Eddie Yaklin rescues three missing fishermen

It was 5pm on Saturday, August 29.

The sea was calm, the light beginning to slip away.

Eddie Yaklin, cruising the Gulf of Mexico, 185 nautical miles out to sea, was about to settle into his favourite fishing spot in the cockpit of his 58-foot cruiser, Afordable Fantasea. And he had just one thing on his mind - to land a big one. A mighty Blue Marlin.

Eddie had just taken possession of his new Riviera enclosed flybridge and, after four months of customising the boat to his specific needs, was fishing his way back on the two-day trip from Louisiana's Cyprus Cove home to the Texas mooring at Port Aransas. The boat was the fourth in the Riviera series Eddie had owned since 2001, trading up every two years or so from his original 40 footer to this, his biggest.

Along with his two cruising companions Tommy Lee and son TJ, and the boat's captain, Eddie had been making a slow run through the Gulf, line hopping the oil rigs running these waters as they went.

"Everyone knows that where the rigs are, you'll find the bait fish milling. And where there's bait fish, the big prey are not far behind, so we were checking them out," explains Eddie, in his friendly Southern drawl.

The party had already hit the rigs of Augur and Tequila, when they decided to take a detour to the Gunnison rig.

"It was 50 miles off our course," says Eddie.

"But we had checked the waters on the GPS, and they looked so good, we thought we'd punt it."

He says it was also fortuitous that Tommy Lee, who had joined the trip at the 11th hour, had picked up the Gunnison's co-ordinates before coming on board, otherwise, ‘we'd never had headed there'.

The decision to change course was later to prove just another in a series of amazing co-incidences on Eddie's trip that added up what he describes as one of the most profound experiences of his life.

The crew hit upon the Gunnison about 5pm, the sighting exciting Eddie.

"The tuna were literally jumping on the surface as we headed in. They were everywhere. I thought to myself, man, this is great. I'm going to catch me some Blue Marlin."

So Eddie took up his fishing post in the cockpit, but as he sat watching the horizon, waiting for the big bite, a small glitch caught his eye.

"I saw something, just for a moment. Then it went. Then a few minutes later, I saw it again. I thought at most it might have been an inner tube, or at least something that might attract the fish."

Eddie called to his captain to turn the boat around and head for the object, which was fading in and out of his vision.

What he saw however, as the Afordable Fantasea drew nearer, wasn't an inner tube, floating driftwood or a stray dolphin - but three badly sunburnt men in the water, desperately clinging to life on the upturned hull of their scuttled catamaran.

His first thought was that the men were Cubans, who had run into trouble while trying to seek refuge in the United States, a not unexpected occurrence in the waters of the Gulf.

"When I first got a good look, I could only see two men, and no boat. So it actually looked like they were standing on the water."

But as he got closer, Eddie made out three figures - two men standing on the boat who were, by now waving their T-shirts violently, and a third paddling in the water.

"They were definitely not Cubans,' says Eddie.

"There were two white guys and a black guy, and the closer we got, the more animated they became."

Eddie was too far out to sea to use his radio, but made contact with the Coast Guard via his satellite phone, who told him to try and establish the men's identities.

"But every time we asked them their names, they all started yelling at once. We had to tell them to shut up and for just one to speak.

Eddie says when the information was relayed back to the Coast Guard, the reaction was one of astonishment.

"They just said, Oh My God. Those are the three guys who have been missing at sea for eight days."

The three men, Tressel Hawkins, 43, Curtis Hall, 28 and James Phillips, 30, who by now had leapt off the boat and were swimming the 20 metres or so to their rescuers, had been adrift for more than a week, after the capsize of their 23-foot catamaran.

They had set out for an overnight fishing trip on the catamaran, which belonged to Phillips, and were asleep on board, when a bilge pump appeared to malfunction and left the boat filling with water.

Within minutes, it tumbled over leaving the men to grab whatever supplies they could within reach before abandoning the craft.

"They were obviously in a bit of a state when we found them," says Eddie.

"They were badly sunburnt, had been stung by jelly fish, bitten by sucker fish, and visited by sharks regularly.

"They had survived by eating crackers, drinking some water they'd grabbed hold of and beer that also seemed to have made its way into their supplies."
Eddie says the Coast Guard, which had called off the search for the men four days earlier, called through, saying they would send a helicopter to pick up the men and take them back to shore.

"But that would have meant them jumping back in the water for the lift - and there was no way they were going back there."

When they first climbed on board, the men fell over their rescuers with gratitude, hugging and thanking them repeatedly, saying all the time, ‘I knew we would make it. I just knew'.

And after helping wash off the salt water, giving them dry clothes and topping them up with water, Eddie and his companions, fired up the cooking pots and cooked the hungry survivors some thick steaks.

"I jokingly asked what they would have done if I'd considered them too unfriendly looking and had just taken off," says Eddie.

"And they said, big boat or not, they would have swam so fast, they would have caught us."

Two of the men phoned their families, and when James Phillips heard his wife's voice, he broke down in tears.

"I guess everyone had given them up for dead," says Eddie.

"So there was a lot of emotion involved. It was overwhelming for them."

The Coast Guard met the Afordable Fantasea 20 miles off shore and ferried the men back in.

But for Eddie and his friends, the full impact of their involvement in the rescue and its emotional aftermath didn't hit until several days later.

"At first, there was no real reaction for me," says Eddie.

"But as time went on and I thought more about it, it became obvious that there was definitely a bigger hand guiding me that day.

"Right throughout, there were too many co-incidences to the whole story to just be circumstance."

Eddie said it started when he decided to leave Louisiana a week earlier than planned after more than 10 of his friends, who promised to join him on the fishing trip back, failed to show up.

"I got a bit mad, sitting around by myself waiting, so called the captain and told him we were leaving straight away."

Then, at the last minute, his friend Tommy Lee asked to join cruise with his son TJ, and brought with him the co-ordinates to the Gunnison rig.

"Without those, which you need to get from the authorities, we'd never have made it to the rig and seen the guys.

"And if we'd been a half hour later and lost the light, we'd never have a chance of seeing them."
Eddie says the stranded men had also told him they had decided that very day to take another course of action.

"I'm not sure what that involved. But they probably would have tried swimming to the rig, and wouldn't have made it," says Eddie.

"God was certainly in the picture."

Eddie says the event was also a fitting official maiden voyage for his boating pride, the Riviera Afordable Fantasea, named partly as a reference to the Ford dealership he owns in his home town of Corpus, and partly by his wife Charis.

And it's a memory forever attached to his Riviera history.




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Click to enlarge image: Afordable Fantasy

Afordable Fantasy

Eddie and his wife Charis

Eddie and his wife Charis

Afordable Fantasy's voyage from Florida to Port Aransas, Texas

Afordable Fantasy's voyage from Florida to Port Aransas, Texas

Eddie Yaklin was impressed with this catch

Eddie Yaklin was impressed with this catch

Eddie Yaklin enjoyed the fight when reeling in this catch

Eddie Yaklin enjoyed the fight when reeling in this catch

Hero Eddie Yaklin saved three fishermen stranded in the Gulf of Mexico for eight days

Hero Eddie Yaklin saved three fishermen stranded in the Gulf of Mexico for eight days

Eddie's voyage from Florida to Port Aransas showing the Gunnison Rig where he rescued the stranded fishermen

Eddie's voyage from Florida to Port Aransas showing the Gunnison Rig where he rescued the stranded fishermen

The three fishermen were badly sunburnt, stung by jelly fish, bitten by sucker fisher and visited by sharks

The three fishermen were badly sunburnt, stung by jelly fish, bitten by sucker fisher and visited by sharks