Survival at Sea
I have been trying to write this all down for sixteen years, but have been unable until now. The ordeal was so traumatic, so emotional, that I have been unable to tell the story either orally or in writing, no matter how briefly, without getting very upset. But finally, here it is.
A relatively new-found friend, Rob Harris, and I, had been doing a lot of scuba diving together for about a year. He lived and went to school in Gainesville, Florida. I lived just north of Tampa and made the three hour drive up to the Gainesville area to dive the freshwater springs and caves with him. We would rent canoes with friends and girlfriends, load beer, food and scuba gear in the canoes and paddle down the Santa Fe River. We would stop at various spots along the river and picnic, swim, and dive. The usual dive spots would be Ginnie Springs and the Devil’s Eye and Devil’s Ear. The Devil’s Eye and Ear are two entrances to the same cave system that connect twenty yards or so into the system. Rob was twenty-seven, doing post- graduate studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He was near completion of his Doctorate in Agronomy. He was very bright and I was sure he had an outstanding future ahead of him. He was very fit, nearly 6 feet, blond, very trim, no fat on him. Rob was energetic and loved to laugh.
I met Rob through his brother Kieffer, who had been a close friend for over ten years. Kieffer was a year younger than Rob. Kieffer and I had great relationship. He had a twisted sense of humor that we both shared. The brothers had lived across the street from me while Kieffer was still in Junior High School. Kieffer and a buddy of his would come over and smoke pot with my wife and I. I guess it’s called contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Anyway, Kieffer was a good kid, bright and honest and turned out just fine. I had been in my first marriage at about 24 years of age. I moved out of that house and the marriage after two years, but Kieffer and I kept up our friendship. A few years later I bought a saltwater fishing boat and he and I did a lot of fishing offshore from the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, and we made several trips to the Keys. I also had a ski boat that we did a lot of skiing with. Kieffer was a great skier. He could make cuts so hard that they would stop the boat. We used to have a lot of ski parties out north of Tampa where I lived. We did a lot of hard partying back then. We had a bunch of friends that could always be counted on for a great weekend bash. Several of us lived on lakes, so from weekend to weekend the party would migrate from lake to lake. We did a lot together. Kieffer was tall and very thin, over six feet, handsome with light brown hair.
I probably had the idea first to dive the Empire Mica. Rob and I had dived the springs so many times, we were looking around for something a little different. The Empire Mica was a 465 foot British tanker torpedoed by the Germans in 1942. The wreck is one of the finest wreck dives in Florida. It sits in 110 feet of water, twenty-five miles south of St. George Island in the Florida panhandle. Because the dive was so far offshore and so deep, it became a dive where skills, training, planning and preparation would all play major roles. It would require navigational electronics to find it. It is not marked on the surface with any buoy or marker. My boat was a 23 foot Pro-Line, called the HooLoo. The name comes from a contraction of the words ballyhoo, a baitfish, and hallucination, since we had hallucinated so many fish on so many trips. When you do a lot of intense fishing, you see more fish than are actually there. It was my second Pro-Line and it had the sort of electronics we needed: a Loran for determining position and a depth finder for looking at the bottom. A Loran unit calculates your position by triangulating signals from several satellites. I also had a VHF radio on board. A had another old friend that owned a rental house on St. George Island that we could use for a base. St. George Island is the closest land to the Empire Mica. It seemed perfect. We planned the trip for months ahead.
The fourth member of our crew was Ben Ellis, one of my oldest friends. We had known each other and had been fast friends since 1965. We were the same age, 37. We were both working for the telephone company as sub-contractors doing installation and repair. Ben is a big guy, six two or so, two hundred pounds, strong, with black hair ‒ another good-looking guy. Ben was also one of the fishermen usually on my boat along with Kieffer. He was also a great water skier. Ben, Kieffer and I had spent many a day offshore fishing in good and bad weather. Ben had a long background with boats and salt water. He had been around boats, salt water and fishing since he was in his early teens. We all loved to fish.
My second salt water boat was a 23 foot walk-around cuddy cabin. It had a small enclosed cabin forward with a narrow walkway on both sides of the cabin that allowed access to the bow. It had a lot of deck space aft for fishing and the occasional dive trip. A single 200 horse Mercury Outboard provided the power. The boat was quick and very functional. It got a lot of use. A lot of boats will sit in driveways and side yards for months, but not this one. There was always a lot of fishing gear on board even on the dive trips. It was stored more or less permanently on board. There were lots of artificial rigs, big ones for marlin and such, with huge hooks, all coiled and ready for use.
We all lived in or near Tampa. Eleven days before Christmas, On December 14, 1984, we towed the boat on a trailer to St. George, about a nine hour trip. I had done many of these sorts of trips, all to the Keys, so getting everything ready wasn’t too tough. I had a checklist of about 125 items to go through before we left. The checklist had things like making sure everything worked on the boat, testing all the dive gear, and checking the trailer over carefully. It’s hard keeping a salt water boat in shape, the corrosion from the salt air is a nightmare. Electrical connections are the most vulnerable. Rob and I had been heavily into brewing our own beer. So, of course, we took a couple of cases along with us. I brought some of my Northern Brown Ale. The boat always had a couple of snacks on board with a long shelf life, like a can of sardines.
The trip up was uneventful. The coast road along the panhandle hasn’t changed much in forty years. We got there after dark, found the house and brought in some clothes and beer. The boat was completely ready to go, so at 8:00 am the next morning, Saturday the 15th, without a lot of effort we launched the boat from a local ramp in front of a bait store. We bought some things at the Fisherman’s Headquarters bait store and I casually mentioned to the owner, Ann Chestnut, that we would be back well before dark, that there was a front coming and we were trying to get the dive in before the Gulf waters got too rough and dangerous for diving. An approaching cold front generates high winds and waves. All boats get smaller as the waves get bigger. A 23 foot boat can be a very small boat 25 miles off shore. The boat ramp was on the Inter-coastal Waterway side of the island, so we had to run a few miles down the backside of island to an inlet to get out to the open Gulf of Mexico. It was a beautiful, bright day with little wind and not much in the way of waves. It was just a perfect day. The run out to the Empire Mica was easy, taking about an hour. The Loran put us on the spot very quickly and we could see the wreck on the depthfinder almost immediately. We saw no other boats on the way out and saw none on the horizon when we arrived. We were out of sight of land, completely alone on a featureless sea.
The idea is to position the boat right over the wreck as best as one can, so we took some time placing the anchor just so, without actually snagging the wreck with the anchor. It’s possible to lose your anchor and line if you cannot get it loose from a wreck. You want to set an anchor in the sand, not in the wreck. We had plenty of anchor rope. Kieffer was on the bow handling the anchor. One unusual thing he did while setting the anchor was, as he was pulling the excess line in, he payed the line over the gunwale and into the water. Normally, you would coil the excess on the deck of the boat. When I saw him doing this, I said something to him about it, but he wanted to do it like that, so I said OK and didn’t think anything more about it. We did a great job of getting directly over the wreck. We could see it directly below the boat on the depthfinder after we had secured the anchor. We were all very excited about the dive.
The water temperature was about 65 degrees. That might not sound too cold to a non-diver, but it is plenty cold. If you were submerged in it for two days, it would kill you. Thermal protection is absolutely mandatory. There are two types of thermal protection for divers. Wetsuits, which, as the name implies, are wet, and drysuits, which are, likewise, dry. Wetsuits need to be skin tight to minimize the exchange of water from outside to inside. You actually warm up the water that gets in and you stay warm, even though you have water in the suit. Drysuits have sealed feet and a tight seal around the neck and wrists to keep all water out. The drysuit is made of relatively thin rubber. The rubber layer would do little to keep you warm without an inner thermal layer much like long john underwear. Ben, Kieffer and I all had wetsuits, but Rob had a new drysuit complete with thermal undergarment.
In case of an emergency like the anchor line parting, an oncoming vessel or your boat starting to take on water, we needed to leave someone on the boat at all times. You cannot leave a boat unattended out on the ocean, too much can happen. If we all went down at once, it is all too possible that the boat might not be there when we surfaced. We split into two dive teams, Ben and Kieffer, Rob and I. Rob and I suited up and got in first. We carried some light spearfishing equipment, pole spears called Hawaiian slings. These are simple four foot poles with barbs on one end and a rubber loop on the other. The rubber loop is to tension the spear in your hand so it can be shot toward a fish. When we dropped down, we found the wreck right away. A 100 foot dive is a short one, 20 minutes maximum without decompressing or using special gas mixtures. I speared a couple of amberjack and put them into a mesh catch bag. We looked around at some of the broken wreckage, and then headed back to the surface. When you dive off a boat, you typically have a line hooked to the stern of the boat that floats with the current out behind the boat on the surface. It is called a current line or tag line. Divers will come to the surface, grab that line, and pull themselves up to the boat. Holding on to the tag line so as not to drift away from the boat, they will remove their gear and hand it up to those on the boat. We did all that and climbed aboard.
When we got on deck, there were several inches of water on deck. This we did not really find disturbing. We had been fishing off this boat for years. The style of boat is called a self-bailer. Anytime several of us stood at the stern, the boat would take on water through the scuppers getting 4 or 5 inches deep in the stern. All we had to do to remedy this was get some of the weight out of the stern, the boat would level and the water would run back out the scuppers. That is the design of a self-bailing boat. No problem.
When we got back on the boat, Kieffer was the only one on deck. Ben had gone down into the cuddy cabin to lie down feeling a little seasick. When I stuck my head in the cabin, I saw about six inches of water in the well of the cabin. The well is about six inches off the hull, which meant there was about a foot of water in the bilge. The boat took on water through a hole in the hull. The hole was caused months earlier by the boat not being on the trailer straight while being towed. The boat is supposed to sit on v-shaped rubber rollers. The boat was off one of the rollers, was bouncing while being towed, and finally settled on a metal u-bolt, and the u-bolt gradually wore a hole in the hull. The hole was only about an inch in diameter. An inch-wide diameter hole is a big hole in a boat. This happened on an earlier dive and fishing trip to the Keys. Rob and I and two friends were on that trip. We noticed the hole when we launched the boat. We pulled the boat back up onto the trailer and pulled the trailer up into the parking lot. Rob and I looked at the hole, trying to come up with a quick fix. He said ‘Don’t worry, we’re engineers, we’ll fix it’. So Rob went to the hardware store, bought a hand crank drill, drill bits, screws and a piece of aluminum plate. Right there in the parking lot of the Caribbean Club Bar, he drilled holes in the hull, applied some caulk and screwed the aluminum patch to the hull. The Caribbean Club is a notorious locals and biker bar in Key Largo where the Humphrey Bogart film Key Largo was filmed. The patch worked great, at least on that trip. On the trailer on the way back home, with the jouncing on the road, the hull flexed so many times, that the patch split. I noticed the patch had failed only the day before our trip to St. George. The split wasn’t too bad, so I just caulked it. Looking back, of course, I know it should have been fixed. The patch, by the way, was on the exposed part of the overturned hull. The split was ragged and sharp and cut my hand several times, causing nasty saltwater infections.
The bilge pump was not working for some reason. Now, the bilge is not very big, so it had maybe 20 gallons of water in it. Not a lot of water, but coupled with the water on deck, it was making me a little nervous. I encouraged Ben and Kieffer to get into their gear and get going on the dive. We all felt that since the boat was loaded very heavily, that if Ben and Kieffer geared up and got in the water for the dive, it would lighten the boat considerably and make it easier to get the water out of the boat. Even after they got in the water, though, we still had way too much water on deck. Ben and Kieffer had begun to go down, but at about 15 feet of depth, Ben felt a stutter in the regulator he was using. He was worried there was a real problem with the regulator. He reached for Kieffer’s fin, as Kieffer was just below him heading down, and grabbed his fin to get his attention. When Kieffer stopped and looked up, Ben motioned to him for both of them go back to the surface. When they got to the surface, they saw me starting the engine. I asked Rob to go the bow and handle the anchor line. I did not feel we had enough time to bring the anchor line in normally, so I asked him to untie it and just pitch it over the side. I got the boat going and with the forward momentum of the boat, began forcing the water to the stern and out the scuppers. With the water rapidly running out of the boat, I began to feel a little relief. My relief lasted only a second or two. The anchor line, which had not had time to sink, became caught in the prop and stopped the engine. The boat then settled very quickly and heavily and began to take on an alarming amount of water over one side of the short transom. Ben and Kieffer swam to the back of the boat and cleared the line from the prop. The stern was about 18 inches under water at that point with the engine half submerged. I had doubts whether it would even start for a second try at clearing the deck of water. I was afraid the one or two of the carburetors were underwater. Remarkably, it started somehow, and after I put it in gear again, the boat began to rise up on plane and the water began to rush heavily and quickly toward the stern, washing rearward over the deck, up over the transom and back into the sea. I was greatly relieved. My relief did not last long. When I put Ben and Kieffer in the water, I took the tag line back into the boat and coiled it on deck. When the water began to rush over the transom, the tag line went with it and snagged the prop again and killed the engine. Ben and Kieffer watched in shock at what was happening from fifty feet or so in back of the boat. The boat settled very heavily and water began to come in at a terrific rate, pouring over the transom like a waterfall. Almost immediately it was two feet deep all over the deck. I began to bail at the back of the boat with my hands, a ridiculous sight with water coming in about a hundred times faster than I could make it go out. It took only a moment to realize we could not recover. Ben and Kieffer swam back to the boat, reached up, and with their hands and weight of their bodies, were attempting to hold the gunwale on the side that was rising in an effort to keep the boat from capsizing. It seemed, if only for a moment, that they might be able to stabilize the boat. At that point, I was out of options, standing on the deck, knee deep in seawater, paralyzed, not knowing what to do, the boat sinking beneath me. Ben had the presence of mind to yell at me to make a distress call. The VHF radio was next to the helm just under the ceiling of the cabin. It was only two steps to the helm. When I got there, I had time only to grab the microphone and put it to my mouth before the boat abruptly turned turtle ‒ flipped over upside down. Not enough time to make the call.
One of my regrets and mistakes of the trip was not to make a distress call at the first sign of trouble. The range of a VHF radio is only fifteen or twenty miles at the most and we were twenty-five miles off shore in a desolate area of the Gulf. We might not have been able to raise anyone, but the effort should have been made. It might be a little embarrassing to make a distress call, then call it off later, but it would certainly be prudent. The scene was developing so rapidly that I had no time to both make a distress call and deal with the problem at hand. I thought if I acted quickly, I could correct the problem. I felt if I stopped to make a call, the boat would swamp and either capsize or sink. I had seen the self-bailing aspect of the boat work properly so many times before, that I just did not realize the magnitude of our problem until it was far too late.
I was still in my wetsuit when we went into the water. Rob had taken his drysuit and thermal layer off after getting back on board. When we went over, the only thing he could grab was the rubber outer layer. Ben and Kieffer swam up to the boat and all four of us got together. It didn’t take very long for the gravity of the situation began to dawn on us. I made the astute remark that we were in some shit now. The boat was manufactured with some internal foam flotation, so we were pretty sure it would not completely sink out of sight. At least we hoped so. We needed to stay with the boat at all cost. The sea conditions were very nice when we started out in the morning, but gradually worsened throughout the day. At the time we went over, the wave height was 3 to 4 feet. We knew instinctively that we had to hold onto whatever material we could. There was one of our coolers with ice in it floating nearby, so we grabbed that and tried to hold onto it. I knew right away we were going to need water that the ice would provide. The sea water temp was 65 degrees, so we knew hypothermia would be a problem. Being submerged in that temperature of water for 24 hours could kill you. We had to try to stay up on the hull of the boat and get as much of our bodies out of water as we could. Ben, Kieffer and I all had our wetsuits, Rob had his drysuit shell only. The hull was very clean and slick with nothing to hold on to. Only a small portion of hull was above water, a section of keel a few inches high, about six inches wide and about four feet long. We crawled up onto the hull, huddled together and held one another as best we could to keep out of the water. We could not get our upper bodies out of the water. The keel was too small and the waves too rough to stand. As the waves gradually got bigger, it got harder and harder to stay on the boat. On the ocean, waves come in sets, with the seventh wave or so larger than the others. We could stay up on the boat for six waves, but the seventh would wash over the boat and knock us off like bowling pins. That first day we had only one line attached to the bow which we used to try to stay up on the hull. We took turns at what we called the Breakwater Position. Whoever had that spot faced those huge waves first and he did that until he got so tired someone else had to take over. He had to hold on as tight as possible to the bowline when the waves hit, but the waves were almost always stronger than we were and knocked us off the boat into the cold water. You could hear the big waves coming. This would go on every few minutes for two days. The waves were four to six feet for the first afternoon then up to ten foot waves for about 24 hours. Of course, there was no rest. It was an awful, grinding endurance test that went on endlessly, but we had to stay with the boat and out of the water as much as possible.
On that first afternoon, we could only hold onto ourselves and the cooler. The cooler had some ice left in it, however, it was taking some abuse from all the wave action and the ice was beginning to melt. We knew it was going to become contaminated soon with sea water, so we each sucked some ice and drank some water before it was gone. Not only did it taste like salt water, but it also tasted like bait. It was usually our bait cooler and it retained some of that nasty taste.
Kieffer and Ben began to dive under the boat to see what we could salvage. We had no scuba gear at that point; it had all drifted away the first afternoon. I can remember seeing my double tank setup with my buoyancy jacket and dual regulators attached drifting away. That rig cost over a thousand dollars and I couldn’t do anything but watch. It was just impossible to hold onto everything with the sea conditions as they were. So, without any scuba gear, when Kieffer and Ben dived under the boat, they had to hold their breath. They had no mask either, making it difficult to see anything. In the semi-darkness, up under the fully flooded boat, there was a tangled mass of fishing lures, cushions, fishing rods, and hundreds of other pieces of equipment. The Bimini top was also up, which at this point meant down, and had to be negotiated to get inside the boat. I was truly afraid of diving up under the boat. I could think of nothing but being hooked by one of the many lures, held there and drowned being unable to get out from under the boat. It was too much for me. Kieffer and Ben were very brave for doing that. I just could not. The first thing they looked for was the flare kit, which they found.
The nights were completely dark, being that far from land and with no moon. The entire night sky was nothing but brilliant stars from horizon to horizon with no light pollution from cities. Sometime during that first night, we saw the lights of what we were sure were a shrimper about two miles away. He seemed to be heading generally toward us. When it looked as if he might be turning away, I fired a flare. We saw no reaction from the shrimper. We decided not to waste another flare on him, we had only four left. He continued to motor away. A little later we saw another shrimper. This one was a little closer, maybe a mile away. I fired a second flare. We knew within seconds that he had seen our flare. He abruptly stopped his trawling and switched on his searchlight. The light from the searchlight panned across us and lit us up. We couldn’t believe it. We were overjoyed, we thought we were found. However, the light continued to pan around. He had not seen us. After about ten minutes of looking for us with his searchlight, he fired his own flare. It was a white flare, an obvious attempt to get us to fire another flare. We had two left. We fired our next-to-last flare in response. It went up, high in the air like it was supposed to, but did not ignite. Unbelievably, it was a dud. We were stunned. We re-loaded and tried to fire the last flare. I aimed the flare gun straight up and pulled the trigger. It did not fire. I pounded the hammer of the flare gun on the hull in a desperate attempt to get it to fire. It would not fire no matter how hard I hammered it. The last flares had gotten so damp, they were useless. I had been keeping them zipped inside my wetsuit on my chest where I thought they would be protected. The shrimper continued to pan his searchlight around for about ten more minutes. I was easy to see he was losing his general sense of where he had seen the flare. During that time, we thought the white ice cooler would reflect more light than our dark wetsuits, so we held up the cooler over our head and faced it toward him. His searchlight panned across us several more times, lighting us and the cooler up again and again. Still there was no sign from him that he had seen us. He gave up and turned away. We were absolutely despondent. We were so close to salvation. Even though we were lit up by the searchlight several times, light beams will go farther than the human eye can see. He just could not see us, even if his searchlight could.
During that first night, the temperature dipped into the forties. Without his thermal layer, Rob began to get cold. He got so cold, I could see that his face was blue, even in the dark of that night. Kieffer, Ben and I took turns holding him between us to warm him. We massaged him and held him tightly, but he still shivered uncontrollably. We even pushed a snorkel down his suit in the back and Ben blew warm breaths down into his suit in an effort to warm him. Rob spent a very hard night; the cold took a lot out of him. The lack of wetsuit and lack of body fat really took its toll. The waves still pounded us, but we scrambled back up on the hull every time.
We began to wonder how and when we would be reported missing. We hashed over the endless possibilities for hours and hours over the next days. We had filed no official float plan, as it’s called. In other words, no one was specifically told to call for help if we were not back at a certain time. One hope was that the bait shop owner would remember the conversation about being back on Saturday afternoon and call the Coast Guard. We could not see how she could miss, with our car and trailer right in front of her store. We wondered when a search might start. We went over again and again who would miss us first and get someone searching. We hoped that it would not be as late as Monday when Ben would be due at work.
We learned later that Ben’s work missed him early Monday morning and called his mother when he didn’t show up for work. Ben’s mother called my stepmother, Mickey. She called Drew’s mother and got Drew’s phone number. Drew Smith is the owner of the house we stayed in on St. George Island. He is my oldest friend. Our parents used to babysit for each other. Mickey then called Drew, who was still in bed. He called the bait shop. The owner of the bait shop looked out their window and saw my car and boat trailer. Drew knew immediately there was something very wrong and called the Coast Guard in Panama City, Florida.
Brad Bowen, a friend of Ben’s and mine, had been involved somehow. He had been in contact with the Coast Guard. He told us later that the Coasties were looking mostly away from our original location (they knew where the Empire Mica was and that we were planning to do that dive). They figured we were drifting south, like we also thought. Brad had contacted Jim Menard, a weather man at a local TV station in Tampa about our situation. Menard said he felt that we were probably still in our original location, that we were drifting in a loop current and we were still very near the Empire Mica. That turned out to be exactly the case.
The next morning, Kieffer and Ben began to dive under the boat again to see what they could salvage. Kieffer found a scuba tank full of air and brought it up. One of the skills talked about but not actually practiced during scuba training was breathing only off a scuba tank valve underwater. I could never imagine a scenario where you would use that skill, but here it was. What this means is you open the valve and catch the air bubbles with your mouth as they come out of the valve. This is a very scary method of life support. He used this method to do a thorough search under the boat for anything we might find of use. Kieffer did about 25 dives under the boat over the first two days. He says it was nothing, someone had to do it. I called it heroic. Kieffer found six bottles of homemade beer, one can of sardines and most significantly for Rob, a bag of wetsuits that had been brought on board by mistake. The spare wetsuits had been intended to be left at the house. We put the wetsuits on Rob and helped him put his drysuit on over all the wetsuits. He warmed up right away and was his old self. He had begun to lose a little mental alertness during the cold night. After he perked up, we all felt much better about him.
We had a long discussion about whether to drink the beers or not. Some felt the alcohol would accelerate the dehydration that had already begun. Others felt that the beer was so thick and full of calories that we had to drink them. We decided to drink one a day. I had hoped the amberjack I had shot would be found, but no. There had been sandwiches too, but they were lost when the boat capsized.
The large swells continued all that day, wearing us down. We were constantly knocked off the boat and every time had to climb back on. Ben and Kieffer rigged a couple of lines they found under the boat so that we could hold onto them much like a bull rider would ride a bull. The waves that crashed over the boat were so big and had so much power, that even holding the lines was not enough to keep us from being knocked off the boat. The stern of the boat rode much lower in the water. We had a toolbox that one of the guys found under the boat and thought that if we could disconnect the engine and let it sink, the boat would ride higher in the water and make things a little more comfortable, drier and warmer. We struggled with that project for hours before we gave up. It was just too difficult. The day dragged on while we continued to assess our situation and held on for dear life. We knew we had to conserve energy, we knew we had to stay out of the water. Not having any food or drinking water was bad, but the seawater was our worst enemy. We knew the Coast Guard would eventually look for us, so we figured if we could hold on long enough, we would be found. I told everyone I thought we might have to survive a week. I calculated that it would probably take a couple of days for someone to initiate a search and then several days to find us. I didn’t tell them that I wasn’t sure we could survive a week without drinking water. Food, we could get by without, but water, no. The water temperature was a wild-card that was against our survival, too. At least we were not submerged in it all the time, most of the time only our legs were in it.
The cold front that was coming never quite made it to us. It stalled just north of where we were. As it was, it was in the sixties during the day and forties at night. If it had been any colder, we would have died within two days from hypothermia. Rob took a hard shot from the elements the first night. Our only real warmth came when we urinated into our wetsuits, but that didn’t last long. It was just too difficult and nearly impossible to peel the wetsuits down to urinate under those conditions. Later it was calmer, but at that point we were too weak to remove the wetsuits to pee, nor did we give a shit. The urination into the wetsuits gave a few moments of warmth, but later a terrific rash would develop. Kieffer would describe it as being on fire. At least it was not so cold in the afternoons. The sun and wetsuits helped give us some warmth late in the day.
We saw no boats or planes that second day. We ate our precious can of sardines that afternoon. The split was one sardine for each of us. They were delicious. We opened one of our beers and very carefully poured each ration into a paper cup that had been saved somehow. That one sardine and one fourth of a beer would be our only meal for four days.
Ben and Kieffer both smoke cigarettes. One of them found a pack of cigarettes during one of the dives under the boat. They had planned to dry them out, and then smoke them. Immediately they realized lighting them would be a problem. After much pondering, they remembered the dome light in the cabin and thought they might be able to use that to focus sunlight like a magnifying glass and light a cigarette. They soon realized lighting cigarettes was the least of our problems and abandoned the project.
The second night, we had another opportunity. We saw in the distance what turned out to be a tug towing a barge heading directly toward us. It was traveling fairly slowly, maybe ten knots. We could see no one in the wheelhouse. Apparently it was on autopilot and the crew was below decks. Running like this is not uncommon for an ocean going tug and barge in an area where there is little traffic. As it approached, we thought for a while it might actually run over us. We crouched and watched as it approached, ready to jump and swim away from our submerged boat. We thought it might actually be a good thing if the tug were to actually hit our boat. We thought it might cause such an impact and vibration that the crew would take notice and stop to see what happened. One problem with that scenario was that it would take at least a mile before the tug could stop, taking them well away and out of sight and sound of us. One possible way of saving ourselves would be to swim the few feet over to the path of the tug and as the tug thundered by, grab the bumpers on the side of the tug and climb aboard. It would be a daring and maybe foolhardy attempt. We had enough time to discuss it and decided that if one were to miss the tug, that the barge, being much bigger and wider than the tug towing it, would then run over whomever the volunteer might be, killing him. We decided not to try. I do not know whether it was cowardice or reason that stopped us. Odd as it may be to hear it, we must have not felt that desperate quite yet. The tug and barge passed within fifty feet of us, lit up like a Christmas tree. The wheelhouse was especially bright. It was eerie, seeing that boat go by, nobody at the helm, nobody at all in sight. We screamed as loud as we could, but tugs are noisy creatures and no one on board heard us. We saw no other boats that night.
The dawn of the third day brought a little hope. We felt that a search might begin that day. We were right. In the middle of the afternoon, after splitting another of our beers, we saw a low flying plane far off on the horizon. Search and Recovery aircraft generally fly at low altitude, and aviation aircraft fly at much higher altitudes. We knew it was looking for us. About twenty minutes later, we saw it again, only closer. We realized it was running a search pattern. We saw it again heading toward shore, closer yet. We did not see it again for about an hour. When we did see it again, we figured it had refueled and come back out to continue the search. It was continuing a pattern that was getting closer to us at every pass. We began to think we might finally get lucky. As it was getting dark, it made one more pass just a quarter of a mile from us going out to sea. We knew judging from the pattern he was running that he would be very close to us on his last pass of the day. We were right, we could see the Coast Guard Falcon jet coming straight for us just after the sunset. There was just a little light left. It was dark enough for the pilot to have his searchlight on. We could see he was panning it back and forth on the water as the jet approached. It was dark enough at that point that I knew they would not be able to see us unless the searchlight shined right on us as he flew over. He was very low. It seemed as though he were only about one hundred feet off the water when he passed directly overhead. The searchlight beam was off to the side about twenty feet. The jet seemed close enough to throw something and hit it. Our hopes were trashed again. We would need to endure at least another night in hell.
Monday night was uneventful. We sat and stood on the hull crushed by the growing realization that we were not going to be found. We knew we were watching each other slowly die. We would, one by one, grow delirious, then comatose, and then die. We wondered silently who would be the last to die. We sat largely in silence in the gloom. We did discuss one wild plan. There were some lights in the distance that we thought were boats we might be able to swim to, but we were afraid that if whoever went could not get there, he would be unable to find his way back. We knew from our search of the hull there was a very large fishing reel with hundreds and hundreds of yards of fishing line on it still on the boat. We thought one of us could swim with the line attached to him and, if he could not get to whatever the lights were, we could reel him back in and not lose him. Harebrained, I know, but we discussed it for hours. Finally, we decided it was too risky.
The next day at dawn we were hopeful again. We knew they were searching for us and may start the search where they left off. We saw a search plane in the far distance twice, but never anywhere close. The good news of the day was that the wind and waves had slacked and it was almost flat calm. We were worn badly by the constant exertion of staying on the boat.
Sitting on that narrow strip of fiberglass was torture, but sitting or standing on it were the only options. Keeping as much of our bodies out of the water was of the utmost importance. We were very cramped and extremely tired. Sitting on that narrow strip was very hard for us all. Rob had gotten the idea to give his butt some relief, that he could inflate his drysuit and just float in the water next to the boat to relieve the pain of sitting. The problem with that is that the water would still gradually sap the heat out of him. I told him not under any circumstance that he should do that, but he did anyway. He lay on the water for about a half hour until he got too cold, than got back up on the boat to warm himself. I talked to him, we all talked to him, about the danger in letting the water drain the heat from him. He said it was just too painful to sit on the boat endlessly. He insisted, so we let him repeatedly lie in the water. My greatest regret is not forcing him to stay on the boat somehow. However, I was conserving as much energy and heat as I could and I did not want to physically restrain him. The others felt the same. I am ashamed to say that I knew what he was doing to himself and did little to stop him.
That afternoon, something dawned on me that made us all laugh out loud. I had just a few months before been divorced from my wife Stacey. It had been a terrible divorce. I had not wanted it, but she did. There was a terrific battle over property, alimony, and lump sum payments. I had prevailed completely in the divorce. It was negotiated totally in my favor. I kept all the property and all of the other assets, agreeing to pay a minimal amount for her to resettle. I had a lot of property, money and other assets going into the marriage that I felt I should keep. Florida, however, is a community property state. She had a claim to half of everything I owned. I won’t go into the details, but I won. The hilarious irony was, as it was looking very likely that I might die, that she would get absolutely everything anyway. I had not changed my will since the divorce. Stacey was still my sole beneficiary. We laughed and laughed over that. It was curious how we could laugh so hard at our imminent fate.
We were continually trying to come up with ways to help effect our rescue. We had Styrofoam cups that we tore into small pieces that we threw into the water every five minutes. The thinking was the pieces may work as sort of a Goldilocks bread crumb trail, leading rescuers to us. In retrospect, it sounds ridiculous, but we were desperate. We also jettisoned life vests every couple of hours on the same day. Another idea was to loosen the fuel tank cap, let the fuel seep out, and leave a gasoline slick that could be seen for miles. Gasoline floats on water. The gasoline on the boat was mixed with oil, so all the better to be seen, especially from the air. Kieffer dived under the boat yet again and loosened the fuel cap. The fuel gradually began to bubble up all around us. This was actually a pretty good idea, but the fallacies became immediately apparent. We were drifting with the current with no wind, so the slick we generated stayed right with us and around us, getting all over us and, of course, breathed the fumes into our lungs. It made an awful scene even more unbearable.
Tuesday was the hardest day. The seas were flat calm, but we had lots of other trouble. We had not eaten anything but one sardine each for four days. We drank our one beer for the day. Rob was dying and we all knew the rest of us were about a day behind him. We felt at that point the rescue had probably been called off. We had no self-rescue ideas left. We were so weak, we could do nothing but sit. We were getting weak mentally, also. I began to hallucinate. I would look up into the sky and see gigantic cypress trees at time. Trees like the ones at home. Then I could see huge power lines and towers, many miles high. I mentioned it to Ben later that night and oddly, he said he had seen the same thing.
Kieffer had been having his own hallucinations. For a while he was negotiating purchasing several 55 gallon drums of water from a guy who seemed to be right in front of him. Another time, he was driving down a road very slowly. Every house had the water spigots open and water was running into the street.
My lower legs had begun to swell to the point where the wetsuit was cutting off circulation. I was losing feeling in my feet and I began to worry about losing my feet if we ever got out of this mess. I used our knife to cut the lower seam to loosen them. We were all getting salt water ulcers, painful sores that festered and would not heal, only getting bigger. Any weak spot in the skin, whether it was from the smallest of cuts or any chaffed area, would develop them. Even areas with no mark would begin to ulcerate. Ben’s fingernails were all black from gripping the line so tightly. He would later lose all the nails.
We still had the cooler tied to us, drifting along about ten feet away. At noon, a seagull flew in and sat on the cooler. We immediately saw the gull as a potential meal. How to catch it? We had no net, nothing. The only thing I had was my hands. I was the closest, so I watched the bird with an intensity that I have never been able to muster before or since. I felt it was crucial that we catch that bird. I slowly pulled the line in, dragging the cooler closer, inch by inch, hoping the seagull wouldn’t notice he was getting closer and closer to being eaten alive. As I pulled, I waited, coiled to jump and catch him. Turns out, seagulls are quick. At any rate, he was much faster than me. He was never in any real danger.
At times we had sargassum weed floating around us. I picked some up and took a closer look, finding tiny snails clinging to the weed, not much bigger than the head of a pin. I began to pluck them off one by one and eat them. I figured they had to have some nutritional value. There was no cleaning them, no preparation of any kind. I just put them in my mouth, crunched them up and swallowed. They were awful. The crushed shells tasted more like sand than anything else. I tried eating the seaweed too, but I was afraid it had too much salt in it and might only do more damage to me if I continued. You cannot drink salt water even if you are dying of thirst.
We saw no boats or planes that day, but it was an active day around the boat. We saw a pod of dolphin and a shark briefly. They circled the boat for a few minutes and left. The thought of sharks did not even upset us. Compared to what we were facing, sharks did not seem like much of a threat. They might even be a relief if they killed us. Any end, even an awful one, as long as it was quick, seemed preferable to what we were facing.
That afternoon we held hands and prayed, even though none of us was religious. Just covering the bases, I suppose. No atheists in a foxhole as they say.
At the end of the day another major problem was emerging. We knew that the Coast Guard will only look for someone for a couple of days and we knew they had been looking for at least two already. We were fearful the search had been called off.
Nights were especially bad. At that time of year, at that latitude, there is fourteen hours of dark with ten hours of light. These were the very longest nights of the year. There was no chance for a rescue at night and the time dragged unbelievably. I had a watch, but having lost my glasses when the boat capsized, I could not read the dial. I would have to ask someone to read my watch for me. I would wait for what I was sure was at least an hour before I would ask someone to tell the time for me. It would only have been five minutes. That’s how long the nights were for us. Five minutes seemed like an hour. One night was like a week. Ben was having the same time stretch that I was. It was excruciating. The night seemed never to end. Waiting for dawn and possible salvation was one of the hardest things to endure. Predictably, our moods always brightened at dawn.
There was a running conversation between Rob and Kieffer about which one was a bigger girl chaser. They used the term receptacle for the meaningless sexual conquests. Guys can be less than politically correct about women when there are no women around. I’m sure that term was meant never to go beyond us four.
We spent a lot of time trying to calculate where we were in our featureless drift. We thought after hearing a lot of aircraft, and estimating a three knot drift, we were off MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. We had no idea we were not far from where we started.
We did have one magical, beautiful experience that night. It was very dark and we could occasionally hear dolphin surfacing to breathe around us. We noticed a momentary phosphorescent glow directly below us. As were peered into the completely black sea, we could see what looked like a green torpedo accelerating right toward the boat below the surface. Then there would be an explosion of light, a green fireball exploding below, which would fade after a few seconds. It took us a few minutes to comprehend what we were seeing. The dolphins were charging a school of bait fish minnows that were gathered below the boat. Smaller fish will use a floating object as protection against their predators. The charge and the scattering would activate the phosphorus. It was a wonderful light show.
Another odd and wonderful incident happened that night. Rob, Kieffer and I were facing one direction and Ben was facing another when a dolphin came to the surface just five feet from the boat. He poked his head out of the water and stood motionless, vertical in the water looking at Ben and the rest of us. Ben was the only one to see him. He felt as if the dolphin were trying to communicate telepathically with him. Ben felt as though he could tell what the dolphin was thinking, which was, I know you guys are in trouble, I’m sorry I can’t help. The dolphin and Ben looked at one another for a few more seconds and the dolphin slipped back beneath the sea.
Porpoise came by every day, whether through curiosity or whether they were merely looking for food, we will never know. They would circle us once, then disappear in the distance.
Tuesday night, Rob took a turn for the worse. Dehydration and hypothermia were getting to him. He began to talk nonsense, talking about his wife back home. He was not married then, nor had he ever been. It was breaking our hearts. At times he was only about half conscious. We knew he was dying. It became harder for him to sit on the boat, but not from the sheer discomfort of it. He was losing consciousness and he just could not hold himself upright. We tried and tried to hold him up, but we were all very weak and just could not continue. At one point we tied him upright to the boat. He became so combative and began struggling so hard that we untied him. He calmed down and nodded off. We tied a line to him a let him drift along beside us, precious heat being slowly sucked out of him all the time. We knew he was going to be the first to die. We never talked about it, but we all knew it.
Rob had been in and out of consciousness all day and now into the night. We all knew that none of us would survive another day. Rob was in bad shape but the rest of us were not far behind. The weather continued to be very calm, the water glassy. As the sun went down, we were all sure we would all be dead by this time the following day. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was going to die. I was sure of it. We did not talk much that night.
I realized that we were going to arrive at a point when Rob died and we would have to decide whether to eat his body. We did have a knife. I knew it was coming and I dreaded it far more than I dreaded losing my own life. I spoke to Ben after the ordeal and he said he had planned to drink Rob’s blood. I wondered and feared how the decision would go. Rob’s brother was on board. What would he think? What would he do? What would I do? Would I be able to eat the flesh of one of my best friends? Would I die first or would the instinct for survival be strong? These were the worst thoughts I’ve ever had, the hardest to bear.
I had weekly nightmares about this for a year afterward. They were all the same. We had just finished cutting and eating Rob’s flesh when rescuers found us. We looked up at our rescuers with gore all over us. It was a very ghoulish and guilt ridden dream. Sixteen years later I shudder when I think about it.
Early Wednesday Morning
At about four o’clock in the morning a very thick fog had settled over us; you could not see twenty yards. Unbelievably, we heard what sounded like a large ship’s horn. We came out of our daze and began to listen very carefully. We thought we could hear the heavy thumping of a ship and it sounded close. Ben began blowing SOS on a whistle we had. He blew it over and over again. He could not remember whether SOS was three dashes, three dots and three dashes, or the other way around, so he alternated it while he blew. He thought that if someone heard an OSO being blown, that it would be ignored. Kieffer quietly thought that Ben was wasting his time, that the ship would never hear him. Thankfully, he was wrong. When their searchlight abruptly switched on, we could hardly believe it. We did not have too high hopes, remembering the shrimper searchlight from three nights before. This vessel was much closer, though, although we could not see it. The searchlight panned across us, then past us. My heart sank. In an instant, it snapped right back at us and locked on, unwavering. My first words were ‘My God, we’re not going to die!’ Ben vividly remembers the depth of emotion in that statement. We had been so sure that were going to die, that being found was almost anti-climactic. It was almost as if we were cheated. There are several stages of coming to terms with your own death. Something like surprise, then denial, then anger, then acceptance. We were in the final stage that last night. We had accepted it and we were looking forward to being out of our misery and having the answer to the Great Question.
At first, we could not make out any shape, we could only see the searchlight that never strayed from us. Then gradually, from the solid wall of gray fog, a shape began to emerge. At first, it was very faint, but it got bigger and bigger, clearer and clearer. Even then it didn’t seem real. Our minds had been playing so many tricks on us over the last twenty-four hours that we had a hard time really comprehending what we were seeing and what was happening. We were being rescued, and we knew we were being rescued, but somehow it just didn’t seem real. Kieffer was looking at the ship with his head cocked to the side like the little RCA Victor dog. Is it real? As the vessel maneuvered closer to us, I could make out a large diagonal orange stripe on the side of the vessel’s black hull. It was a U. S. Coast Guard Cutter, the White Pine, a 133 foot buoy tender based in Mobile, Alabama. We were euphoric. The cutter eased up right next to us and dropped a net over the side. The net is designed to be climbed. I grabbed the net and tried to climb up, but I had been sitting on that relatively sharp edge of the hull for four days and my legs just had no strength in them. Ben was having the same problem. Kieffer was holding onto his brother. The captain was looking down on us and realized that we could not climb. He immediately yelled ‘Dammit, someone get in the water and help them.’ Some of his men had been putting orange exposure suits on and they splashed into the water next to us within seconds after his command. They hauled us over the side and onto the deck. We needed help to walk. They lowered a basket for Rob and hauled him up. Kieffer had the strength to climb up on his own somehow.
The USCGC White Pine’s crew was bummed out about having to go on a mission so close to Christmas. They were going to miss the pre-Christmas parties and possibly Christmas itself just to repair a stupid buoy of St. Marks River in the panhandle. When they learned they would be looking for missing divers on the way to repair the buoy, they perked up, feeling they had something important to do.
The radar operator on the White Pine saw a weak signal, or target, ahead. Anything other than a buoy tender would not have been able to see us on radar. They have two types of radar, conventional radar that most ships have and a more localized radar that is used for locating submerged or partially submerged buoys. The longer range 5 mile radar would not see us, but the 2 mile would. They only saw a faint target. When they got closer, the radar would not pick us up at all, so they lost the image when they got close. Not being sure where the target was at that point, due to drift, etc., they sent Troy Noble out on the bow to listen. The Captain slowed the cutter down to reduce the noise generated by a ship that size. They were not sure what they had seen at that point. Noble apparently heard our whistle.
With a guardsman on each side, they walked the three of us to the Ward Room, where the crew ate their meals. There were booths much like in a diner. Stainless steel and chromium never looked better. Water, food, dry clothes, and helping hands. These were things we knew we would never see again. What a glorious, wonderful vessel this was. There were several crew members apparently assigned to us. They said we could have Gatorade or tomato soup. We chose the soup. The soup was gone in seconds. When we asked for more, they said that the commander was in contact with a doctor on shore and was under orders not to feed us anything more for thirty minutes. They were afraid we might go into shock. When we kept that first soup down for thirty minutes, they gave us some more and said we could have more in fifteen minutes.
After the soup, they helped us to the shower where they took our wetsuits off us and literally bathed us. What luxury warm water can be! We felt no shame, only gratitude while other men gave us a bath. Kieffer was a little stronger and did not need quite that much attention. We all trembled when we stood, not from cold, but from physical exhaustion. They helped dry us, and then gave us some dark blue jumpsuits to wear. They were much too large for me, but they were clean and dry and felt wonderful. I still have that jumpsuit.
Recognizing Rob was in very serious condition, they took him to the infirmary. The cook, a black man named Duncan was assigned to help Rob. He cared for Rob as though Rob were his own brother. The White Pine, as a buoy tender was a very slow vessel, capable of only about eight knots. Rob needed immediate attention, so rather than wait the six or so hours it would take for the White Pine to get him to port, the captain tried to arrange for a helicopter to pick up Rob. The fog was still very thick, though, and it would be too dangerous to try to land a helicopter on the White Pine. They then arranged for a high speed 41 foot launch to rendezvous with us and pick up Rob for a quicker trip back to a hospital. They came and picked him up and our hopes went with him. We drank and ate more soup, and then lay down in bunks for the trip back. The guardsmen watched over us every minute, even as we dozed.
Before we got underway, we heard some commotion out on deck. Everyone seemed to be very concerned about something. Being a buoy tender, they had the capability to lift something heavy out of the water. They had lifted the HooLoo out of the water and set her on deck. That would have been fine, but the fuel cap was still off and when they set her down on the deck, raw gasoline began to run out on deck. This was a highly dangerous situation. Any spark could have set it off, turning a happy rescue into a bigger hell. They washed the fuel off the deck and diffused the problem. A while later we got underway.
The White Pine Engineering Officer was Chief Machinery Technician Ray Evers. When we realized they had retrieved our boat, Ben asked him to see if he could find his wallet, which he did. There was 500 dollars in it still in the cabin of the boat. Ban asked about his gold necklace, which Evers found still hanging on a porthole inside the cabin, right where Ben had left it.
On the way, we were informed the media wanted an interview. When we docked, there they were. Before we got into the ambulance, we said a few words on camera to a reporter. I could walk a little better at that point, but I still needed some help taking the step up into the ambulance. I just had no strength in my legs.
After a brief stay in the emergency room, they admitted us and wheeled us toward our room. We went by Rob’s room and they let us go in to see him. Rob was more coherent than he had been in two days, but, even though he recognized us and made a couple of jokes, his speech was slow. He was in bed with some blankets over him. Smiling widely, I wheeled up to him, reached out and took his hand. My smile disappeared immediately. His hand was very cold to my touch. I was alarmed and thought he needed some help. I told the nurse immediately that he needed to be warmed. I thought he was dangerously cold. Re-warming someone with a very low core temperature can be tricky business. The heart can stop if warmed too fast. Hypothermia techniques have improved since then. Now they warm the blood first by pumping it through a heating device of some kind and back into the patient.
Ben and I went up to our room and we began to relax. We ate and drank everything we could talk the staff into bringing. I had lost twenty pounds in four days. Most of the weight was dehydration, but we lost a lot of muscle and fat, too. I ate like a wild dog for a month afterward. We were in the room only a couple of hours before I got a phone call from a friend. Brad Bowen was a close friend of Ben’s and mine. He had been following the search for us and saw on TV we had been found. We talked for a minute or two and he said something strange. He said something about Rob dying. I told him that was bullshit, because I had seen him barely an hour before. I told him the media never gets things right and they had this one wrong. Well, sadly, they had this one right. I could hear the TV news over the telephone giving the details. Rob had died of heart failure right after we saw him. I couldn’t believe the whole world knew about Rob dying but us. The hospital staff decided to keep it from us thinking it might trigger heart failure in one or more of us. We went from ecstasy to the depths of sadness. We had been so happy we all had made it.
Most people never have to face their real selves, to find out whether they have the right stuff, whether they can be depended on to do the right thing in a life or death situation. Most of us think we could be the hero. It’s an awful thing to find out you are not, that you didn’t measure up and your best friend died.
The way I look at this is that in one’s life story, there can, at times, be one defining moment and when it is over, you never get a chance to redeem yourself. Once it is over, it is over. I failed myself and especially Rob in the moment. I’ve had many failures, wives, education and potential among them, but this was the big one. There is a saying by a philosopher, whose name escapes me, that what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. I think that is true, but I have been permanently diminished in my own eyes and that makes it hard to live with. I don’t think about it all the time, but it is there in the background like a shadow.
Neither the vessel White Pine, nor any of its crewmembers received any commendation or recognition whatsoever from the Coast Guard. The crew is still bitter.
The White Pine was decommissioned in 1999 and sold to the government of the Dominican Republic and continues in service to the mariner, as they say.
I took about two months for me to get my strength back and a year before I could get on a boat again. I saw the world as though it were now in Technicolor, compared to the black and white prior to the accident. I had a much heightened sense of awareness. That had faded somewhat, but still comes back strong as ever at times. I feel compelled to watch every survival story I see on TV and read every book about survival. I have a special insight for those people in survival situations that most people can never have.
Kieffer seems outwardly unaffected by the incident, but he does not like to talk about it.
Ben seems to have a little of the life taken out of him. I don’t think any of us fully recovered.
A friend of mine, Brad Bowen, retrieved the boat from (can’t remember which port they took it to right now) and brought it back to Tampa. It sat out in the woods for a year while my lawsuit with the manufacturer was resolved. I sued contending that the boat was poorly designed, that the deck of the self-bailer was too close to the waterline. Proline changed their design the following year, raising the deck inside the hull in relation to the waterline. I settled for $20k partly because there was no permanent damage to any of us (arguable) and because of the hole in the hull. It produced enough money to get the boat fixed, which I promptly traded for a 28′ Bertram, moved it to the Keys and started chartering dive and fishing trips. I had moved to Key Largo two years after the incident and got my Coast Guard Captain’s license. I have been a professional boat captain for 14 years and currently own a dive shop in Key Largo.
CWO (Chief Warrant Officer in layman’s terms, Captain) Robert O. Rucker, retired to Oregon. I tracked Captain Rucker down a few years ago and dropped in on him at his work. I had a Coast Guard hat embroidered with the original White Pine insignia and was wearing it when I walked into his workplace. He was working in a plant nursery. He was surprised and pleased.
Engineering Officer was Chief Machinery Technician Ray Evers, since retired, lives in Mobile and works for the USCG Aviation Training Center in Mobile. I’ve spoken to Ray Evers. He is talkative and remembers a lot of detail. Evers said the crew was ecstatic over finding us alive, and then, after they had left port, they heard one had died. He said everyone was badly broken up over it.
Chief Boatswains mate Troy Noble is retired, living in Mobile, Alabama. He is now a captain on a gambling boat on the Ohio River.
Whereabouts of the cook, Duncan, who took such personal care and interest in Rob, are unknown.
From an email from Don Vinson, skipper of the White Pine after Rucker:
I was not the CO of CGC White Pine when you were rescued. I was CO 1985-1988 and again 1992-1996. However I was the 1st Lt. on the CGC Salvia when you were rescued. We had searched for you for three days before we were dispatched to go elsewhere. We passed CGC White Pine while she was in route to Saint Marks River. We were nearly to Pensacola when we were made aware of your rescue. The newspaper articles were placed in the White Pines Scrap Books, which have since been sent to the CG Archives.
I tried to get copies of the White Pine records and scrapbook, but they have been destroyed.
None of us had really been tested before, unless you call consuming mass quantities of drugs and alcohol being tested.