A last chance swim for help

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A pair of fishermen spend nearly two days on their overturned hull, then swim to an offshore oil rig

A pair of fishermen spend nearly two days on their overturned hull, then swim to an offshore oil rig

For Aaron Pilcher, the decision was easy: swim or die.

After spending nearly two days clinging to an overturned 23-foot Mako in the Gulf of Mexico, Pilcher and longtime friend Michael Prahm knew that swimming to an offshore oil rig might be their last chance for rescue.

 

Listen to Aaron Pilcher's first-hand account, and hear from other Ultimate Survivors on Soundings Rescue Channel.

“Mikey’s legs cramped up on him really bad. He started throwing up because he had taken in so much salt water,” says Pilcher, 29, of Friendswood, Texas, in an interview with Soundings. “He kinda freaked out. I kinda freaked out because I didn’t want to leave him. But I knew if one of us didn’t make it to that rig we weren’t going to make it.”

Pilcher and Prahm, who is 25 and also of Friendswood, set off aboard the Mako from Freeport, Texas, Wednesday, May 16, at about 8:30 a.m. Pilcher, an electrician, has been fishing since “he was old enough to hold a fishing rod,” says his mother, Annette Pilcher.

The men started the twin 115-hp outboards and headed toward a popular fishing spot known locally as the “22-1/2s”, about 40 miles offshore, Pilcher says. About four miles from the spot the men discovered a weed line and began trolling for wahoo and dolphin. Pilcher called his wife, Crystal, to say they would return between 5 and 8 o’clock that evening.

It wasn’t long after getting started that the men realized the boat was getting heavy, says Pilcher. They stopped and quickly saw they were taking on water. “One of the motors had died at that time,” says Pilcher. “I tried to get the motor running, tried to get the bilge pumps running. We started bailing water.”

Then the second engine quit. “Mikey started grabbing life jackets and throwing flares out of the boat,” says Pilcher. “I was trying to dial 911 on my cell phone. We tried to get the [VHF] to work for a mayday call. We didn’t get that to happen.”

The boat rolled over less than a minute later. The men strapped on PFDs and collected seven flares; there was no EPIRB on board. They held on to the upturned hull for hours, until they spotted what they thought was a Coast Guard helicopter. They shot off two flares, but the helicopter crew didn’t see them.

Conditions worsened as the night wore on, with seas building to between 10 and 12 feet and strong winds and heavy rain, says Pilcher. “All that we could think of was to keep our life jackets on and stay with the boat,” he says. At about 9 p.m. family members contacted the Coast Guard and reported the men overdue. The Coast Guard launched a search that eventually covered 2,000 square miles.

As the sun rose Thursday morning, Pilcher and Prahm were still holding onto the Mako. They hoped to see helicopters or a Coast Guard rescue plane, but the sky was empty. “We tried to stay pretty positive the entire time,” Pilcher recalls. “Mikey coaches his son’s baseball team. I just got married six months before and want to start a family. That’s what we talked about. We knew our friends and family were out there looking for us. We stayed positive that we’d be found.”

Sometime Thursday afternoon the men saw an oil rig they estimated was around 10 miles away. The platform is about 65 miles southwest of Freeport, according to the Coast Guard. “We made somewhat of a drift sock with a piece of flagging that came with the flares,” Pilcher says. “We got within what we figured was about a half-mile. We figured that was going to be our last chance, so we bailed off into the water and started swimming to the platform.”

The men managed to swim about halfway to the structure when a current started pulling them away, Pilcher says. The sun set. The men drifted with the current for about three miles, which brought them close to a second platform. That’s when Pilcher decided to leave his friend and swim to the rig. Battling a strong current, he reached the platform shortly after 3 a.m. Friday. Holding on against breaking waves, he gathered his strength and slowly climbed the structure.

“I walked into this door, and it was like walking into heaven,” Pilcher says. Inside the rig, Pilcher put his wet clothes into a dryer, drank some orange juice and ate a candy bar, he says. He found a phone and called his wife.

At about 6 a.m. the crew of Coast Guard patrol boat Amberjack plucked Prahm alive from the water about two miles northeast of the oil rig, the agency says. A helicopter crew flew both men to the BrazosCountyAirport where they were later transported to a hospital for treatment.

“I thank God that he made it,” says Annette Pilcher. “He’s my only son. Waiting for days while the Coast Guard searched was devastating. To have been able to swim as long as Aaron did, well, it’s just a miracle.”

Since the rescue, Pilcher has been trying to determine what may have caused the Mako to sink. “I don’t know what happened. I’ve gone over every possibility and have no idea,” he says. “The boat filled with water and capsized. That’s all I know.”

One more thing Pilcher knows: The accident won’t stop him from fishing. “Oh heck no,” he says.