3 Divers Saved After Boat Sinks : Ordeal: The men withstand 15 hours in the cold ocean off Catalina. 'It's a great Thanksgiving,' one says of the rescue.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three San Diego men had much to be thankful for Thursday after their 24-foot dive boat sank, forcing them to endure 15 hours in the chilly seas off Santa Catalina Island before they were rescued.

"It's a great Thanksgiving," said Ken Gerken, 35, as he and the two others recuperated at an Avalon hospital. "When we first sank, we saw Dana Point pretty clear. We saw the Orange County lights, and then they all disappeared. . . . I just kept praying to God that I wouldn't give up."

The three men, who had been diving for sea urchins off the coast of Catalina, were returning to Dana Point Harbor on Wednesday night when two waves washed over their bow. Skipper Matthew Pressly, 30, said he barely had time to make one radio distress call before the boat capsized.

"All of a sudden, I looked down and we had 12 inches of standing water," Pressly said. "The stern of the boat went upright. I tried to jump in and get a wet suit and life jackets, but it was like a bad submarine flick.

"I got into the cabin and this tremendous force of water slammed me against one side of the cabin. I grabbed what I could. . . . Afraid? Was I afraid?" he said. "That's putting it mildly."

Pressly managed to grab a suit for himself and the top half of a wet suit for Gerken. The third survivor, Dennis Dehrens, 31, wore only jeans, a sweat shirt, jacket and tennis shoes in the 58-degree water.

When the three were admitted to the hospital, Dehrens' body temperature was only 92 degrees--1 1/2 hours after they were rescued.

During the first hour after the boat sank, the three commercial divers were able to cling to the bow, which bobbed near the water's surface. After that, they survived by lashing together the bumpers that protect the boat's bow and using them for flotation. Breathing was difficult because of the cold, and because water around them was covered with gasoline--apparently from a tank aboard the boat that had ruptured.

The ordeal grew worse after they decided to separate. Pressly, wearing the full wet suit, set off to swim to Catalina; it appeared about seven miles away. Gerken, a veteran diver, remained with Dehrens.

While Gerken and Dehrens struggled to stay afloat, the lines binding them to their makeshift buoys began cutting into their skin. The salt water irritated the cuts, causing them to swell, limiting their mobility.

Pressly, meanwhile, swam against the cold currents, alone in the dark ocean. The three men spent a harrowing night waving and shouting at U. S. Coast Guard helicopters and vessels that came close but never heard or saw them.

"I didn't think I could make it," Pressly said. "I saw the Coast Guard helicopter and all these boats going by us. I was cramping up. To be quite honest with you, I cried. I couldn't hold back. I had just about given up."

To bolster his morale, Pressly said, he thought of his children--Lucas, 8, Samantha, 6, and Jamie, 4.

"I would have been eating turkey with them (Thursday)," Pressly said. "I was the one who was going to prepare our Thanksgiving and they were upset with me."

Finally, just before noon, a private vessel, The Webfoot, spotted Gerken and Dehrens, who were still clinging to the bow bumpers in the choppy waters about four miles southeast of Catalina. When plucked from the water, Dehrens was so exhausted he couldn't make the three steps into the rescue vessel.

"They had to help me in the boat," he said. "They grabbed me, poured buckets of coffee in me and had me naked and in a sleeping bag before we picked up Matt."

Pressly was found and rescued 20 minutes later. At the Avalon hospital, where the three men were treated for mild hypothermia before returning by shuttle to Long Beach, doctors told them that they owed their survival to being in good physical shape.

All three praised their rescuers, as well as the paramedics and hospital staff.

"I couldn't believe the people here at the hospital," Gerken said. "They all have been so nice to us. The doctors even volunteered to go home and get us Thanksgiving food."

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