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After drifting out to sea in a kayak, former South Carolina QB Eric Smelley describes his harrowing experience

Former South Carolina quarterback Eric Smelley said he began to give up hope of being found after his kayak drifted miles offshore while fishing.

Smelley, now a high school football coach in Alabama, was rescued on March 28 after a U.S. Coast Guard search effort found him in the Gulf of Mexico. Smelley and his family were vacationing in Panama City Beach and he had rented a kayak to go fishing that day.

However, Smelley was stranded for more than twelve hours after drifting out to sea that day due to strong winds. He told Tuscaloosa News he lost some optimism when a Coast Guard helicopter flew over him and kept going. Fortunately, he was found a short time later.

From the Tuscaloosa News:

“I turned around and started paddling for a bit,” he said. “As soon as I started my first attempt, I knew I was in trouble.”

Smelley was in water that the Coast Guard says had 2- to 3-foot waves with winds approaching 10 miles per hour, pushing him further into the gulf.

“It seemed really calm, but when I got out the wind got really strong the further I went,” Smelley said.

Smelley made three attempts to get back to shore but was still going backwards.

“I just knew I had to wait until there was eventually a lull or a change in wind direction so I could at least paddle back in,” he said.

Smelley’s wife contacted the Walton County Sheriff’s Office after he did not return that afternoon. A search soon followed.

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Smelley wasn’t found until just after 7 p.m. A Coast Guard plane spotted him about eight miles from where he should have been and he had drifted more than two miles offshore. A family friend with a boat who had joined the search was closest to Smelley and picked him up as the sun was setting.

“It started to get very close, very dark,” [Coast Guard Petty Officer Third Class Garrett] said Hedspeth. “..for example. It was great timing for him to get noticed because once the sun goes down we’ll still be looking, but that definitely adds a whole different story.”

In an interview with ABC News earlier this week, Smelley said he was simply in “survival mode” while stranded in the gulf.

“I feel very blessed. I felt covered in prayer and love and just grateful to God that it was a good outcome,” Smelley said.

A native of Alabama, Smelley signed with South Carolina in 2006 as a four-star recruit. He played three seasons for the Gamecocks and was the team’s starter in 2008 when South Carolina went 7-6 and appeared in the Outback Bowl. He transferred to Alabama after that season and finished his college career playing baseball.

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