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Councilman and wife safe after unexpected water adventure
John Fesperman
John Fesperman - photo by Photo by Paul Floecker

John Fesperman laughed when fellow Councilman Russ Carpenter good-naturedly called him “Gilligan” at Tuesday night’s Richmond Hill City Council meeting.

Fortunately for Fesperman and his wife, Rhonda, they were stranded for far less time than the beloved TV character was.

A Coast Guard helicopter located the Fespermans approximately 1 mile east of Ossabaw Island early Monday, about 12 hours after their boat had shut down on the water. They were hoisted into the helicopter and taken to Hunter Army Airfield.

The couple was tired, cold and wet after being stuck on the water during Sunday’s heavy rainstorm, but otherwise was fine.

“We’re very blessed,” John Fesperman said. “It could’ve been a lot worse. There were a lot of other factors that could’ve gone wrong, and we could’ve been in some serious trouble.”

The Fespermans embarked around 11:30 a.m. Sunday from Demere Creek, as they have many times before. They had planned a day trip to Tybee Island.

However, around 1 p.m., the engine quit on their 18-foot center console boat. The culprit turned out to be a newly installed fuel-sending unit that was calibrated incorrectly, giving a false reading of how much gas was in the tank.

“We got down to about halfway between a quarter and a half of a tank (on the fuel gauge), and it just quit,” John Fesperman said.

They anchored their boat on the beach side of Ossabaw Island and called a couple friends to bring gas to them. The friends agreed, but then couldn’t find the Fespermans’ boat.

The couple couldn’t make any more calls because the batteries died on their cellphones. Being on the water activated the roaming service on their phones, which quickly gobbled the battery power.

“I had about 95 percent on my phone when we went out,” Fesperman said. “But once we ran out of gas, I made probably six or eight phone calls and I was at 10 percent before I knew it. I made one last phone call with 1 percent on it, and then it was dead after that.”

And then the storm rolled in.

Fesperman estimated they were deluged by rain for 2½ to three hours, with only the boat’s collapsible canvas top as protection. The clothes and the towels they had on board were drenched.

“Everything got so wet, so we just kind of hunkered down,” Fesperman said.

Darkness fell, as did the temperature. At that point, the Fespermans resigned themselves to believing they would not be found until daylight broke.

However, they remained optimistic.

The Fespermans were certain they would be spotted by a shrimp boat or fishing boat, or by friends who would resume their search Monday morning. They also had food and water on the boat, their anchor was holding steady and they were only about a mile from land.

“So it’s not like we were just desperate,” Fesperman said. “We knew, as long as our anchor was holding, we were OK; as long as we could see land, we were OK.”

Two items the Fespermans didn’t have on board, though, were flares and an air horn. What ultimately got the Coast Guard’s attention was a small, handheld lighter the couple took turns using.

“We had one lighter, and they saw the flickering of the lighter through their night goggles and they saw us,” Fesperman said. “When they picked us up, they said they were out there looking for us for five hours and they were almost having to go back in and refuel.”

The Coast Guard began its search after receiving a call from a concerned friend of the Fespermans. Along with the helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Savannah that found the stranded boaters, crews fromCoast Guard Station Tybee Island, Savannah Marine Patrol and Chatham County Marine Patrol also assisted in the search.The Georgia Department of Natural Resources took the disabled boat back to shore.

“The close partnership and outstanding cooperation between the Coast Guard, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, numerous local government agencies and commercial partners led to locating these missing boaters and another successful rescue,” said Chief Warrant Officer Lee Heitner, a command duty officer with the Coast Guard Sector Charleston command center.

The couple was glad to return home Monday morning. Since then, they have been overwhelmed by the number of well-wishes they have received from the community.

“I couldn’t have asked for more,” Fesperman said. “It was really a blessing, I’m telling you. He answered all our prayers for us while we were out there, that’s for sure.”

The Fespermans might be right back out on the boat this weekend, he said. This time, though, he’ll make sure to have flares and other items that, before last weekend, he figured he would never need.

“I’ll have everything on the boat next time,” Fesperman said.

No matter how many more boating excursions they go on, it’s a safe bet they won’t forget the July Fourth weekend outing that turned out to be much more adventurous than they anticipated.

“I could’ve easily stayed on land and not had the adventure that we had,” Fesperman said. “But it turned out well and we learned a lot of lessons, and we got home safely.”

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