PORTLAND, Ore. -- When the engine of their tuna boat exploded last week, owners Mark and Cynthia Schneider had no choice but to jump into the ocean and leave behind their two cats.
After being rescued by a nearby boat, they were stunned when they looked out at their sinking boat and saw one of the cats -- a tabby named Jasper -- on the bow. The other cat, a calico named Topaz, was in the ocean and eventually swam through the debris to safety on the rescue boat.
Jasper remained stranded at sea on the bow. As the boat sank deeper into the ocean, he was forced to jump in and swim toward his owners about 100 yards away. The cat made it to safety unharmed.
The 60-foot Sea Princess departed from Winchester Bay in late July and sank 80 miles off the coast on Aug. 5. The Schneiders, who have been fishing together for 27 years, lost their boat, $40,000 worth of tuna and most of their possessions.
Mark Schneider, 52, said he checked the engine room about 45 minutes before the explosion and nothing seemed amiss. Then the engine backfired several times before a blast that tore off the side of the boat. The Schneiders suffered flash burns to their faces, but did not require hospitalization.
Not immediately realizing the extent of the damage, he headed to the engine room to assess the situation. When he looked over his shoulder, he saw ocean and sky where there should have been hull. Water started pouring in, and he and Cynthia knew it was time to abandon ship -- but not without Jasper and Topaz.
"I kept calling for the kitties and calling for the kitties, but I'm sure they were traumatized by the blast and didn't know what the heck was going on," Schneider said. "Cynthia finally snapped me out of that and said: 'We gotta get off the boat. We gotta get off the boat. Get in your survival suit.'"
The couple went overboard and spent 15 to 20 minutes in the water before they were rescued by their friend and fishing partner Rick Goche.
Mark Schneider said the bow of the boat was a natural spot of refuge for Jasper.
"When we were in port he would just sit up there on the bow and watch the seagulls and people walk by on the dock," Schneider said. "That was kind of a secret hiding place for him, and I'm sure that's where he went when he didn't feel safe."
The couple lives in Central Oregon when they are not at sea, and were there Wednesday as they try to figure out their next move. They sold their old boat a few summers ago to upgrade to the larger Sea Princess, a wooden boat built in 1924 that provided more stability in choppy seas and had more storage capacity. It was a fixer-upper that took a lot of time and money to repair, Schneider said.