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After 8 days adrift, rescuers seemed like illusion

Tressel Hawkins, one of three Texas boaters who spent eight days clinging to their capsized catamaran, said they experienced hallucinations before a boater spotted them. When one finally did, “My first reaction was, is this really real?” Hawkins said.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Five days into their eight-day ordeal adrift in the Gulf of Mexico, their lives sustained by bubble gum and crackers and their flagging hopes by prayer, the three men on the capsized fishing boat had wearied of talking to each other. So they started talking to people who weren’t there.

“We got tired of being on the boat all the time and wanting to do other things, wanting to talk to other people,” Tressel Hawkins told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Monday from Fort Worth, Texas. “At times it just seemed like it was real, when you think about them so hard that it seemed like it was just reality — like you walked up on somebody and started talking to them. That’s just the way it is. You just looked at it like it was reality.”

As the days went by, with the men constantly wet even as they were frying in the harsh sun, Hawkins said the three friends kept talking each other back to reality. But during the eight days, each went mentally overboard at times.

“It was on a day-to-day basis everybody actually had their breakdown,” he said. “The power of prayer had us feeling … we were going to make it out of this, but we didn’t know how long we were going to have to endure this.”

Capsized catamaran
For Hawkins, 43, and his Texan pals, Curtis Hall, 28, of Palacios, and James Phillips, 30, of Blessing, hallucinations were preferable to the reality they found themselves in. On Friday, Aug. 21, they had set out on an overnight fishing trip on Phillips’ 23-foot catamaran.

That night, Hawkins was awakened when he felt water in the boat’s cabin. For some reason, a switch that was supposed to automatically turn on the boat’s bilge pumps malfunctioned, and they were in danger of sinking.

The three tried unsuccessfully to start the pumps, then tried to bail the boat out, but they soon saw it was a hopeless task. Their boat, now low in the water, was about to capsize.

“I’m running around trying to get everybody up, and we’re trying to get the water out as fast as we can,” Hawkins said. “Within a minute, five seconds, the boat just tumbled over. It capsized right there.”

The three men had the presence of mind to grab what food and water they could. In addition to bubble gum, Hawkins told Vieira, “We managed to salvage two bags of chips, a six-pack of crackers and three gallons of water. That’s what we lived on for the eight days.”

When the bottled water ran out, they ran a hose from a 30-gallon “washdown” tank that fishing boats use to wash down fish and decks. That water had a taste of diesel, but it kept them alive.

Stroke of luck
Their families had reported them missing over the weekend, and the Coast Guard launched a massive search. On Tuesday afternoon, two search helicopters flew over the boat, but somehow the crews didn’t see the three men.

“They didn’t see us. I have no idea how they didn’t see us,” Hawkins said.

They drifted within sight of oil rigs, but couldn’t draw anyone’s attention. It was the same with boats they saw that didn’t see them.

By last Friday, after the three had been missing a week, the Coast Guard called off its search and told the families of the men that it was unlikely they would be found alive. That’s when another fishing boat, the Affordable Fantasy, happened by on its way from Louisiana to Texas.

Hawkins, Phillips and Hall saw the new boat before the Affordable Fantasy’s skipper, Eddie Yaklin, saw them. In fact, Yaklin told Vieira from Rockport, Texas, “We went right by ’em. They saw us on the boat.”

Yaklin and two friends were looking elsewhere, at a nearby oil rig where they decided to tie up and get in some fishing. “We went on the rig and fished for an hour, an hour and a half, before I spotted them,” Yaklin explained.

It was a bit of pure luck that he saw the stranded boaters at all. For some reason, Yaklin said, the capsized craft was invisible from his boat’s tall flying bridge. But when he went down to the stern to fish for marlin from a couch, he spotted something a couple miles away on the water.

“I was sitting on the back of the boat and I said, ‘I’m gonna get ready to catch a blue marlin or something,’ ” Yaklin told Vieira in a Texas drawl. “I think it was just the horizon was just right, and I saw something about two miles out there. I saw something just bobbing. I was back there by myself.”

When one of his friends came down, he said, “There’s something over there. Let’s go check it out.”

Yaklin climbed back to the top of the boat, and again couldn’t see anything. But he knew he’d seen something out on the Gulf, nearly 200 miles from the nearest land. He was determined to find out what it was.

“I said, ‘Turn the boat around and head back that way. I think there’s something over there.’ I knew it was an inner tube or something,” Yaklin told Vieira. “When we turned the boat around and got the binoculars out, then we could see a guy standing up there waving,”

‘Is this really real?’By that point, Hawkins and his friends were no longer sure if anything they were seeing was real.

“My first reaction was, is this really real?” Hawkins said of seeing Yaklin’s boat. “You kind of set back and say, ‘Is this real or is this hallucination?’ You have to wake yourself up three or four times to make sure it is real, and that it was.”

Yaklin said he got on the radio with the Coast Guard to report that he was approaching a capsized boat. He hollered to the three, asking who they were. When he relayed the information to the Coast Guard operator, he was told, “They’ve been missing for eight days.”

Yaklin turned his boat around to back up to the three men. “Then I said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna come get y’all. C’mon.’ And when I started motioning that we were backing up to them, man, they jumped in the water. There wasn’t no stopping them. They were swimming to the boat.”

Hawkins, Phillips and Hall were all in remarkably good shape after eight days adrift, thanks to the water they had. They were severely sunburned, and Hawkins’ legs were swollen from jellyfish stings, but video Yaklin shot in the salon of his boat shows the three men smiling broadly.

They had reason to smile. When Yaklin learned how long the three had been on the water, he ordered his crew to cook up a big steak dinner. Remarkably, the video shows the three using the serving forks and spoons and filling their plates politely, manners prevailing over ravenous hunger.

Yaklin transferred the three to a Coast Guard boat, which took them back to Texas. They elected not to stay in the hospital and went to their homes; Phillips has five children. Hawkins went to Fort Worth to recover at his sister’s house.

Meanwhile, the three inveterate Texans were already planning their next outing.

“We kind of made a pact,” Hawkins told Vieira. “We’re going to have to put down the poles for a little bit and try to find something else to do.”

At last report, they were discussing a hunting trip.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.