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'I'm drowning, I'm going under'

By Ted Rowlands

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering the news.

Craig McCabe
Craig McCabe floated in the ocean after falling off his 65-foot yacht.

NEWPORT BEACH, California -- On board his 65-foot yacht off the coast of Southern California, Craig McCabe told us his incredible story of survival.

It was an emotional moment -- this was the first time McCabe had been back on his boat since he fell into the Pacific Ocean eight days ago and began a terrifying six-hour ordeal.

McCabe was alone on a foggy morning on his way to Newport Beach, when he decided to check something on the side of his yacht.

As McCabe was leaning over the side, a wave slammed into his boat.

"Next thing I knew, I was in the water" he said, as he showed us where he hit his head before falling in.

McCabe said at first he wasn't worried. He knew that his boat, like most, would go in circles if no one was steering. However, when McCabe looked up, his boat had taken off in a straight line, leaving him alone, miles from shore, with no life jacket and no one in sight.

After a few minutes in the chilly water, McCabe noticed a container ship "headed right for me," he said. It was the first time he was really worried.

The ship passed him, but no one on board heard him yelling for help.

Then a fishing boat came along.

"I could hear the guys talking" McCabe said. "I was screaming Help! Help! Help!"

But the diesel motor on the boat drowned out McCabe's desperate calls, and the boat motored out of sight.

McCabe spent the next few hours trying to swim to a buoy he could see in the distance, but he was getting tired and started to think he was going to die. He said he has struggled with religion since he was 15, but at that point, he thought he had better start praying.

"Suddenly I spot this crazy helium balloon," McCabe said. "It's bright blue with stars, and it's kind of floating around on the surface."

With just enough strength left to grab the balloon, McCabe stuffed it into his shirt, creating a float, and swam on toward the buoy.

"With the sun out and the balloon, I was very confident" he said.

But soon the effort wore him down. He was exhausted, and for the next few hours, he fell sleep. Then, he woke up in a panic.

"I am drowning, I'm going under, getting to the surface then going under," McCabe said, describing the moment.

The balloon had deflated, and McCabe once again thought that was the end. He prayed again, and when he was finished, a piece of wood floated by.

"I grabbed it, put in my jacket where the balloon had been, and I stopped drowning," he said.

McCabe swam on toward the buoy, unaware that his boat had run ashore on Catalina Island, about 20 miles away. It missed a group of children by about 300 yards, and got the attention of the Coast Guard.

An off-duty Harbor Patrol officer listening to the radio recognized the name of the boat, and got word to McCabe's brother, Lance.

"I got the message and called the Coast Guard, and got the confirmation that it was Craig's boat" Lance said.

As the Coast Guard and Harbor Patrol started to look for McCabe, Lance and a group of friends also went out. By then, McCabe had been in the water five hours.

"As you're looking, you're just overwhelmed by what an impossible task this is, how small a head is and how vast the ocean is -- it's just staggering," Lance said.

Meanwhile, McCabe had made it to the buoy, but there was a problem. Sitting on the buoy was a group of sea lions, including a very large and angry male.

"There was a handle that I may have been able to grab... and hold at least for a while, but I knew if I did he was going to bite my hand off," McCabe said. "I also realized if I went any closer to the buoy he was going to jump in and attack me."

Again, McCabe said, he thought he was going to die, and started to pray. Then he looked up -- and saw his brother.

"That's a moment of joy, I tell you, when I realized it was him," Lance said.

McCabe was blue in the face from hypothermia, Lance said, when they pulled him out. But within a few days he was out of the hospital.

McCabe, an attorney, said what happened to him has changed his life. He's convinced God was teaching him a lesson, saying every time he prayed for help, he got it.

First the balloon, then the wood, then his brother.

"Let people decide," McCabe said as he took us back to Newport Beach. "I'm just telling you what happened, and I'm telling it to you straight."

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