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A simple twist of fate

John Eraklis was the proud owner of a 1967 37-foot EggHarbor that he kept at Marina del Rey, Calif.

John Eraklis was the proud owner of a 1967 37-foot EggHarbor that he kept at Marina del Rey, Calif. His wife, who was expecting their first child, was having a baby shower with her girlfriends, and John and a buddy decided it was the perfect time for a fishing trip to Catalina Island.

Read the other story in this package: Rebirth of the legendary Phoenix

The two spent the day fishing on the way over. As night fell, they throttled up to make it to the harbor before dark. A little after 8 p.m. there was a terrific impact, so strong that John’s friend fell off his seat on the flybridge and down about 8 feet to the deck. Terrified that his friend had been severely injured, John stopped the boat and went to check on him. He was unconscious, but there was no blood, which he figured was a good sign.

As his friend started to regain consciousness, John managed to get him to the couch below deck. Visibility in the cabin was limited, and John went back to the bridge. About five minutes later his friend yelled, “John, there’s a lot of water down here.”

Just as John went below to investigate, the bilge hatches burst open with the force of a water cannon. It was clear they were going to sink — and fast. John called in a mayday, and the first question was their location. The VHF was at the lower helm station and the GPS on the bridge, so John ran up to the flybridge and yelled the coordinates to his friend to give the Coast Guard.

It was then time to abandon ship. They donned their life jackets and sat on the gunwales as the boat slipped out from under them on a moonless night. John managed to get off a flare just as the boat went down, and they were left in the dark water, hoping to be rescued before hypothermia set in. As it turns out, it was the flare that saved them, as John’s friend, disoriented with a concussion and unfamiliar with GPS, had relayed the wrong coordinates. (They later learned that they’d struck a submerged shipping container, which tend to float just below the surface and are invisible to a helmsman.)

John had put on his PFD over a large hooded sweatshirt. Once in the choppy water it acted almost like a sea anchor, the hood filling with water and pulling his head back every time a wave broke over them. Finally, after around 30 minutes — which seemed more like hours — a sailboat that had seen the flare arrived to help. John’s friend was quickly plucked from the water, but John was too weak to swim to the boat. At that moment a lifeguard boat arrived. Thinking both men had been rescued, the crew almost ran over John before the sailboat could radio that he was still in the water, at which point they circled back and picked him up.

Back at the lifeguard station on Catalina, they were given hot showers, dry clothes and dinner. The lifeguards filled air mattresses and let them sleep on the floor of the station. John and his friend promised not to tell their wives anything until they were standing in front of them. The next morning they awoke to find that the ferry to the mainland was out of commission, so they split the cost of a helicopter trip. As they boarded, the pilot remarked, “You guys are in for a treat. We’ve been spotting some monster sharks from up here.” John and his friend could only laugh nervously.