"I'd gotten so sunburned that I was really shivering once night set in," James Michael Grimes said.
James Michael Grimes, a construction worker from Valley, Alabama, had planned a pleasant Thanksgiving cruise to Cozumel, Mexico. Instead, he lost control and fell overboard into the Gulf of Mexico, for 20 hours before being found. Speaking to PEOPLE, he says the thought of his daughter continued to keep him alive. When Grimes, 28, was lost at sea with nothing but his clothing and no phone with him, he recalls, "I kept thinking about how badly I wanted to see my 9-year-old daughter Annabeth while making up songs that I sang to myself."
EXCLUSIVE: James Michael Grimes said he treaded water for nearly 20 hours after falling overboard overboard on a Carnival cruise ship on Thanksgiving Eve -- battling jelly fish, rip currents and shark-infested waters before being airlifted by the U.S. Coast Guard.— Good Morning America (@GMA) December 2, 2022
On Nov. 23, Grimes stepped on the Carnival Valor in New Orleans with the intention of spending time with 17 members of his family. "That first night after the ship left New Orleans, I had some beers and wine, and then I won a free drink in an air guitar competition," he says. Who knew this would be the last moment Grimes would remember in the long, harrowing incidents to follow? "The next thing I remember is waking up in the water," he says. "The boat was out of sight. I thought, 'Wow, this is for real. I'm out here in the sea.'"
After his sister reported him missing the following day because she couldn't find him, Carnival and the U.S. Coast Guard launched a thorough search while Grimes, who was weary and drifting, battled to remain afloat. "Drowning has always been my biggest fear," Grimes explained, "so I told myself that I wouldn't stop swimming."
He claims that after the sun had set, he noticed two ships and tried to swim to them. "I'd gotten so sunburned that I was really shivering once night set in. I told myself that I had to make it to one of those boats. I wasn't sure how much longer I could go on." He eventually approached a ship close enough for someone to notice him. "I saw someone on the deck and started yelling, 'Help!'" Grimes says. "Someone strapped a flashlight to a life preserver and threw it, but waves kept pushing me away from it."
Eventually, Grimes heard someone shout, "The Coast Guard is 15 minutes out," to him. "Minutes later a helicopter circled over me. I pulled off my boxers and waved them over my head, trying to make sure they saw me." A rescuer then swam to him and placed him in a basket before airlifting him to the aircraft. After 20 hours in the sea, Grimes said to his rescuer that he "didn't know how much longer I would have lasted."
LISTEN: "It wasn't a matter of if I was getting out [but] when."— The Vassy Kapelos Show (@VassKapelosShow) December 6, 2022
James Michael Grimes spent 20 hours treading water after falling overboard from a cruise ship.
He describes to @NewstalkToday_ what that experience was like, including the decision to eat a stick for sustenance. pic.twitter.com/coWtYPC8JW
Grimes recovered from the ordeal in the ICU for five days. He lacks health insurance, so his sister Sherry is attempting to raise money for his medical expenses through a GoFundMe page. The family is grateful for the miracle, and genuinely thanks the Coast Guard. "We would like to thank the Coast Guard stationed in New Orleans. Without their help my brother would be lost," Sherry wrote.
"I'm still bruised up and sore, but it's a miracle I survived," he said. He added, "It wasn't my time to die. I'm grateful to see my family again."
Cover Image Source: GoFundMe