-held VHF on his belt, but when he went into the water with it, the radio stopped working. It was supposed to have been waterproof.

The helicopter was on the last leg of its search pattern and about to return to shore to refuel when Petty Officer 2nd Class Ben Rosen - peering through infrared night-vision goggles - saw a smudge on the water. "He thought he might have seen some debris or maybe a bunch of pelicans," Gouge says.

Below, the survivors - linked by the line to a white 100-quart cooler stocked with sodas, kielbasa and chicken salad - were rocking the cooler back and forth with all the strength they could muster to signal their rescuers. "They made a U-turn and came down the same grid and that light came on us and it stayed on us. They circled us a dozen times," Gouge says. The clan knew they'd been found. "We were just so happy that soon we were going to be out of that water," he says.

The survivors had passed the dark, scary night hours singing hymns - "Amazing Grace," "Nothing but the Blood," "The Master of the Sea." The youngest, Xander, had cried much of the day and into the night. Exhausted, he eventually sank into a restless sleep.

When the Fountain foundered and the seven slipped into the water, Gouge held Xander close and the boy asked him, "Are we going to die?" Gouge shared his prayer with his youngest grandson: The Lord would watch over them.

Gouge says he was scared - really scared - just once at about 3 a.m., when a fishing trawler scudded by about 40 yards away. "When you get a fishing boat coming at you in open water, you worry that you'll make a mistake and swim the wrong way and get run down," he says. The trawler passed, its pilot oblivious to them and their efforts to avoid succumbing to fear, exhaustion and discomfort.

Gasoline leaked from the engines, creating a toxic bath around the 38-footer. The fuel stung their skin; its odor made them sick. "It was eating everyone up," Willimon says. Jellyfish were swarming, their tentacles stinging bare skin. Willimon had to peel one from his son Tyler's leg.

Willimon and Gouge took turns climbing onto the Fountain's bow to signal for help, and they saw sharks - one of them a big gray shark - swimming around the boat. Willimon says the anglers' bait and a half bag of dog food had spilled into the water, possibly attracting the sharks, but Gouge credits the gasoline with keeping the predators at bay. "Fish do not like gasoline," he says.

Trouble in the engine space

As they set out Saturday morning from Shem Creek Marina in Mount Pleasant, the Gouge clan's expectations were high. "We were down for an unforgettable weekend," says Gouge. Willimon, who had bought the 6-year-old Fountain during the summer, set a heading of 108 degrees from Charleston Harbor and stopped 21-1/2 miles out in 65 feet of water. "We had just dropped the bait down," Willimon says. "This was our first stop."

They had planned to go 40 miles out but, fortunately for them, made it no farther than they did before their trouble began. The Fountain was idling bow into the swells with Willimon and his father-in-law at the helm, one of the anglers on the swim platform cutting bait, two at the stern fishing and two more forward rigging up, Willimon says.

The bilge alarm sounded, alerting them that the pumps were running. Then an engine shut down. Willimon went aft and opened the engine compartment hatch. He says the compartment already was flooded. Water was spewing out the air intake. He suspected that the water was coming in via a through-hull - some part of the exhaust system of the twin MerCruiser 496s.

He says he threw one of his crewmembers a couple of T-shirts to stuff into the through-transom exhaust ports, but it was too late. The second engine stopped. Within five minutes, the water in the cockpit was up to Willimon's knees and the stern was going under. A swell swept over the transom, blowing out the windshield and washing away the flares on the instrument panel. Within 10 minutes, the seven were in their life jackets and in the water.

Before abandoning the boat, Willimon sent a mayday - several, in fact - over the VHF at the helm. "The mayday call was stepped on," says Lt. Cmdr. Ryan Rhodes, command center chief at Coast Guard Sector Charleston. "All we got was, 'Mayday, mayday, mayday' - very fast. 'Thirty-eight-foot Fountain going down.' Then it was stepped on. We heard 'a half mile out.' Then it was stepped on again."

Willimon had bought the 38-foot Fountain this past summer.

Willimon says his mayday gave his heading and distance from Charleston Harbor. The Coast Guard, presuming the boat was a half-mile offshore because the distress call was cut off, launched a six-and-a-half-hour search with two helicopters and a utility boat. "There was no sign of distress," Rhodes says.

About 10 o'clock that evening Willimon's wife called the Coast Guard to report the seven anglers overdue. She said they had planned to fish the wrecks off Charleston, but she didn't know which ones. "She gave us some pictures of the vessel and we started the search back up," Ryan says. A C-130, two rescue helicopters and an 87-foot cutter, the Yellowfin, helped in the search.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard had called TowBoatU.S. operator Steve Little, of Maritime Services of Charleston, and asked him to identify wrecks where the boat might have been. "I sent the Coast Guard the latitudes and longitudes of different wrecks - the most popular ones that they might be fishing," Little says. Then he put out an alert on, asking anglers if they had seen the Fountain earlier in the day.

'Miracle' rescue

Each of the family members was wearing a snug-fitting, Type III neoprene life vest. Willimon also tossed three life jacket bags into the water, each packed with four of the bulkier orange Type II PFDs, plus the big white cooler and a length of fender line that he used to tie the survivors to each other - PFD to PFD - and to the life jacket bags and the cooler.

"The Coast Guard guy said that was the best thing you could possibly do - tie everyone together," Willimon says. "At night, it got really, really, really cold, and people started getting sleepy. If we hadn't been tied together, we would have begun drifting away from each other."

Xander's father, Jody, buoyed up with a couple of the extra life jackets under him, held on to the handle at one end of the cooler and made a cradle with his arms for Xander to sit on with his back to the cooler so that he was mostly out of the water, Willimon says. The rest of the family was at the other end of the cooler, holding on to the other handle and to each other, trying to steady the cooler.

At first, they wanted to get away from the boat, which appeared ready to go to the bottom, but it stayed afloat until well after their rescue, Willimon says. The seven had drifted a mile or so from it when they realized it wasn't going to sink. They made their way back to it so rescuers would have a bigger target to find.

Willimon climbed onto the bow of the Fountain, cut the anchor off the 120 feet of rode, left one end tied to the boat and tied the other end to a bag of life jackets so one of the passengers could hold on to the PFDs and serve as the link between the boat and the rest of the survivors. That way if the boat sank it wouldn't take them down with it. "That kept us tethered to the boat," Willimon says. "If we hadn't stayed with the boat, it's not likely we would have been found."

The first helicopter hoisted two of them into its rescue basket, the second chopper the remaining five, for transport to the Medical University of South Carolina Hospital. All except Willimon were released the same day. He remained hospitalized for two days with deep bruises to his back and ribs - injuries sustained as he rummaged through the boat gathering lines and life jackets just before they went into the water.

Gouge points out that, remarkably, the boat to which they were tethered didn't seem to drift much. He kept his eye on the distant red tower light and it hardly moved, relative to them. "What held that boat there?" Gouge asks.

He believes their prayers did.

The survivors were wearing PFDs and stayed together close to the boat - actions that helped saved their lives. However, searchers likely would have found them more quickly if they had been carrying an EPIRB or had left their wives a written float plan of where they planned to go and when they planned to be back, Rhodes says.

Though the boat later sank, Willimon asked Little to salvage it. The insurer was investigating. Willimon says the investigator told him there were no obvious through-hull failures, but it appeared that the engines were sucking water into the engine compartment through the exhaust ports - possibly because the exhaust elbows were too close to the waterline, letting water back up into the engines, and because of an insufficient number of backflow flaps in the exhaust system.

Little agrees that can happen. The backflow in combination with the engines running creates a vacuum, and the engines start pumping water back into the boat and spewing it into the engine compartment through the blower and the air intakes.

"Why didn't somebody tell me about this?" Willimon asks. "I wouldn't have been floating out there with my son and my family and a 5-year-old for 20 hours." Like Gouge, he says it's a miracle they survived the ordeal, as does Little.

"There's a reason all of them are alive," Little says. "They shouldn't be."

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue.