Peter Bailey and Heidi Snyder gripped tightly onto a small paddleboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean as thunder and lightning raged in the distance.
A burst of at least 50 mph wind had hit their sailboat about 8 p.m. Wednesday, they said, tipping it into cold waters off New Jersey’s coast. It would be a few hours before the Coast Guard would arrive.
As the sun slowly disappeared from the sky, the husband and wife spent about an hour searching for an emergency radio device mounted inside the boat so they could send a distress signal to authorities.
Then, they huddled for warmth.
“(The squall) lasted two minutes at the most,” Peter Bailey, 72, said Thursday in his room at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s Mainland Campus in Galloway Township. “Just enough to turn us all the way over. Upside down.”
Bailey said he repeated four words to himself over and over: “Come on, Coast Guard.” Otherwise, the two remained quiet and waited.
Three hours later, a chopper appeared high in the sky, shining a light onto the ocean and their half-sunken sailboat.
Snyder saw red lights from the helicopter in the distance through dense fog. Moments later, a Coast Guard member dropped into the water and swam to the boat with a basket to hoist the shaking couple into. The helicopter headed to Atlantic City.
“It was very dark. There was no moon,” said 54-year-old Snyder. “The helicopter couldn’t quite see us ... but they hoisted me into the basket and into the helicopter.”
Though numb, neither was injured or suffering from hypothermia. They were taken to the emergency room in Galloway to be “evaluated for exposure” and medically cleared, said AtlantiCare spokeswoman Jennifer Tornetta.
This wasn’t Snyder and Bailey’s first time on the water. Bailey is a former Coast Guard member himself and said he built the boat, named Bertie, in 1984.
The two experienced sailors have been traveling different parts of the world by boat for years, and this time, they were going from the Bahamas to New York City with stops along the coast.
Six days ago, they left from Georgetown, South Carolina, heading to New York City, their final destination, to see relatives. When they checked weather reports before leaving the South, tornadoes weren’t in New Jersey’s forecast yet, Snyder said.
Most of their possessions were inside the boat, which is now 65 miles off Atlantic City and barely afloat. Their clothes, phones, computers and even artwork are now gone. Towing it to land, Bailey said, would cost $10,000.
“It was a sad and poignant moment to see (the boat) on her side,” Snyder said. “She had a spirit. ... She was part of us.”
The hospital reached out to Kohl’s department store in Mays Landing to buy Snyder and Bailey clothes to last a few days and a tracker phone, said Larisa Goganzer, vice president and chief administrative officer at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center.
“At least they feel like they have something,” Goganzer said. “To send them away and not have anything to hold onto has got to be uncomfortable.”
Bailey and Snyder credit the Coast Guard for saving their lives, and urged all boaters to have an emergency radio device inside their ships.
“It could save your life, because it certainly did save our lives,” Bailey said.