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Boater’s Tale of Survival at Sea Has a Theme Psalm

Times Staff Writers

A battered, bruised and lucky yachtsman described in a tearful news conference Friday how he used his newfound faith in God to survive nearly six hours alone in the chilly Pacific off the coast of Southern California.

It was the 23rd Psalm that he said was his deliverance.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want....

Craig McCabe, a 58-year-old attorney from Newport Beach, quaked with emotion as he sat in a wheelchair at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach, describing his ordeal and a series of coincidences that he said saved his life.

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McCabe said he fell into the sea Thursday about 8 a.m. after a rogue wave smashed into his 65-foot vessel, Heather.

He had been leaning over the boat’s stern to see if the propellers had been entangled in a lobster trap line as he motored through the morning fog, he said.

In the water, McCabe grabbed a trailing boat line but couldn’t hang on.

The rope broke one of his fingers and cut his face, leaving him bleeding. He was sure that sharks lurked.

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About 1 1/2 miles from the Long Beach breakwater, he could barely keep afloat in the heavy jacket, jeans and shoes that he wore, but he didn’t want to shed them in the 58-degree water.

“I could see the shoreline,” McCabe said. But swimming to land was out of the question. It was just too far.

Still, he said he wasn’t too fearful because his boat was motoring in circles and he figured someone would find him soon.

He said he was mostly angry at himself for piloting his yacht alone -- a cardinal violation of safe boating -- from Marina del Rey to Newport Harbor for repairs.

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“That’s a big mistake,” said McCabe, adding that he had been boating since he was 10. “Any boating person should know that.”

His irritation turned to increasing fear when his unmanned vessel turned and “went straight as an arrow” out to sea.

A passing fishing boat failed to spot him and his mood darkened.

“Then things got desperate,” said a tearful McCabe, who was flanked by his two adult daughters and doctors at the hospital. “I couldn’t swim very far. The water was cold.”

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Panic rising, McCabe spotted a buoy about a half-mile away, and decided to swim for it. That’s when he began to pray. He asked God to rescue him, and, in exchange, McCabe would devote his life to him.

Shortly afterward, he spotted a blue balloon skipping along the surface in his direction.

He said he grabbed it, stuffed it into his jacket for flotation and breast-stroked toward the buoy.

“I suddenly gained confidence again,” he said.

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But not for long. Within an hour, the balloon had deflated. Tired and cold, he began to shake.

“I got overconfident and I stopped praying,” he explained.

He began to slip under the sea between breaths.

“I was getting delirious,” he said. “I didn’t think there was any way I’d survive. I didn’t think I’d get to this buoy.”

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He said that’s when he began reciting the 23rd Psalm.

Even though I walk

through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil,

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for you are with me;

While McCabe tried to stay afloat, a friend returning to Catalina on the Catalina Express commuter boat spotted his vessel motoring toward the island.

Later, when television news stations reported an abandoned boat had run aground on Catalina’s rocky shore at 10:45 a.m., she saw it was McCabe’s.

She called McCabe’s brother, Lance, who lives in San Clemente. He borrowed a friend’s speedboat to begin his own search for his brother and also called the Coast Guard.

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Authorities began scouring the 26-mile-wide channel with five boats -- four from the county’s Baywatch and one from the Coast Guard -- and three Coast Guard helicopters and a C-130 airplane.

Meanwhile, McCabe said he continued to splash toward the buoy, but now wasn’t sure he’d make it.

When a big chunk of driftwood floated by, McCabe stuffed it into his jacket and used smaller pieces of wood for paddles.

“It wasn’t like the balloon, but it helped,” he said.

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And he continued to repeat the 23rd Psalm.

By now, McCabe had been in the water for nearly six hours. As he swam up to the buoy, he faced an unexpected obstacle: five sea lions not in the mood to budge from their perch.

“There must’ve been one male sea lion and he was very territorial,” he said. “He had pretty good size teeth.

“I was getting worried about drowning again. My hopes were always up then down, then up then down,” he added.

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The hypothermia had dropped his body temperature into the 80s, doctors later said.

Just before he gave up hope, McCabe heard a boat engine. His brother and several friends, on their way to Catalina to retrace McCabe’s steps, spotted him in the water. A friend jumped in the water at 2:15 p.m. and pulled McCabe out.

“We didn’t say anything to each other,” he said. “We just hugged. I was conscious but not in very good shape.”

His doctor at St. Mary said McCabe was lucky to be alive.

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“It was remarkable that he survived as long as he did,” said Dr. John Lawrence. “We see people lying in the wet street, and they can’t survive hypothermia.”

McCabe was scheduled to leave the hospital Friday, and said he would spend some time at his mother’s home in Laguna Woods.

As for Heather, the boat was plucked off the rocks with only a small hole in its bow and piloted back to Newport Harbor on Friday by McCabe’s brother.

McCabe said his time in the water settled a debate he’s had with himself for what seems like forever:

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Whether to retire from law and live aboard his boat or continue to be a legal advocate for sexually abused children.

“It’s been a big issue all my life,” he said. “I needed a wake-up call.”

McCabe said he’s putting his yacht up for sale. But he’ll continue boating.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Afloat, sans boat

Sailor Craig McCabe spent a chilly six hours in the ocean Thursday while his boat took a sidetrip to Catalina Island. His ultimate destination had been Newport Beach.

1 McCabe leaves Marina del Rey for Long Beach Harbor in his boat, the Heather, at 4 a.m.

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2 A wave knocks McCabe from his boat off San Pedro at 8 a.m. He is rescued off Long Beach Harbor at 2:15 p.m.

3 The Heather runs ashore in Catalina Island at 10:45 a.m.

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Source: Craig McCabe

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