When Keith Judy looks back on the night he spent bobbing in the ocean with his son and a couple of family friends, it won’t be the boat quickly capsizing, the quiet darkness of night or the hours spent swimming toward shore he will remember.
“(It will) probably be when my son asked me, ‘Daddy, are we going to live?,’ ” he said, his eyes appearing to well up. “That’s been on my mind a lot.”
Judy had faith the four would survive, but without food or water or any form of communication, he knew of the potential for it to end differently.
“From what I’ve been told and from the little bit of research I’ve done since I got out, this is not a very common thing,” he said.
So it was a rare opportunity Thursday when Judy, his son Reece, 11 and his son’s friend, Justin Stancil, 12, met with the U.S. Coast Guard station Charleston to share their story in the hopes of helping others. Rare in the sense that the Coast Guard doesn’t always get to reunite with survivors of a search and rescue case such as theirs and rare in the sense that not everyone survives more than 18 hours in the ocean.
Justin Longval, officer in charge at the station, said mariners typically don’t take the right steps to prolong their survival. While every case is different, boaters overboard are usually either not found at all or they’re found in an “unfavorable condition.”
“It is very rare that we are able to talk to survivors of these incidents in a way that we can learn from some of the things that they did right and some of the things that maybe they would have done differently had the situation happened again,” he said.
The group’s fishing trip started as any other: They left Remley’s Point landing in Mount Pleasant about 5 a.m. July 13 in a 23-foot long, center-console boat with twin 150 mercury engines and four batteries. They headed toward the jetties and stopped at a buoy while Judy texted the coordinates of their planned location to his wife.
He thought they were prepared for anything.
Their first hiccup occurred about an hour and a half once the boat was offshore, when an engine died. They decided to fish a little while the engine cooled off, but when they went to try and crank it back up, nothing happened. Things spiraled downhill from there and got worse once they noticed some water in the back of the boat.
“At that point, we grabbed a cup, cut the top off and started trying to scoop water out of the bottom,” Judy said, adding that soon after, they lost all power.
Judy tried to make several distress calls on a VHF radio, but none would go through. Soon, the group, including Judy’s friend Kenny Winningham, was scooping water out with five-gallon buckets.
“It came to the point where it was like the more we got out, the faster it came in,” Judy said. “The back of the boat started weighing down and it started tilting up. It was pretty scary; none of us wanted to get in the water.”
That wasn’t an option as the vessel continued to lift up out of the water.
“We had no other option but to jump,” he said, adding that they tried to throw as much safety gear off the boat as possible, including life jackets, a rope and a Yeti cooler. “I pushed my son out right in front of me so he didn’t get trapped and his friend jumped right before him. ... As soon as we hit, we swam together, grabbed the cooler and as soon as we looked, the boat was upside down.”
By Judy’s estimate, it was about 3:15 p.m. when they all got into the water, which Judy said was not an ideal temperature and was filled with Barracuda sharks. They tried for more than an hour to swim back to the boat, but before they knew it the current took them from 50 yards away to 200 yards away.
Judy credits the rope they tied themselves together with, the life jacket each were wearing, the Yeti cooler they held onto and God with saving their lives.
“We prayed,” he said. “We probably prayed out there, honestly, over that cooler with everybody together, all of us praying together, more than I’ve ever prayed in my whole life — and God is an important part of my life.”
He said Reece and Justin stayed stronger than he thought they would, did everything they were told and even helped Judy keep his friend Winningham afloat at times because he wasn’t a strong swimmer.
“If they panicked, they panicked on the inside,” he said of the kids. “The did ask me a couple times if they were going home. I told them either we’re all four going back or none of us are going back, and we’re all going back.”
Just about sunrise Monday, a North Carolina-based Coast Guard crew aboard an HC-130 Hercules airplane spotted the overturned hull of the Mako boat named Shock-A-Con about 13 miles out to sea. The overboard boaters were spotted a couple hours later.
Judy said it was a long, quiet night on the water as unknown things bumped against their legs — but still, they never panicked. When they saw the Coast Guard, Judy said it was a happy moment.
He offered up some advice Thursday to other boaters who may find themselves in similar situations. He said he won’t go back out on the water without an Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon, satellite phone and all of his safety gear in one accessible location on the boat.
Judy hasn’t been back on the water since the rescue, but he said it won’t be long before he gets his feet wet again. His wife, Sommer Judy joked that it would be “a little minute” before she’d allow another boat trip.
As for the Yeti cooler, Judy said “it’s become a permanent ornament in my living room.”
Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughtonPC.