Three men who were rescued by the Coast Guard after their boat capsized off the coast of Louisiana opened up about their harrowing and terrifying night spent fighting jellyfish sharks in the open sea.
Longtime friends Phong Le, Luan Nguyen, and Son Nguyen spoke with the PEOPLE and explained that they set out on Oct. 8 to fish for red snapper, as they often do. But an unexpected bout of high winds kicked in as they were miles from the shore. Subsequent rough waves ended up flooding their deck, and within a matter of minutes, the boat began to sink.
Le instructed everyone to put on their lifevests, and with quick thinking, the trio grabbed two ice chests and tied them together with a bandana to create a float. Before long, their 24-foot boat was completely submerged. And they were left clinging to their makeshift life raft.
The men attempted to paddle to a nearby oil rig to call for help. But they couldn’t fight the strong winds that eventually pushed them further into the sea. Though they all had cell phones, they had no reception. Eventually, help came, but they waited, completely exposed to the elements, for 28 hours.
Fish and jellyfish began biting their hands, legs, and backs immediately. The men said they were stung at least every 20 mins.
“It was pretty much like a bunch of hypodermic needles just sticking at one time,” said Le.
By nightfall, the situation quickly worsened.
“The wind was howling, it was blowing constantly 20 miles per hour,” he continued. “I would see the moon, and the moon would disappear. I would see the moon and I could see the waves rolling and it would just crash over us every maybe five minutes.”
A Text Message Helped The Coast Guard Locate the Stranded Boaters
The water was only 78 degrees, which felt warmer than the air. But because it was below body temperature, hypothermia was setting in. And the chilly air made matters worse.
“We pretty much just hunkered down with each other, held each other pretty close, and then just tried to stay warm,” says Le. “The water was warm, but anything that your body was above the water was freezing.”
The men tethered themselves to the float with strings and huddled together for warmth while they waited for morning.
At daybreak, Le noticed a shrimp boat in the distance. And, he thought they could work together to paddle to it. But after a few mins, he realized the chest was too much weight. So he decided to leave his friends and swim it alone. But almost as soon as he took off, the boat disappeared.
While Le continued searching for the shrimp boat, a shark targeted his two friends.
“Out of nowhere this shark attacks,” said Luan. “I reacted by just trying to push him off, but that didn’t work. So I just took my thumb then I just jammed it in his eyes and it took off.”
The shark ended up ripping off Luan’s life vest and the struggle caused one of the ice chests to start falling apart. Luan started losing all hope for survival.
“I was preparing,” he added. “But I was going to give it everything I had.”
But help soon came, thanks to a stroke of luck. While Le moved closer to land, he happened upon a spot of cell connection. With only five percent battery remaining, he snapped a screenshot of his GPS location and sent it to a friend. The message went through just as he lost service and his phone died.
That friend sent the screenshot to Le’s fiance, and she passed it to the Coast Guard. A helicopter arrived 25 mins later.
“Oh, man. That feeling of getting pulled out of the water was the best feeling ever,” Luan shared. “I was like ‘I can stop swimming… I could really stop now.'”