A fishing trip turned into a three-week fight for survival for two men, who drifted under an intense Caribbean sun for hundreds of miles in a small boat with a broken motor.
The Jamaicans survived by eating raw fish they caught and drinking water from melted ice they had brought to preserve their catch.
The Colombian navy finally plucked them from the sea and delivered them home yesterday after treating them for severe dehydration, malnutrition and hypothermia.
Fishermen Everton Gregory, 54, and John Sobah, 58, said they set off from Jamaica’s south-eastern coast on November 20. The water was glassy, the wind was calm and their boat was laden with 14 buckets of ice, 16 gallons of water and several bags of cereal, bread and fruit.
They headed to Finger Bank, a nearby sand spit eight miles long that is known for its abundance of fish such as wahoo, tuna and mahi mahi. The owner of the 28ft boat said she usually joined them on fishing trips, but could not go that afternoon.
After spending a couple of days around Finger Bank, the men set off for home with their catch, but the boat’s engine soon died.
The water was too deep to use the anchor and the current too strong to use the oars, so the boat slowly drifted away from Jamaica.
At first, the men got by on sipping the water and eating the food they brought with them. But days turned into weeks and they began to eat the fish they had caught and drink the melted ice that had kept it fresh.
Mr Gregory and Mr Sobah used a tarp to try to collect water, but the rain clouds remained at a distance.
Back home, friends and family called police and used their own boats to search the area where the men were last seen. The two fishermen work for the Florida-based nonprofit group Food for the Poor, which chartered a plane to search along Jamaica’s coast.
Marva Espuet, 52, the owner of the boat, said she knew she had packed it with more food and water than needed for a three-day trip, but the thought provided little relief.
“If I had gone, there would have been two boats going,” she said.
With searches proving fruitless, Mr Sobah’s niece grew frantic, recalled Nakhle Hado, a fishing manager for Food for the Poor who helped lead the search. She “begged me that she wanted John back for Christmas”, Mr Hado said.
Mr Hado said some people believed the two men would never be found, but he and others did not give up. “My gut was telling me that they were still alive,” he said.
Mr Hado said he had trained Mr Gregory and Mr Sobah how to survive at sea.
“In case something happens, they don’t have to think twice. They know how to react,” he said. “It’s very important, their mental state.”
Mr Gregory and Mr Sobah finally ran out of fresh water and went several days without drink. A healthy human being can die from dehydration anywhere from three to five days without water.
Then on December 12, a Colombian navy helicopter patrolling off the coast of the South American country spotted the men near Lack of Sleep cay, more than 500 miles from where they started.
It took two days for a navy vessel to reach them because of bad weather. The men were in hospital for several days at the Colombian island of San Andres before boarding a plane back home to Jamaica.
“It feels good,” Mr Sobah said after arriving.
Mr Gregory said he had lost hope, but Sobah tried to keep him positive that they would be rescued.
“I just had that belief,” Mr Sobah said. “I believe in the Creator.”
Mr Gregory plans to keep fishing despite the ordeal because he needs the job, but Mr Sobah said: “I’m not going to go fishing again. No way.”