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Missing boaters clung to thread of hope

  • Story Highlights
  • Three fishermen spent week on on capsized boat in Gulf of Mexico
  • Men rationed water, crackers, beer to live
  • Boater spotted fishermen about 180 miles from coast of Port Aransas, Texas
  • Coast Guard had called off search for men on Friday
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(CNN) -- They kept their bodies alive with rationed crackers, bubble gum, beer and three gallons of water. But spiritually, the three men lost at sea for eight days had something else to keep them going.

Tressel Hawkins, 43, spent eight days on a capsized boat in the Gulf of Mexico.

The family of the missing boaters put these photos on flyers shortly after they went missing.

"We just kept praying, and we kept hope alive," rescued boater Tressel Hawkins told CNN on Monday. "Even though hope had managed to thread down to a little bitty string, I mean, that little bitty string could be just as strong as the rope you hung on to the first time you got started."

What was supposed to be a fishing expedition to catch swordfish and marlin became instead a test of survival.

Hawkins, 43, and his fellow boaters, Curtis Hall, 28, and James Phillips, 30, set out on August 21 from Matagorda Bay in Texas and went about 100 miles south. Their first night in the Gulf of Mexico almost proved fatal.

While Hawkins was sleeping, he said, he felt the bean bag he was resting on floating. He awoke to find water in the 23-foot catamaran knee-high. The water extractor had malfunctioned. He woke up Hall and Phillips and they tried to stop the flooding but it was too late, Hawkins said. Video Watch CNN's Fredricka Whitfield talk to Hawkins »

As Hall had the radio in his hand to call for help, the boat capsized, Phillips told CNN affiliate KHOU-TV. They were "shocked," Phillips said.

Hall was responsible for rationing the food they had on board and the fresh water that sat in a tank on the boat, Hawkins said. They didn't like it, but they had to follow his rules to survive, he said.

"And being that you don't really know when you're going to get rescued, you have to ration it down to the bare essentials, and he stuck to his guns on that," Hawkins said.

And with only those bare essentials, they waited and they prayed but they didn't give up.

The three had lifejackets, flares and handmade flags. They used T-shirts and railing they ripped off the boat to create the flags, Hawkins said.

They waved at boats and helicopters they saw, but the pilots didn't see them, Hall said. Video Watch two other fishermen describe ordeal »

"We tried flaggin' everybody we could, but I guess it was not our time to go home yet. They'd come straight at us, we'd be like 'Hey,' and there they'd go," Hall told KHOU. "I was like, well, you know the good man above, either he's teaching us a lesson or showing us something. And finally, when that boat came, it was just ... I don't know."

"It was a miracle," Phillips said, finishing Hall's sentence.

One day after the Coast Guard called off a weeklong search for the men, the trio spotted a private vessel in the distance. They waved their flags and this time they were seen, Hawkins said.

The Coast Guard said it combed more than 86,000 square miles looking for the men . When the crew of the private boat found the three sitting on top of their capsized catamaran, they were about 180 miles from Port Aransas, Texas, which is at the entrance to Corpus Christi Bay.

None of the men suffered serious injuries despite all they had endured.

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In fact, Hawkins said he wouldn't be against going fishing again very soon.

"I would love to do it this weekend, but we made a pact when we made it back to the house that we're going to put the poles down for the rest of the year and try to do something else, maybe go deer hunting or something like that."

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