Sunburned and dehydrated, the two desperate students clung to a partially submerged kayak for more than two hours Tuesday in what they feared were shark infested waters in Port Royal Sound, praying a boat would appear and save them.
The two, Justin Bell, 26, and Sarah Knutowski, 23, both students at a Virginia pharmacy school, were visiting the Bell family vacation home on Hilton Head Island. They set off from a Port Royal Plantation beach with friend Daniel Brown, 24, a University of Kentucky student, just after 8 a.m.
Bell and Knutowski were in a tandem kayak. Brown was in a single-person kayak. The day was hot, the air clear and the water seemingly endless.
They headed for Bay Point Island, about three miles off shore, for a picnic. Along the way, they met Chip Michalove, owner of Outcast Sport Fishing Charters, who asked if they were OK.
Although they said they were, Michalove was a little concerned.
"I've never seen kayakers that far off shore before," he said.
The trio said goodbye and resumed their journey.
They reached the uninhabited island about noon, ate lunch, explored a bit and decided to head back to shore.
That's when things began to go wrong.
"As we're going back (and) were about 1,000 feet from (Bay Point) island, I see them flip over," Brown said of his friends. "They kept trying to get in the kayak and it kept flipping over."
Knutowski said the three realized the boat was taking on water, but didn't know why.
"We're hitting bigger surf and trying to drain the kayak," she said.
The three did a quick inspection and found a rubber stopper missing at the rear of the kayak.
There was more bad news.
The boaters' sunscreen, sunglasses, shirts and cooler, which held their supply of drinking water, were lost when the boat flipped.
They had left their cell phones at home.
They were wearing life vests, however.
Knutowski sat in the sinking tandem as she and Brown tried to paddle and tow Bell through the water.
The effort "got them nowhere," she said.
"That's when we started to get worried," Brown said.
About 1:30 p.m., the trio decided to send Brown for help. He set off toward Hilton Head, but by 2:30, he was tiring quickly.
The current was strong, flipping his kayak twice.
He had no drinking water or a shirt.
He was stung on the knee by a jellyfish.
And the sun off the water felt like heated metal.
That's when he spotted the charter boat and the captain he'd meet earlier.
Captain Michalove was headed out on an afternoon charter when he spotted Brown, who told him his friends were in trouble. After sending Brown on to shore, Michalove headed out to find Knutowski and Bell.
The captain was worried. He had previously caught two state record sharks in the area -- a lemon and a black tip. The day before, he'd landed a large tiger shark there, he said.
It's a spot Michalove calls the "shark hole."
He found the couple about a mile away near the mouth of the sound.
Knutowski was sitting on the partially submerged kayak while Bell was treading water next to it.
When they saw him, they began "waving uncontrollably," Michalove said.
Moments later, Bell felt something "big and scaly" nudge his foot.
"He's got this look on his face -- this really scared look -- and he just jumps into the kayak," Knutowski said. "I'm asking him, 'What was it? What happened? Was it a shark?' but he wouldn't say anything."
When Michalove reached the pair, both were panicked and crying, he said.
But they were also relieved.
"When we saw Chip, we just said 'Thank God,'" Knutowski said later. "It was so, so scary. The tide was so high and we were baking in the sun. We just hoped someone would come and get us."
Michalove loaded the couple aboard and tied a rope to the kayak.
"Another few minutes and that kayak was gone," he said. "There's no doubt."
Once safely out of the water, Bell told Michalove he was convinced a shark had bumped him.
Michalove dropped the couple on Bay Point, where they were picked up by the kayak rental company. Brown made it to Hilton Head on his own.
The captain said he later got a call from Brown and Bell to let him know they were safe and to say thanks.
"You saved my life," Bell told him.