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Annapolis Captains, Lost At Sea, Recount Violent Storm That Nearly Cost Them Their Lives

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Mary Bubala joined WJZ in December 2003. She now anchors the 4-4:30...
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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WJZ) — Drama at sea. Two Annapolis sea captains are caught in a violent storm off the East Coast.

Now they talk exclusively with Mary Bubala, sharing what they thought might be their final moments.

A distress call from an experienced Annapolis sea captain:

“We are declaring a mayday at this point. We are done. Our motor is shot,” said Jim Southward, Annapolis sea captain.

Waves three stories high crashed down on the power sailboat off the coast of Cape Lookout, N.C.

“A 30-foot wave is the equivalent of about a three-story house moving at you and then the roof falling off the top onto you,” Southward said. “You are at war with the sea around you.”

One wave was so enormous, the mast went under.

“I looked to my left and then the entire wall of windows that were there were about a foot underwater,” he said.

Moments of sheer panic set in as local sea captains, Jim Southward and Pat Schoenberger, tried to ferry a 41-foot sailboat to its owner.

“I thought I might not see the end of the day,” said Southward.

“If the sea decides to crush us, that’s what’s going to happen,” said Schoenberger.

Their high seas journey began in Severn, Va. and was to end in Pensacola, Fla. But a violent March winter storm barreling up the East Coast set them way off course.

Bubala: “Should you have been out on the water that day with those kind of conditions?”

Schoenberger: “We couldn’t have known that the weather was going to get that bad, that the storm system was 12 to 16 hours ahead of schedule.”

The forecast called for the storm to bring waves of four to six feet, but it quickly intensified. A freighter in the Atlantic was knocked around like a toy, with a crew member seriously injured and two fishermen lost at sea, as their fishing boat sank off Assateague Island.

“The waves were at this point 18 to 20 feet and breaking and that’s when I first got scared for my life,” said Southward.

They tried to head to shore and wait it out, but each time, dangerous conditions forced the Coast Guard to close inlets.

“Again, we got closed out after about four hours of trying,” Southward said.

“That was our first indicator that we might not make it,” said Schoenberger.

After 12 hours of fighting the storm, a distress call went out to the Coast Guard.

“We are asking for removal from the vessel. This situation is getting worse and worse by the minute,” they said.

“Captain, it is advised that you stay with the vessel as long as it safe to and at this time, we are mobilizing an aircraft. Over,” dispatchers responded.

“I knew when I saw that Coast Guard helicopter that I had put these people’s lives in danger, asking them to come get me, but they weren’t going to leave without me,” said Southward.

“That for me was the first time it occurred to me that we might just get to live another day here,” said Schoenberger.

Bubala: “There were moments that you thought you weren’t going to make it.”

Schoenberger: “We prayed a lot. We made a lot of promises that Jim and I have a lot of living up to do now.”

They say the hardest thing they had to do was tell the owner of the boat it was lost at sea. They were relieved when he told them it was replaceable but they were not.

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