For five days after their 40-foot sailboat had sunk beneath them, Chris Napolitano of Bowie and two other crew members floated aimlessly in a small rubber raft 100 miles off the Florida coast -- praying that their imminent deaths would not be too painful.
All their food and fresh water had sunk with the boat. They knew it was hopeless.
"Sharks kept swimming by us," said Napolitano, 19, in a telephone interview from his hospital bed in Jacksonville, Fla., where he and his companions are being treated for dehydration and exposure.
"It was real cold at night and all we had on were jeans and shirts, no shoes. We had no food. We knew we could live for only about 12 more hours. We had lost hope of being rescued."
It was Saturday night, and the three men lay semi-conscious, huddled together under a poncho they had managed to save from the "Reality," their sunken vessel.
A shark nudged the raft. The men stirred, then awoke to the sight of the shark's bared teeth.
"We felt the shark, and Jerry [Willis] took out his four-inch pocket knife and jabbed it above the spinal cord," said Napolitano. "The shark took off and then we saw a freighter in the distance. I got up and started waving my jacket like crazy. We couldn't believe that the freighter was coming toward us."
If the shark had not attacked them, the men said later, they would not have seen the freighter.
The oil freighter's crew gave the men food and water, and took them to a Coast Guard search and rescue ship off the Atlantic coast near Jacksonville.
Napolitano and the two other crew members -- Doug Dixon, 21, of Waverly, Ohio, and Willis, 35, of Navarre, Fla. -- began their journey aboard Willis' newly purchased sailboat Jan. 12. They were taking the boat from the Chesapeake Bay area, where he had purchased it, to Willis' home on the Florida panhandle.
Willis, a restaurant owner, and Dixon, a construction worker, were friends. Napolitano, who is a sophmore at Frostburg State College near Cumberland, Md., was helping to sail the boat in exchange for a ride to Key West.
They sailed almost effortlessly the first three days, the winds behind them, pushing them swiftly across the ocean past Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia.
"Then, on Tuesday, Willis and I were on the deck, shooting the breeze, when Doug came up to us and said the ship was flooding," said Napolitano.
"We started bailing out water, but it was up to our knees. We'd bail it out and more water kept gushing in.
"Jerry got on the VHF and CB radios, trying to reach the Coast Guard, anybody. But we couldn't get through.
"We are sinking fast. We put on our life preservers and started putting our provisions into the life raft -- seven gallons of water, bread, cheese and canned food, mostly chunky soups.
"But water washed over us and the ship sank and all our provisions washed away. We had to swim to the life raft."
For the next two days the three men prayed that they would be rescued. With hunger gnawing at them they talked about the meals they would eat when they were back on land. After a while, they stopped talking about meals and started wishing for just one small piece of food
"I wanted a ripe peach that the juice would come out of, "Napolitano said. "Doug wanted an orange. And Jerry wanted a pitcher of fresh, salt-free water."
But by Saturday, the three were losing faith that they would be rescued. They dozed and woke up, dozed and woke up, and wondered whether they would die from sharks or from dehydration and exposure.
That night, when the shark nudged them awake, they thought they knew the answer.
"We had seen sharks before but this one was determined to get us," said Willis, "Finally he came toward us and tried to bite the raft. You could see his teeth and see his eyes staring at us.
"If he hadn't attacked, we would never have seen the tanker."
Now, the three are in fair condition at St. Luke's Hospital. Napolitano who was taking a semester off from school to travel, has decided to return home to his family in Bowie when he leaves the hospital.
Napolitano's father is a retired Iar Force major. His mother is a secretary at Buckingham Elementary School in Bowie.
"On Saturday I was dehydrated and I had salt rashes over my skin," Napolitano, said. "My knees and muscles were wobbly, because I hadn't walked for days, Now I feel pretty good.
"I feel very happy and very lucky to be alive."