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.
'How Did I End Up Here?'
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.
Party Continues on the Ship
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.
Almost Giving Up
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."
Tim says he started to sink in the darkness, but then, something happened -- he felt a renewed determination and realized he wasn't ready to give up yet. "And my eyes just opened and I swam back to the top, spit the water out and decided that I was, I was going to keep swimming," he said.
Tim struggled on for three more hours -- his head badly sunburned, his legs raw from hours of kicking in the salty sea. Despite all his determination, he was still 50 miles from shore.
"There was no way I was reaching land whatsoever," he said.
Then he saw something on the horizon. "I saw a ship in the distance and watched it travel on the same path for quite a while and just decided that that was ... going to be my last chance," Sears said.
With everything he had left, Sears swam toward the ship, coming within 200 yards of it. "I had lost my glasses, of course, I couldn't see," he said. "And I had a bright yellow T-shirt on underneath that I had taken off and ripped to try to make it larger, to wave them down."
He thought he saw someone on the deck, but the ship kept moving. Sears screamed at the top of his lungs, until he was breathless.
It paid off. "What I later found out is that they actually heard me before they saw me," he said.
The foreign cargo ship heading for Texas -- named "Eny" -- plucked Sears from the water, ending his ordeal at the last possible hour.
"It actually brought me to tears when I was sitting there," he recalled. "I was asking God to send me any ship and here 'Eny' ship had rescued me and it just did, it brought me to tears."
For all Sears learned about himself trapped in the water, he still knows very little about how he got there.
Sears concedes it's possible he may have gotten way too drunk and somehow fallen overboard, though he says that in the past when he's drank too much, he's remained "aware of what's going on."
He believes that one of two things happened to him that night. "Either I was looking over the railing and fell, or somebody put something in my drink," he said.
But Sears is different from the families searching for loved ones after cruises -- he'd like to know more about what happened to him, but he's very happy about what he already knows.
"I'm just glad to be alive," he said.