Sailors rescued at sea focused on survival

GALVESTON, TX Rescue video: See Coast Guard video of the rescue

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

Then, he told reporters Monday, he detailed the protocol for Coast Guard rescues, giving the four Texas A&M students and regatta racers floating alongside him in the Gulf of Mexico a timeline for the help they were certain would eventually come.

Those stories, that steadfast belief that 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 Friday. It gave them strength as they held onto each other 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 through the water, 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 at a hospital news conference. "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. Friday.

But around 11:45 p.m. Friday, Stone began shouting that the boat was taking on water. Steven Guy, 20, sleeping below deck, grabbed for a life vest, but missed when the boat began to roll over. The life jacket inflated inside 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 began 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 using a belt, keeping Guy — who did not have a life vest — in the middle.

At that point, they still hoped that Stone would somehow make it out of the sinking ship.

Within 15 minutes, the five sailors had drifted far from the sailboat and into dark waters.

It would be more than 26 hours before their rescue.

As they floated at sea, 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 going to eat at the family restaurant Golden Corral. 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 their feet and paddled towards the oil rig.

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

Conway admits their ironclad optimism sagged — when reef fish such as bass and snappers began to knock up against them in the water, nibbling slightly on their clothes and exposed skin.

But that's when Conway would roll out another story, Guy recalled.

And that's when they found their senses of humor, usually by Savana. As birds circled overhead, Savana called out jokingly: "Lassie, Lassie, Timmy's hurt, go get the Coast Guard."

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.

At times, the sailors could see the Coast Guard rescue planes and helicopters passing overhead. The aircraft would sweep over the water, then into the horizon with no sign that they had spotted the five sailors.

Throughout the 26 hours, 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. Saturday, a helicopter crew from Air Station Houston spotted the tiny glimmer of light.

The five men were 23 miles south of Freeport, after drifting about five miles northwest of their capsized boat.

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

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

"We do everything in our power to rescue those who can be helped," said Lt. Justo Rivera, one of the helicopter's pilots. "But it hurts not being able to save that one individual."

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

Conway and the four students, who suffered minor sunburn and dehydration, were taken to the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, but authorities didn't know when they would be released.

R. Bowen Loftin, CEO of Texas A&M at Galveston, expressed condolences to Stone's family — including his wife and two children — in a message posted on the school's Web site.

"We hope they can take some comfort in knowing all five survivors of this tragic accident credit Mr. Stone with heroic efforts that were instrumental in making possible their survival," Loftin said on the school's Web site. "We now know that Roger Stone died a hero in the classic sense of the word."

Stone was another of the team's assistant coaches, according to the school Web site. He also was a logistics officer at UTMB, according to the school's Web site.

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

Guy, Wright, and Savana attend Texas A&M at Galveston. Busby is a student at Texas A&M in College Station. Conway is director of computer information services at Texas A&M-Galveston and assistant coach of the school's Offshore Sailing Team.

As they recovered from their ordeal on Monday, both Guy and Conway savored time with the family they had thought of as they fought to survive at sea.

"Things could have happened and we might not have made it," said Conway, his wife at his side. "You can't face things like this and not appreciate what you have."

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

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