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Clinging to the hull ... and to life

Three men aren’t sure how they managed to survive for 54 hours in heavy seas

Three men aren’t sure how they managed to survive for 54 hours in heavy seas

Mike Jackson and three other men were stranded in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida, clinging to their overturned vessel in 8- to 10-foot seas.

About 54 hours later, a Coast Guard cutter rescued Jackson and two of his companions. A fourth man, 31-year-old John Fish, had died a day earlier while trying to save his father and friends.

“Most people can’t survive something like that,” says Jackson, 51. “I don’t know how we did. We went through quite an ordeal. … We just kept talking to each other.”

Longtime angling buddies, the four men from Monticello, Ga., set out Saturday, Aug. 7, from Steinhatchee, Fla., in Fish’s 19-foot Sea Pro to fish for grouper. The weather was good, but as the group got farther offshore, they realized conditions were becoming too choppy, says Jackson, a longtime boater. They decided to head back. “When we turned around,” Jackson says, “everything went wrong.”

Coming off a wave, the boat slammed down hard, the engine cut out and water started coming over the stern. Jackson gave out life jackets as Fish tried to restart the engine. A wave flipped the 19-footer, and the men found themselves in the water. Jackson retrieved some bottles of water from a cooler. Keith Smith managed to grab a packet of crackers. The fourth member of the group was Fish’s father, Calvin, who is in his mid-50s.

The men held on to the overturned vessel as jellyfish stung their legs. The hours passed, and the four grew weaker. As swells knocked them off the hull, they’d struggle back on.

“I was just praying while we were out there that no one would break a leg or have a heart attack,” says Jackson, who is on disability from his job as a laser technician because of heart and other health problems. They also worried about sharks, although they never saw any. By the next day they could hear Coast Guard helicopters searching for them. The Coast Guard launched a search after family members reported the men missing.

The sun beat down on the boaters, who quickly ran out of water. The younger Fish kept diving under the boat to retrieve useful items. The men tore apart seat cushions, for example, and used the fabric to make makeshift hats to protect them from the sun. They sprinkled the foam cushioning in the water in hopes that the debris trail would help rescuers find them.

Though the overturned boat was floating, John Fish thought he could lighten it more, thereby increasing its buoyancy. He swam underneath the hull to drain the fuel from the tank.

“When he did that he got covered with gas,” says Jackson.

After that, the younger Fish’s health apparently deteriorated quickly. Jackson thinks his friend might have ingested gasoline. That along with fatigue, dehydration and jellyfish stings took their toll. Jackson says Fish died sometime during the night of Aug. 8. The survivors were unable to hang on to the body, which floated away.

“I was kind of delirious, too,” says Jackson. “It was a pretty rough ride.” Jackson says there were times he hallucinated, thinking that he saw other boats or land.

On the morning of Aug. 9 it started to rain, and Smith stood on the inverted hull and used his rain jacket to collect water for drinking. Smith, who is in his mid-30s, was the only one strong enough to stand, says Jackson. Soon after, Jackson says an aircraft passed so close they could see the pilot. It passed overhead several times, and Smith waved the jacket to catch the pilot’s attention. Still, they were unaware if they had been spotted. Then Jackson saw a Coast Guard cutter and he knew their ordeal was over.

“We were so happy to be on that cutter,” says Jackson.

The men were rescued just before dark Aug. 9 about 21 miles west of the Steinhatchee River. They were airlifted from the cutter to a hospital in Florida.

“Our condolences and prayers go out to the family and friends of John Fish,” said Capt. Dan Neptun of Coast Guard Group St. Petersburg in a statement. “We are deeply saddened by his loss in the Gulf of Mexico. We are very thankful for the successful rescue of three survivors, knowing their survival was made possible when they donned life jackets and chose to remain with the boat after it capsized.”

As soon as Jackson was on the helicopter, he says he passed out. “I was just so relieved,” he says. He says they all were sunburned and dehydrated, bruised from being battered by waves and covered in jellyfish stings. They also had other health problems.

“People don’t understand when you’re out there for so long, your whole body shuts down,” says Jackson. “Plus we didn’t have any sleep for 54 hours. We couldn’t sleep because we had to hang on to the boat.”

It would be two weeks before Jackson could walk again, and even then he still felt the motion he had been subjected to at sea. “Everything was still rocking,” he says.

The men were sapped emotionally, and were still in shock over their ordeal. Jackson says he doesn’t know how they mustered the strength to carry on for more than two days.

“If you want to live, you’ve got to do it,” he adds.

Jackson says the incident hasn’t deterred him from boating. In fact, he says he was looking forward to fishing again. The survivors say their main concern these days is to help take care of Fish’s family, which includes his wife, Mary Dell, and 5-year-old daughter, Madison. They established a local trust fund to help raise money for the family. The Mary Dell and Madison Fish Fund was being administered by the Bank of Monticello and McIntosh State Bank of Monticello.