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MOB off Charleston saved by GPS

Jan 1, 2003

It had been a great day of fishing out in the Gulf Stream last Memorial Day weekend. Reese Ward and his five friends aboard the 29-foot sportfishing boat Summer Girl had reeled in some fair-sized dolphin and wahoo off the South Carolina coast. The beer was cold, the weather warm. On the trip back to Charleston Harbor, Ward walked to the boat's stern to relieve himself. He's not sure what happened next. All he remembers is flying overboard and landing in the water. Ward yelled for help as the boat sped away at a 23-knot clip, but the noise of the boat's engines drowned out his cries. Shirtless and without a life jacket, he found himself bobbing in the waves 10 miles from land. It was about 1700, and the sun was just beginning its descent. Ward, a 30-year-old beer distributor, treaded water as he watched the Summer Girl shrink. Soon he realized his deck shoes were weighing him down, and he kicked them off. When he saw them float away, the seriousness of the situation finally sank in. He started talking out loud, asking God why this had happened. He tried to keep water from splashing his contact lenses out of his eyes. He worried about getting cramps and thought about sharks. He tried to float on his back, but the waves buried his face. He wondered what he would do when it got dark. Eight miles away, Summer Girl closed in on Fort Sumter, the old monument guarding the harbor's entrance. The boat's captain, Steve Leasure, had been taking a nap. When he woke up he asked if anyone had seen Ward. Everyone said no. At first, Leasure thought they were joking. But it doesn't take long to search a 29-foot boat, and soon he was on the radio with the Coast Guard. "I'm missing one of my crewmembers," he said. "I need some assistance." Leasure then fiddled with his GPS, a Garmin 230, which keeps a record of the boat's course. Using the GPS plot, he turned the boat around and started to backtrack. He thought about his friend. The two had known each other for 14 years and had roomed together in college. As the minutes passed, Leasure thought about what he would say to Ward's parents and wife. His heart sank. There's no way Ward could tread water for this long. After a while, Ward realized that when a wave picked him up, he could stop treading water for a moment and rest. Then after nearly an hour in the waterhe suddenly spotted a black dot on the horizon. "Please, Lord, let them keep coming," he said out loud. Then he noticed that the boat's hull was darkthe blue hull of the Summer Girl, heading straight for him. At 1748, Leasure radioed the Coast Guard: "We have him in sight; I can't believe it." Soon, Ward was safely aboard. He hugged everyone and cried all the way back to the docks. Leasure says that he now has a buddy system on the boat; no one goes to astern unless someone has been notified. And both he and Ward remain amazed at their good fortune. The weather was nice. It was daylight. Ward didn't drift. Leasure had invested in good navigation equipment. Four weeks later, however, a commercial fisherman fell overboard and was lost 75 miles from Charleston. After a 15-hour operation involving four helicopters, two C-130 aircraft, and a 110-foot patrol boat, the Coast Guard suspended its search.