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Holding out ‘til the last hour

Holding out ‘til the last hour

It’s hard to imagine a more frightening scenario than watching your boat sail or steam off into the distance, leaving you behind in the water.

That’s precisely what happened to Greg Ryan this summer when he fell off his 33-foot Tiara flybridge sportfisherman on a 55-mile nighttime run offshore, and no one noticed for more than an hour.

By the time his three crewmates on Hangin’ Loose realized he was gone and called the Coast Guard, they really had no idea when or where he had fallen overboard. Based on when Ryan’s friends thought he’d fallen off, the Coast Guard wound up searching an area about 22 miles offshore.

Ryan, meanwhile, was struggling for his life four miles off Delaware’s Indian River Inlet. He swam, floated and treaded water for more than 12 hours, through the night and into the next morning, before being picked up by a passing pleasure boat. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket and never found any debris to cling to other than a section of 2-by-4 lumber about 15 inches long on which he rested his arm for maybe an hour.

I spoke with Ryan from his home in Glenn Mills, Pa., where the offshore angler was recovering from the incident after spending five days in a hospital.

“Still trying to catch my breath,” says Ryan, who is 34 and owns a landscape/construction business. “A little scary.”

He was stung in the mouth by jellyfish and has what he believes are fish bites on his body. “Something took a couple of nips out of me,” Ryan says. “They don’t know what it was.” He swallowed a good deal of seawater and, near the end of his ordeal, vomited often. He still can’t get the taste of salt water out of his mouth.

Despite all that, Ryan is one lucky man. He was found around 10:30 in the morning by a couple who just happened to be cruising past him in their Grady-White, S.S. Minnow. At the time, Ryan was floating on his back, ears underwater and either dreaming or hallucinating. He was drifting in and out of consciousness, and he feared he was going to just doze off and never wake. Water temperature was about 72 degrees Fahrenheit. At best, Ryan figures he could have held out for another hour. Tops.

“I said my goodbyes,” recalls Ryan, who says the seas were 3 to 5 feet when he fell over, but flattened through the night. “You have to. It just starts looking dimmer and dimmer.” And he had said his prayers. “All of them. To everyone, everywhere.”

The sound of the engines woke him. He looked up and saw a boat. “I screamed with everything I had not to leave me,” Ryan recalls. “Stop! Please!”

The boaters sounded their horn, at which point Ryan knew he was saved. “Once I saw that the boat was going to save me, I lost all strength,” he says. His rescuers hauled him through their transom door, gave him water, and called the Coast Guard, who Ryan says seemed to converge from all directions.

He didn’t feel thirsty but neither could he stop drinking. “If you had a 55-gallon barrel,” Ryan says, “you’d just sit in it and drink until you explode.”

So just how did he manage to fall off a 33-footer? Ryan was in the process of giving his boat and its systems a once-over before going below for some shut-eye. A longtime fishing partner was running Hangin’ Loose that night. While Ryan was leaning over the port side to check a bilge discharge, the boat struck a wave, pitching him into the water.

No one realized he was gone until his friend stopped the boat at a buoy about 23 miles offshore to check with Ryan about the next waypoint. The crew guesstimated he’d fallen over about 10 minutes earlier, when actually it was an hour or more.

The discrepancy nearly cost Ryan his life. “If we had had the correct time there is no doubt in my mind we would have found him,” says Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class John Fretts, a search-and-rescue controller at Group Eastern Shore in Chincoteague, Va. The Coast Guard searched July 8 and 9 with a C-130 aircraft, two helicopters, an 87-foot cutter, a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat, a 41-foot utility boat, and two small boats, a 21- and a 25-footer.

An interesting note. When Ryan fell over he was wearing cargo shorts and a tank top. For some reason, he says, he never emptied his pockets. When he was rescued his shorts held one saturated cell phone, about $2 in change, $400 in cash, his car keys, wallet and credit cards. He also left his sunglasses hanging around his neck.

“I had plenty of money,” Ryan says, “but it wasn’t doing me any good out there. And thank God I didn’t have a watch on. I didn’t want to know what time it was.”

When I spoke with Ryan about two weeks after the incident, he was feeling strong enough to start fishing offshore again. “I’m ready,” he says. “I was ready yesterday.”

He has, however, added one item to his safety gear. “The minute I got out of the hospital I went out and bought a $300 offshore sailing [float] coat,” he says, with a strobe and an EPIRB.