This time of year, the loggerhead, leatherback, and green turtles are coming to shore to lay eggs on South Florida’s beaches. I lived in Florida for ten years, but shamefully never made the effort to go see them lay or hatch. So, this past Sunday, my friend Chris and I did a little midnight run to the beach under a near-full moon, and took some long-exposure shots with a tripod. In all, we saw five turtles dig nests and lay eggs. Once the nests start hatching, the hatchlings come out for about three days, but unfortunately we didn’t see any baby turtles this outing.
Florida is simply amazing in the summer time (and under-appreciated IMO). The ocean was so still and the temperature balmy. Nothing to be heard but the gentle sighs of the turtles.
10 years ago today, I learned an important lesson in friendship, survival, and seamanship. It was on this day that a beach catamaran I shared with my friends Chris and Scott broke apart off the coast of Florida late in the afternoon, and left us shipwrecked for most the night. I am thankful to be around to re-post the story this day.
This is the letter I sent to friends and family 10 years ago:
“To all my friends and family, here’s an account of what happened on the night of Sunday the 16th of July, 2000.
Before you read this you should know that nobody dies in this story. It has a HAPPY ending.
Kristy, Scott and I decided to go out for a last sail to the inlet on the Supercat around 5:30 after a whole sunday afternoon of sailing. Of course we decided to go out the inlet as conditions were perfect for some screaming reaches on a SSE 15-17 mph breeze. With me sitting on the rear beam, Kristy sitting next to me, and Scott straddling me on the trapeze we plowed through the waves at 20 knots. It was the most fun I’ve ever had on a beach cat. After a few reaches I turned for the final reach home because I realized I was getting out too far.
Needless to say, the boat was loaded up severely a few moments later when the windward bow snapped off during another plunge through a wave. Now with a cross section size hole in it, the port hull sank.
This happened within seconds and we all climbed on the still intact starboard hull. Luckily, a boat was coming in the inlet at that point, so we proceeded to flag it down. However, by this time it was about 6:30, and with the sun creeping toward the horizon we happened to be caught in the captain’s blind spot. The boat passed about 200 yards away from us. As we were jumping up and down trying to attract this guy’s attention, the de-nosed hull severed from the beams and rolled under. This caused the hull we were all standing on to rip out of its main beam connection leaving two half-inch holes. A slight bit disheartened we realized daylight was fading, no boats were in sight, and we were two miles offshore.
We did not want to leave the wreckage but wanted to get back to shore, so we decided to try and disassemble the boat so we would be left with the floating hull. This would allow for one or two people to crawl on top and paddle and another to push the hull back into shore. After an arduous struggle we finally were able to release the sunk hull. The floating hull was hopelessly tangled, so we favored the sunken one which had enough floatation due to its foam construction to allow all three of us to lean on it. We drank all the water we had on boat, gave Kristy our only life jacket, and tied up with a piece of line. We started kicking and making some progress at probably 25 feet a minute. This was a lot like pushing a log around in the water. At the same time the SE breeze had kicked up some waves which were pushing us toward land under a slight angle. Doing some quick vector math in my head (thank God I took that Linear Algebra class) I decided we would be home around midnight. This statement sparked some disagreement amongst the crew. Scott thought we would be home around four (what does he know he’s a lawyer and probably thinks a vector is a type of dinosaur), and Kristy thought we would be saved long before that (bless her heart). Anyway, the sunset was beautiful and spirits were high. We were a bit worried about the looming thunderstorms directly north and south of us. For those not familiar with South Florida weather our thunderstorms can be the size of a city and are ferocious. Cumulonimbus is actually an ancient Seminole word. The air temperature can drop from 92 to 65 degrees in a minute and winds can pick up to fifty miles per hour. These two storms were of monstrous proportion but didn’t seem to be coming our way. As night wore on both storms moved out to sea and fortunately did not come near us. However we did get some peripheral rain and the wind switched 180 degrees creating a confused sea state and making progress toward shore unlikely. However we all kicked steadily and talked about what kind of food we were going to eat when we got home.
After the storms cleared, they left us amazing lightning shows on the horizon and a near full moon in the night sky. The moon helped us keep track of time quite accurately, and I think it was around midnight that I started to get a bit cold. A few minutes later I threw up and had to take a rest from kicking for a few minutes. As we kept kicking steadily we tried to estimate time left to shore and tried to stay motivated. Everybody started to tire however and we tried to find the best positions to kick most comfortably. The beach seemed near and the night was calm except for the distant sound of the train passing on land, but we didn’t seem to be making that much progress. Then I threw up again and started showing eminent signs of hypothermia setting in. We tried having me straddle Scott and have Kristy on my back to keep me warm, but I still was shivering uncontrollably. This tactic wasn’t keeping me warm, and we weren’t able to make any progress at all. Reluctantly, we decided to leave our wreckage and swim to shore. I received the single life jacket and we all headed for the shoreline. Scott decided to swim in ahead of Kristy and I, as he is a much stronger swimmer and was in better shape than either Kristy or I. This would help the search effort that had already been started.
Kristy and I kept swimming for the remainder of the night taking breaks once in a while. I actually felt a bit better swimming. I think I actually brought my temperature back up a little and the feeling of moving closer to shore brought up both our spirits. We knew Scott had made it to shore when the helicopter search effort suddenly narrowed down to our area. However, finding two people in a dark ocean is nearly impossible even with the best helicopters and equipment. Kristy and I swam for another hour before finally a coast guard helicopter buzzed us and dropped a floating flare. I swam toward the canister and enjoyed the heat and light of the flame on my face as I waved the flare around. Kristy joined me and burst into an emotional outburst of tears as two helicopters’ spotlights illuminated the beautiful azure ocean around us.
We made it back to the beach around four o’clock (so much for linear algebra) and were taken care of by EMS. Besides a few scratches from rubbing on the non-skid for eight hours we were OK. I was treated for hypothermia (i.e. blankets and a heat pack) with a body temp of 94.7 degrees and got some IV fluids. The can of Gatorade a fireman handed me I held down for about thirty seconds.
The moral of the story is another ten pages. I think the cause of the accident was a bunch of bad decisions( going out too close too dark, not bringing a radio or cell phone, pushing the boat too hard…) combined with bad luck (the hull that broke like a chocolate wafer, nobody saw us before dark…). The reason we survived was a bunch of good luck (not getting into thunderstorms; an onshore breeze, not being attacked by the huge schools of 8-10 foot bull sharks that had been sighted right there that afternoon, not being stung by man-o-war…) and good decisions (drinking water, staying with the wreckage, leaving the wreckage…). The main reason we survived however is because of the people I was with. None of us “lost it” at any point in time and we all kept moral high. Scott kept talking about the food that would await us when we got back, Kristy never mentioned the possibility of a shark attack and I kept swearing to my crewmates that land was only 200 yards away( I calculated this in my head due to my vast knowledge of field-based trigonometry). Anyway, I know we’ll be friends for life, and I would take those suckers with me anywhere around the world. Other news concerning me is that I have found a job and apartment in Gainesville and am moving there for the fall semester in August. My Chemical engineering degree should take another three years to complete. I am really looking forward to this. Hope to hear from you all.