BIMINI, BAHAMAS (WCSC) - What's 50 feet long, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and was taking on water off the Florida coast?
If a group of College of Charleston students and their lawyer have any say, it might just be the biggest payday in a group of students' young lives.
While on a return voyage from the Bahamas during Spring Break, a group of eight CofC students witnessed a maritime mistake like nothing they had ever seen before.
"This massive 50-foot yacht was just cruising along. Then all of the sudden, they run it straight into a sandbar," said CofC senior John Capelle. "They were just rocking back and forth."
The group of students, all skilled sailors in their own right, sprang into action, keeping in mind the ages-old adage of the sea to always help a fellow sailor in trouble. They radioed the captain of the sinking vessel to ask how to help.
"He said, 'Mayday, mayday, mayday,'" said Mike Illig, a CofC student and ownder of Avid Angling Fishing Charters.
The crew on board the yacht had deployed a life raft and were jumping to safety, said Innig.
That's where the Spring Breakers got lucky and the story took a turn for both the heroic and the litigious.
"He broke a cardinal rule. You're supposed to stay with the vessel until it is underwater and sinking," said Conor Smith, a junior at the College.
Smith is right, although it's more than a rule -- it's maritime law. If the distressed captain doesn't stay with his ship, passers by with enough youth, skill and desire to salvage a sinking boat can claim it if they can save it.
And that's exactly what the CofC students did.
Capelle, Smith and Innig took turns diving into the water to attach tow lines to the distressed vessel. They didn't keep track of how many times the line snapped or how many times they each dove back into the sea to reattach those lines. They just know they succeeded.
After four hours of towing the otherwise abandoned boat to safety -- including donning scuba gear to repair gashes in the hull created by rocks that were causing the yacht to take on water -- the crew is now entitled to more than a pat on the back.
According to Capelle, "if someone has already declared mayday, they've already abandoned ship to basically let the elements take the ship and do whatever they want with it, and another party comes and saves that boat, technically, it's their boat."
The owners that abandoned the boat are contesting that claim, however.
Now, lawyers are working on the case and they say the students are entitled to a reward for their efforts and the payday for them could be substantial. While attorneys sort out the details, the students say the possibility of reward isn't nearly as important as having the chance to help a stranded fellow sailor.
And with a story this big, the group is happy to have plenty of video of their deed to prove it's no fish tale.