There are few things more terrifying than being lost amongst the deep blue sea. Amidst the expanse of blue, you just float, day in and day out, hoping that someone will happen upon you or you’ll drift to solid ground. Tales of people lost at sea end in one of two ways - either with celebration and good cheer or mystery and misery. For this installment, we’re going to retell ten tales of people that braved the high seas - and while some made it back to share their story, others sadly perished to the great depths.
We often hear of tragic tales on family vacations, so it’s refreshing when a miraculous turn of events turns one family’s voyage into a tale of collaboration and survival. Douglas Robertson and his wife, daughter, three sons, and an inexperienced sailor the family picked up along the Panama Canal spent 38 days adrift at sea aboard a small dinghy after many months into their lengthy journey to sail around the world. On June 15th, during the family’s voyage, Dougal’s vessel, Lucette, sunk after being holed by killer whales. At the time, they were 200 miles or 320 kilometers west of the Galapagos Islands. The family and the crew member, Robin Williams, survived by collecting rain water, catching turtles and other manner of oceanic life, and simply rode the wind, which pushed them northeast towards Central America. On July 23rd, a Japanese fishing trawler, Tokamaru II, eventually happened upon the castaway family, rescuing them from their ordeal.
Salvador, Jesus, and Lucio
The tale of these three shark hunters from 2006 is a miraculous one, so much so that there is much speculation as to whether it is exactly as they tell. According to their story, the three were adrift for 9 months at sea after they ran out of gas and drifted west an estimated 5,500 miles or 8,850 kilometers across the Pacific. They survived on raw fish and seagulls, sometimes even drinking the blood of their catch and their own urine to quench their thirst. Unfortunately, the three started off as five, but the owner of the 27-foot vessel and his unnamed friend perished under the conditions. The story is so miraculous that questions as to the condition of three is often a hot topic. After 9 months at sea, they were expected to be a bit more scorched from the sun, showed longer fingernail growth, and should have been far more worse for wear; but there is no denying that the Taiwanese fishing ship rescued the three in the middle of the Pacific, a long, long way from home.
The Andrea Gail
This tragic tale spurred the book, The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, which chronicled the crews final moments as they disappeared during what was meant to be a routine fishing venture in the north Atlantic. On the crew’s return voyage back into Gloucester, Massachusetts, the Andrea Gail’s captain, Frank W. Tyne, Jr., made the ill-fated call to sail through a forming pattern of storms as the ship’s ice machine was malfunctioning and would not hold the catch should they have waited the storms out. The Perfect Storm that formed was the product of an absorbing Hurricane Grace and produced recorded waves of up to 60 feet or 18 meters – and the Andrea Gail was thought to have sailed right into the heart of it. Little is known about what happened aboard the vessel, though there is no denying that the entire crew of six, including captain Tyne, Reed Shatford, Dale Murphy, David Sullivan, Michael Moran, and Alfred Pierre, perished beneath a massive wave. Tyne’s final known words were “She’s comin’ on, boys, and she’s comin’ on strong.”
In 1981, sailor and naval architect Steven Callahan took to the seas aboard a 21-foot or 6.5 meter sloop he built himself named the Napoleon Solo. Heading towards Antigua from the Canary Islands, Callahan was met with growing gales that threatened his tightly crafted vessel. After seven days at sea, a large object, which Callahan believed to be a whale, ruptured a hole in the sloop. Eventually, the sailor’s craft sank, forcing him to retreat to a six-person Avon raft. As the Napoleon Solo sunk, Callahan rushed to rescue key items, such as a sleeping bag, an emergency kit, food, navigation charts, a spear, and other tools. With his slew of survival equipment, Callahan learned to live on the water as a primitive man, surviving 76 long days before being rescued by fishermen off the coast of the island of Marie Galante, just south of Guadalupe.
Richard Van Pham
There are some people that can’t survive three and a half minutes without some form of technological stimulation; and to those, Richard Van Pham’s three and a half months lost at sea would be their greatest nightmare. During a three-hour trek to the Catalina Islands in May of 2002, Van Pham was met with heavy weather resistance, which wound up destroying his mast and broke his outboard motor. With no family and no float plan filed, there was no one to search for the lost Van Pham. Despite his situation, the sailor made the most of it, grilling seagull, fish, turtles, and watched what he could on a small solar powered screen. Van Pham was picked up by the U.S. Navy frigate McClusky in Costa Rican waters, and though the elder sailor was adamant about fixing up his vessel, the Navy sank it and dropped him in Guatemala. Luckily, the crew felt bad enough to take up a pool to send the poor sailor back to his home in Los Angeles.
Amanda Thorns and Dennis White
For Amanda Thorns, her final trek aboard the 45-foot or 14 meter yacht, the Emma Goldman, would be a life changing experience. Along with her father, Captain Willie Thorns, and fellow sailor, Dennis White, Amanda faced 30-foot or 9 meter waves that rolled the yacht, threatening to tip it completely. One large wave snapped the mainmast and, when it went overboard, the rigging snagged Willie, dragging the Captain to the depths, leaving Amanda and Dennis to fend for themselves on the rough seas. With the Emma Goldman disabled and lacking a GPS transponder, Amanda and Dennis floated adrift for 12 days until a Greek oil tanker spotted flares that Dennis had shot off. The voyage was the captain’s first ocean voyage across the Atlantic and Amanda had quit her job to join her father on the momentous occasion.
Josh Long and Troy Driscoll
This teenage duo set off the South Carolina coast to fish for sharks a few dozen yards off Sullivans Island. In their tiny sail boat, they quickly realized the err of their ways when unfavorable weather conditions pulled them further out then expected. They set sail on April 24th on their few hour journey; they weren’t rescued from their floating grave until April 30th. Their six days floating amiss was a struggle for their faith and a detriment to their physical well-being. The younger of the two, Troy Driscoll, resorted to eating raw jellyfish, lost 40 pounds or 18 kilograms, and was covered in second degree burns on his feet and face due to exposure to the sun. During the day, the boys slept as nighttime proved to be too rocky to allow for safe and sound rest. After 6 days on the water with hope dwindling in everyone save for the boy’s parents, the Coast Guard found the two 100 miles or 160 kilometers from where they had originally sailed to.
Brad Cavanagh and Deborah Kiley
To be one of two survivors in a crew of five will either leave you entirely broken or determined to tell your story as a warning. For Deborah Kiley, the latter is what drove her to retell the harrowing story of her survival at sea with fellow sailor, Brad Cavanagh. The two were aboard a yacht traveling from Maine to Florida with three others: Mark Adams, John Lippoth, and John’s girlfriend, Meg Mooney. Their span of 3 days was met with death, hallucinations, and plenty of oceanic predators after the yacht capsized underneath 45-foot or 14 meter waves. The crew escaped to an inflatable Zodiac boat where Mark, John, and Meg succumbed to terrible fates. While Meg died from blood poisoning from a wound received during their retreat, Mark and John were eaten alive by the shark’s that swarmed around the Zodiac as they made feeble, deranged escape attempts. Deborah and Brad faced dehydration and were weak and nearing death when a Russian freighter rescued them and brought them to the US Coast Guard.
Tom and Eileen Lonergan
It’s nearly impossible to think of people lost at sea and not immediately think of the movie Open Water. When building this list, it was the first thing that came to mind, and though it is no more tragic than any other tale that ends in a disappearance in the deep blue, the story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan is a terrifying one that the film did little to glorify and make us feel good about. The couple were scuba diving with a group in the Coral Sea when they were accidentally left behind with nothing but their scuba gear and each other’s company. The missing former Peace Corps members weren’t discovered missing until two days after the dive, when a bag with their belongings were found aboard the vessel they had embarked on with the chartered group. Much speculation surfaced about their disappearance, with journal entries being released to the press that suggested suicide; but blame was ultimately was placed on the charter’s skipper, Jack Nairn, and the company was fined for negligence. Fishermen had even found a diving slate believed to belong to the Lonergans with a message of the couple pleading for help.
It was meant to be a pretty basic fishing trip for Rex Willimon and six family members, but as we’ve learned, sometimes things don’t go as smooth as planned. A bit into their family adventure, the engine on Willimon’s boat cut out as water started to fill the bottom of the vessel. Immediately after putting out the mayday call, the boat sunk 20 miles or 32 kilometers off shore. With the bow being the only thing not completely submerged, Willimon and his six passengers tried to cling to it for their lives. The current was strong though, and under the hot sun, exhaustion was quick to set in. Unknown to the family, Rex’s mayday was cut short, so the Coast Guard only searched two miles off shore before calling off the search. The family’s 20-hour ordeal was met with curious sharks, near hypothermia, and more than enough time in the water to putt-off anyone from wanting to return to recreational fishing. Though conditions were grim, Willimon and his family survived the ordeal when the Coast Guard continued its search at the urging of Rex’s wife, Keisa.