Tim Sears, 31, and Mike, his best friend, checked in to Carnival's "Celebration" cruise ship for five days of sun and partying in the Gulf of Mexico -- an escape from another dreary winter in their home state of Michigan. They boarded the ship in Texas, looking forward to stops in Cozumel and Playa del Carmen.
After spending the day drinking beer in the sun, the two bachelors split up that night. Mike hit the casino while Sears went dancing. New friends were being made and the drinks flowing.
"Last thing I remember is looking for my friend in the casino," he said. After that, Sears' memory went blank. And that's when his vacation took a very unexpected turn.
Unbelievably, Sears awoke in the middle of the ocean.
"I'm coming to in the middle of the water and there's no ship around and it's total, total darkness," he said. "At first it wasn't ... It didn't even seem real. And then it didn't take very long to realize that it was real."
There are very few people like Sears, who go missing on a cruise ship and live to tell about it. Sears had apparently fallen off the ship -- perhaps as far as 10 stories, he says -- in the middle of the night.
His first thought when he regained consciousness, he said, was: "How in the hell did I get here? I mean, to be honest with you, that was my very first thought. ... How in the world did I end up here in the middle of the water with no ship at all?"
Sears said he was immersed in near total darkness, seeing only a few lights way off in the distance. But he knew he had to figure a way out of his predicament.
"Fairly quickly, I realized I didn't have any pants, any shoes. All I had on was boxers and a sweatshirt and a T-shirt," he said.
Back on board the ship, the party continued. No one knew Sears was missing. He was alone staring at a sea that seemed to be alive as blue-green algae called phosphorescence shimmered around him.
All through the night, for seven hours, Sears swam, worried about sharks and barracudas -- all the while growing more tired and dehydrated.
The former Army paratrooper toughed it out in the Gulf of Mexico. Fortunately for him, the relatively warm temperature of the waters there worked in his favor.
"Part of it, I think [was] just the will to live. Part of it, I was in the military, which I think that, that focus and drive really helped me," Sears said.
But the sun soon became his enemy, and he grew so thirsty, he started to drink the salt water. "The sun was so bright and I was so dehydrated that I would take some in my mouth and just swish it around and spit it back out. But within a half hour, I started getting ill from that," he said.
Worst of all, he kept seeing ships on the horizon, but they could not see him. His mental toughness started to give way to the reality of his dire situation.
"I knew there was no way I could continue swimming through another night because I was really cold. The water temperature was like 60, my body temperature dropped hugely," Sears said.
After about 14 hours with no food or water, Tim had not seen a passing ship in hours. He faced a moment that most of us dread ever having to face.
"I was tired, and so I made peace with God and closed my eyes and started going down in the water, taking water into my nose, into my lungs. And no thoughts went through my head. I was ready for it to be over."