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Adrift in rough seas, fishermen subsist on rainwater, prayers

By Bui Toan, Viet Quoc   July 21, 2022 | 06:00 am PT
After spending nine days holding on for dear life in a coracle in rough seas off the Spratly Islands, four fishermen say they survived on rainwater and prayers.

"Lady luck came to us on the 9th day," said Ha Van Tan, 45, one of the four rescued Tuesday. All four have been brought to central Vietnam's Khanh Hoa Province for medical treatment.

Fisherman Ha Van Tan after being brought back to shore in Khanh Hoa Province, July 21, 2022. Photo by Bui Toan

Fisherman Ha Van Tan after being brought back to shore in Khanh Hoa Province, July 21, 2022. Photo by Bui Toan

Tan said he was part of a 15-strong crew on a fishing vessel helmed by 50-year-old Bui Van Toan. On July 10, as they were trying to get back to shore, their ship was severely damaged by big waves about 155 km away from Phu Quy Island.

The 15 crew members divided themselves into two coracles to escape from the sinking vessel.

"Our coracle had seven people, but after several days of drifting at sea, three died of exhaustion. When their bodies began to smell, we had no choice but to drop them off," Tan said.

In the days that followed, the surviving four had to fight off monstrous waves at sea. To prevent themselves from losing consciousness, they constantly splashed seawater onto their faces and strove hard to keep the coracle from sinking. Once they saw a vessel far away and screamed for help in vain.

Later, a foreign vessel that passed by offered them some food and water, but refused to rescue them. Tran Theo, 55, one of the rescued fishermen, guessed that their rejection was based on fear. The rations were not much for four people and didn't last long.

"We survived by drinking rainwater and praying for help to come," Theo said.

The rescue

Tran Thuan Thanh, 55, receives medical treatment in Khanh Hoa after being rescued from nine days stranded at sea. Photo by VnExpress/Bui Toan

Tran Thuan Thanh, 55, receives medical treatment in Khanh Hoa after being rescued from nine days stranded at sea. Photo by VnExpress/Bui Toan

Le Thanh Toan was sailing his boat back to shore on the afternoon of July 19 when he saw a coracle floating far away. There was an upright pole on the coracle, with water bottles and pieces of cloth strung up. It seemed like a signal for help.

So Toan and his crew went as fast as they could towards the coracle. The waves were 2-3 m high at the time, and the strong winds required a lot of manoeuvring to reach it.

"The four people in the coracle were exhausted. They were even delirious at times," Toan recalled.

Toan and the crew tried to feed the fishermen with milk and porridge, but none of them could eat out of sheer fatigue.

Back on the shore, on July 12, the wife of one of the fishermen contacted authorities in Binh Thuan after her husband's vessel did not return as scheduled. The last signal that the ship transmitted was at 5:07 a.m. on July 10, locating it about 155 km away from Phu Quy Island and 233 km away from Phan Thiet Port.

Eleven vessels and a plane have been dispatched to look for the missing ship and remaining crew.

 
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