Every year, the U.S. Coast Guard issues a report on recreational boating accidents, most of which occur in the summer. The top five hazards last year: wrecks with other vessels, collisions into fixed objects, flooding, skiing mishaps and falling overboard. This year will likely be the same. Despite the countless literary and cinematic stories of boats being swept into open waters, that danger never makes the short list.
That isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen: I was lost at sea for four days and t hree nights when I was 13 years old.
Those lost days were almost glamorous—at least in the retelling. My father, stepmother and brother and I had traveled to Grand Cayman Island for week-long Caribbean vacation. The day after our arrival, we rented an uncovered aluminum rowboat with a small motor from a toothless guy by the bay who seemed happy for the business. It was the middle of August, and there weren’t a lot of tourists.
After a day spent snorkeling, we returned to shore, then ventured out again in the late afternoon to return the boat. We were about 5 miles from Grand Cayman when the engine sputtered and choked. Needless to say, we were surprised to discover that the boat had no spare tank of gas and no oars on board. It was dark when my father put on his snorkel, mask, fins and life preserver and jumped in the water to swim for help. A forceful tide quickly drew the boat far from shore, and my stepmother, brother and I drifted into the night.
Like a Hollywood story, there was a heroic effort to get help and a surprise rescue. We survived and ended up skinny, tanned and on television.
My emotions on the boat were far less dramatic. The combination of shock, a certain amount of disassociation, and the human body’s response to being deprived of water and food made my world ethereal and quiet.
Hunger pangs don’t last, but dehydration is savage. At first, I couldn’t stop thinking about the cold Coke I had at lunch the day we set out, about the brutal sun and about the way the night breeze felt like a rake against my burned skin. But the upside of thirst is that it scrambles the brain. By the second day my body started to shut down and I felt more peaceful. And by the third day, I’d begun to see myself the same as plankton—just existing until I didn’t. I never consciously stopped wanting to live, but I ran out of the energy to care.
We were lucky—and kept alive—when a blanket of dark clouds rolled in on the third day. The flash storm lasted only five minutes, but we got what water we could from our hair and licked the drops from the boat. The salted aluminum tasted like poison and clawed at my fillings.
We assumed that my father hadn’t survived and that no help would be coming. But on the fourth day in the late afternoon, the crew of a far-off oil tanker happened to be on deck with binoculars. They noticed a mysterious object in the distance: our boat. Their curiosity saved our lives.
All I had in the boat was a bathing suit and a T-shirt. To be pulled onto a massive oil tanker and handed clothing felt bizarre. But the strangest part of being hauled out of what I soon learned were Cuban waters, almost 50 miles from where we had started, was the shock of realizing that we had been missed. I was astonished to hear that my father was alive—he had found help, and my mother, my stepfather, my step-grandmother, the Coast Guard and hundreds of volunteers had been looking for us for 96 hours.
Most jarring was that everyone I knew was aware that I’d been floating in the middle of nowhere—an incomprehensible concept for my 13-year-old, plankton-identified mind. I wish I’d cried (in the movie, I would have) but the truth was I couldn’t. I was too stunned from the sun and wobbly from the boat to feel anything.
Every night for two months after the incident, I felt the rocking ocean as I lay in bed. But I kept it to myself and changed the topic whenever anyone asked what it was like at sea. I wanted to be a normal teenager.
My experience was nothing compared with that of Steven Callahan, the American sailor who drifted on a life raft for 76 days. Or the five migrants from the Dominican Republic who sustained themselves for 15 days at sea in 2008 by eating the flesh of other passengers who died on their boat. The only female survivor of the group died in the hospital after being rescued.
I imagine what it would be like to meet these survivors. Our meet-up would have to be held in the middle of the country, a safe distance from either coast, and in a room with clearly marked exit doors and an open bar. I wonder if any of them share my sense of dread when search efforts (in earthquakes, accidents or war zones) are called off. No matter how exhaustive or comprehensive the rescue mission, I have a sense that there are people who are miraculously still alive, just waiting to be found.
Still, there are a few ways to tell a story, even in one’s own head. More often than not, I prefer the Hollywood version.
This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal