Marco Blake was below deck trying to get some rest when a wave kicked up by Hurricane Earl smashed through his 31-foot fishing boat.
In an instant, Blake found himself trapped upside-down in the flooded cabin of the capsized boat, desperately hunting in the dark for a way out as Earl howled outside."I had to swim underneath the water to find the door to get out," Blake said Thursday after a Coast Guard helicopter plucked him from his life raft in shark-infested waters seven hours after his ordeal.
The bodies of Blake's two crewmates from the Can-Too were recovered later in the day, one washing ashore at Panama City Beach and the other found floating in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Can-Too - together with its sister boat, the Me-Too - were racing for port Wednesday night when Earl pounced, trapping the fishing boats in 16-foot waves and 80 mph winds just off Panama City.
"We were hitting some pretty high waves," said Blake. "We were crunching through them, and all of a sudden one of them waves just crunched right through us."
The boats, based in Orange Beach, Ala., had been out on a five-day tour to catch tile fish and grouper 70 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.
It was only Blake's second trip as a commercial fisherman. "I always wanted to try it," he said. "Well, I've tried it. It ain't too lucky for me."
With water gushing into the boat, Blake swam free, pulling crewmate Kalvin Fountain out by the belt loop of his jeans. The two bobbed to the surface.
Blake said he scrambled into a life raft and drifted away from the Can-Too, unable to reach Fountain, 34. He said he never saw his captain, Paul Pence, 68, after the big wave.
"We almost made it home - alive, full crew, a paycheck," said Blake, 31, of Little Rock, Ark. "We didn't quite make it."
Me-Too Capt. James Martin, 33, of Jasper, Ala., said his boat was trailing behind the Can-Too when a "freak sea" of about 20 feet struck both vessels.