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Survivors recall their 26-hour ordeal off Texas

One man died saving two students as their sailboat capsized. Jokes and faith that they'd be rescued helped the others adrift at sea.

June 15, 2008|Monica Rhor | Associated Press

GALVESTON, TEXAS — As night slid into day and back into night, and reef fish nibbled at their skin and the Gulf of Mexico roiled around them, the five survivors of the sinking of the Cynthia Woods sailboat kept talking.

Steve Conway, a retired Coast Guard commander and one of the sailboat's safety officers, told some of the sea stories he's famous for, careful to avoid "ones that involve utter calamity."

Then, he told reporters later, he detailed the protocol for Coast Guard rescues, giving the four Texas A&M students floating alongside him in the gulf a timeline for the help they were certain would come.

Those stories, a steadfast belief they would be rescued and the jokes the five sailors tossed around as they bobbed more than 20 miles offshore kept their spirits and hopes up during 26 hours at sea.

The chatter sustained the five when they floated away from their 38-foot sailboat, which capsized after losing its keel just before midnight June 6. It gave them strength as they held on to one another by locking arms and lashing belts.

It fed their hope that Roger Stone, 53, the boat's other safety officer, had somehow survived after pushing two of the students to safety.

No one panicked. No one gave up. Instead, they kept watch for search crews and kicked their feet, trying to steer toward an oil rig about five miles away.

"The key to survival is to stay together, don't panic, and a fierce will to live," Conway said. "All of the guys are here together because they did a great job."

The Cynthia Woods was competing in the Regata de Amigos, a race from Galveston to Veracruz, Mexico, that began around 2 p.m. that Friday.

But around 11:45 p.m., Stone began shouting that the boat was taking on water. Steve Guy, 20, sleeping below deck, grabbed for a life vest but missed when the boat began to roll over. The life jacket inflated in the rapidly inundated craft, making it impossible to put on, so Guy escaped without it.

Stone shoved Guy, then Travis Wright through the opening and into safety. They both popped up near Conway, who had been on watch duty and was already in the water wearing a vest.

In less than a minute, the Cynthia Woods had flipped over and begun to sink.

Conway, Guy, Wright and the two other students, Joe Savana and Ross James Busby, clustered together in the water. They tied themselves together with a belt, keeping Guy -- the one without a life vest -- in the middle.

At that point, they still hoped that Stone would somehow make it out.

Within 15 minutes, the five sailors had drifted far from the sailboat and into dark waters. As they floated, they dreamed of the first thing they would do back on shore.

Conway envisioned seeing his wife of 33 years, Mary, their four daughters and his unborn grandchild. Guy thought about his parents and brother.

Savana dreamed about eating at the Golden Corral restaurant. And Wright savored thoughts of a thick Whataburger -- a Texas fast-food staple.

The five men rotated the four life vests, always keeping the sailor without the vest firmly tied to the others. They kicked toward the oil rig.

"We knew we would get picked up," Guy said. "We knew we'd get somewhere."

Conway acknowledges that their optimism sagged when reef fish such as bass and snapper began to nibble slightly on their clothes and exposed skin.

By the second night, some of the students began to experience the first stages of hypothermia despite the 84-degree water. Others drifted in and out of sleep, at times unsure of what was dream and what was reality, Guy recalled.

The group kept trying to signal for help, once using whistles to try to catch the attention of a passing boat. Other times, they waved a pair of Wright's shorts.

Conway also periodically flashed a small safety light attached to his vest.

Finally, around 2 a.m. June 8, a helicopter crew from Air Station Houston spotted the tiny glimmer of light.

The five men were 23 miles south of Freeport -- about 60 miles southwest of Galveston -- after drifting about five miles northwest of their boat.

Only after Chief Petty Officer Albert Shannon, the rescue swimmer, dived in did the rescue crew learn only five people were in the group.

Divers pulled Stone's body from the sunken vessel that afternoon.

"He's my hero. He saved me," Guy said. "I wouldn't be here without him."

Coast Guard officials said the keel of the overturned vessel had been ripped off, indicating the sailboat might have hit something in the water. What tore it was under investigation, they said.

The boat was towed back to shore Wednesday. Officials had hoped its logbook could provide answers about maintenance and repairs, but it was not found.

After the rescue, Conway savored time with the family he thought of while fighting for survival.

"You can't face things like this and not appreciate what you have," said Conway, his wife at his side.

His first thought after being hoisted to safety aboard the helicopter? "Now I will see my grandchild."

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