Eight days on a capsized 23-footer

Author:
Publish date:
Updated on

With the Coast Guard ending its search, it was a stroke of luck the three anglers were found

They weren’t supposed to make it. After six days, the Coast Guard had suspended its search for three Texas fishermen whose 23-foot power catamaran flooded and capsized off Texas. The Coast Guard had scoured 86,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico — an area the size of Minnesota — only to come up empty-handed.

Image placeholder title

The men were last seen Aug. 21 aboard their Carolina Skiff Sea Chaser 230 by workers on an oil rig about 75 miles south of Matagorda, between Galveston and Corpus Christi, according to the Coast Guard. “We continued on and on in this particular case,” says Coast Guard Capt. Marcus Woodring, commander of Sector Houston-Galveston. “It was very disconcerting that we weren’t finding anything. We continued to expand our search areas. We had resources from around the Gulf region involved. But we found nothing — not a life jacket, not a cooler, not a seat cushion.” Adding to the frustration was the fact that seas were calm, 1 to 2 feet, throughout the six days, says Woodring.

But the three men — Tressel Hawkins, 42, Curtis Hall, 28, and James Phillips, 30 — were out there for eight days, sitting on top of their overturned boat, enduring the blistering sun, hallucinations and the threat of blacktip sharks. “I did lots of praying,” says Phillips, of Blessing, Texas, the owner of the boat, a 2002 model. “I wanted to get back to my kids. I mean, I have five kids. I knew I had to get back to them no matter what it took.”

What it took was some survivalist thinking to stay alive for more than a week in 90- to 100-degree heat. The men sucked water from a hose connected to the boat’s 30-gallon freshwater washdown tank. They ate soggy crackers and chips, chewed gum and drank hot beer. They ripped off the canvas from the Sea Chaser’s Bimini top and used it to shade themselves from the sun.

James Phillips

“They did a lot of things very, very well,” says Woodring. “They stayed with the boat. We always preach to stay with the boat because the boat is a much bigger object than a person in the water. We’re more likely to find a boat before we find a person in the water.”

Serendipity

A fleet of private boats joined the Coast Guard search, but the men ended up being rescued 180 miles off Port Aransas by a boat owner who knew nothing about the overdue anglers. And it was serendipity that Eddie Yaklin’s 58-foot Riviera, Afordable Fantasea, was even in the vicinity of the capsized cat.

He was supposed to fish a straight line of oil rigs from Louisiana to Corpus Christi, Texas, but he veered 50 miles south off course to the Gunnison oil rig. “My friend [on board] had the coordinates, and he said it was a good spot, so we went,” says Yaklin. They began trolling in the late afternoon Aug. 29.

“We were fixing to catch a blue marlin,” says Yaklin. “I could just smell it. I was sitting on the mezzanine, and I saw something. I thought it might be the tuna tower of a boat maybe 20 miles away, maybe 10 miles away. It was just weird looking. If nothing else, it was some debris we could fish under. And for that reason we headed that way.”

Tressel Hawkins

As they steamed ahead, Yaklin climbed to the flybridge and peered through his binoculars. “It looks like some guys standing in the water,” he told his captain and two guests. “We started passing the binoculars around and started getting closer and closer. I said, ‘Man they’re waving a white flag.’ ” The men on the catamaran also shot off a fire extinguisher to make sure they were spotted.

The crew of Afordable Fantasea called the Coast Guard on satellite phone. “We gave [the Coast Guard] one of their names and they said, ‘Oh my god, they’ve been missing for eight days.’ ”

Yaklin immediately told the captain to ease up to the cat. “I said, ‘We’re coming to get y’all,” says Yaklin, 51, who owns a car dealership in Kingsville, Texas. “And when I started to open the tuna door, all three of them bailed off the boat, man. They weren’t staying on that thing any longer. They were swimming to us as fast as they could go.”

Curtis Hall

It was a scene Yaklin will never forget. “As soon as they got on the boat they started jumping up and down, screaming and hollering, ‘We made it! We made it! We made it!’ They were grabbing, hugging me, kissing me. It was unbelievable.”

The men, covered with white powder from the fire extinguisher, were given water and Gatorade, and then wolfed down a dinner of steak and baked potatoes. The yacht headed back toward Texas, and a Coast Guard boat met them about 50 miles off Matagorda to bring the three men back to their families.

It happened so quickly

Hawkins and Hall work for Phillips, who runs Born Again Repair LLC, a sales and repair business for boats, personal watercraft and farm equipment. It was only about a year ago that Phillips began taking on marine work.

Phillips, who says he’s been boating in coastal Texas for 12 years, purchased the Sea Chaser in Florida about a month before the fishing trip. “We bought the boat to resell it,” he says. “I installed the motor[s], new wiring, new bilge pumps. You name it. It had everything on it brand new — new GPS, new [VHF] radio.”

The anglers spent eight days on the overturned hull of a Carolina Skiff Sea Chaser 230 power catamaran like this one.

It did not, however, have an EPIRB. Prior to the accident, the Texas boaters were unfamiliar with the distress beacons. “We really didn’t know a lot about the EPIRB until now,” says Phillips. “We will have it next time.”

The trio launched the Sea Chaser Aug. 21 from a Matagorda boat ramp to fish two oil rigs in the Gulf — Tequila and Hilltop — and return the following day between 2 and 5 p.m. It was their third offshore trip in the boat and their first overnight. They trolled around the Tequila rig that night and then headed to the Hilltop rig. They prepared their fishing gear for trolling the next day, then dropped some lines and went to sleep for the evening.

“I went to bed, and probably 30 or 40 minutes after that Tressel and Curt went to bed,” says Phillips. “We woke about an hour and a half later, and we were knee-high in water, and the boat was rolling over. We were trying to make a distress call [on the VHF]. But I mean it happened so quick. As soon as we woke up, within a few seconds the boat started rolling over.”

Hawkins, sleeping on a beanbag in the cockpit, was the first to wake up. “I was uncomfortable, so I moved around a bit and I put my foot down — into water,” he says.

According to Phillips, the bilge pump in the port sponson failed, allowing that hull to fill with water and the boat to capsize. Seawater must have leaked through the hatch just forward of the port outboard engine, says Phillips. The boat was powered with twin 2006 Yamaha 150-hp 4-strokes.

“Water seeps through those doors, and you have to have bilge pumps in there to keep that water pumping out of there,” says Phillips, who says he had resealed the hatch and the identical starboard one with 3M 5200 and installed new rubber gasketing as part of the boat’s recommissioning. “The water must have still seeped through that [hatch].”

Carolina Skiff stopped building catamarans in late 2004 for business reasons, says advertising and marketing director Robert Sass. He says the aft hatches, which provide access to the bilge pumps and wiring, were built to be watertight. “My only explanation is that something wasn’t sealed correctly,” says Sass. “But being [a 2002 boat], it’s hard to say what was wrong.”

Imaginary people

The fishermen left a detailed float plan with family members, but the boat capsized about 24 hours before a call was made to the Coast Guard, says Woodring. The men saw Coast Guard helicopters and rescue planes fly over them, but they had no signaling devices left. The blue canvas they used to shield themselves from the sun may have also acted as camouflage, blending in with the boat’s blue bottom and the blue water, says Woodring. The fabric helped keep them alive, but it “may have actually been detrimental to our ability to see them,” he says.

After the boat flipped, Hall dove under it and retrieved a bag with flares, which the men shot off to no avail. They also were able to get their life jackets and salvaged the soggy crackers and chips. “Everything tasted like gasoline,” says Hawkins. “But we knew we had to drink the water and eat what we had.”

The men say that after about the fourth day they began hallucinating and talking to imaginary people. “James said he was going to the store to buy some tobacco, and he walked right off the boat,” says Hawkins.

However, the blacktip sharks — 6- to 9-footers — they saw around the boat were real. “One of them swam right between the sponsons and got real close to Curt,” says Phillips. “The shade of the boat attracted the bait, and that attracted the tuna, and the sharks came and ate the tuna.”

The three survivors say they will fish again, just not right away. “We made a deal that if we made it through this we would put down the poles and try something else for a while — maybe deer hunting,” Hawkins says.

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.