In 1989 Bill Butler and his wife Simonne closed down their export business in Miami to fulfill a lifelong dream: circumnavigate the world in Bill’s 39-foot sailboat, Siboney. That June he and Simonne set off from the coast of Panama on the longest leg of their voyage: a two-month, 3,000-mile journey to Hawaii that would take them across a vast, open stretch of the Pacific. On the night of June 14, 1,200 miles offshore, they found themselves amid a huge school of pilot whales—black, streamlined members of the dolphin and killer whale family that can reach close to 20 feet in length. Bill and Simonne’s dream was about to become a nightmare.
Wednesday, June 14
Gentle splashes and faint blowing sounds surround us. I love whales and dolphins. I wake Simonne, sleeping below, and tell her to come up and have a look at this incredible sight.
An hour passes and our enchantment turns to worry. The animals surrounding us are big, some half as long as Siboney herself. One of them rubs against the starboard side, making a long, rough, scratching sound. There’s no question now that the huge beasts are agitated. More and more of them rub and bump against Siboney‘s hull. Have the males mistaken our ship for a competitor or an intruder?
An ear-splintering crash below deck gives me my answer. One of the creatures slammed into the hull! Another whale hits us, and another. They’re attacking! Then comes the most horrible sound a sailor far from land can hear: rushing water.
The water rises faster than our pump can keep up with. We bail desperately. I hardly hear Sim scream: “Bill, stop! We’re going down! We need to inflate the raft.”
I cut through the lines that lash the raft to the stern and yank the inflation cord. The raft—a small, two-man model built primarily for coastal use—explodes to full size, almost sending me overboard. We frantically load it with supplies and jump aboard. At the last second the raft rubs against something sharp on the stern of the fast-sinking Siboney. Pfffft! Air rushes out from one of the flotation compartments. Sim’s life and mine now depend on a damaged six-foot raft in the open Pacific.
Thursday, June 15
“God, save us please.” A light rain taps against the raft’s waterproof canopy. Sim prays quietly while I take stock. Before Siboney went under, we managed to hustle enough supplies onboard—crackers, canned goods, a fishing pole, some blankets and our log book—to keep us in good shape for a week or two. We also have a manually-operated desalinating machine to use when our bottled water supply runs out. But try as I might to push the thought out of my head, I also know that we could not have picked a worse place to go down, more than a thousand miles from land. It will be days, maybe weeks, before anyone onshore misses us, and given that no one would be able to figure out exactly where we went down, finding our little raft amid this vast ocean would be like locating a Volkswagen Beetle somewhere between Florida and Oregon.
Among our supplies Sim found some prayer cards. Reading passages from them seems to keep her spirits up. I won’t quarrel with that, but I don’t buy into any of it myself. I grew up on the sea. I have 48 years of sailing experience under my belt. Brains and luck have gotten me through tough situations before. Even if I’ve never been in a mess as bad as this, I know they’ll get me out this time too. Sim can pray all she wants.
Tuesday, June 27
“Our Father, who art in heaven…” Her hand grasped tight in mine, Sim makes her way through the Lord’s Prayer for what must be the thousandth time. We brace for the next blow from the black water beneath us. It is night. After 13 days in the raft we’ve established a routine of sorts. During the day I use our only hook to try to catch fish from the group that clusters underneath the raft. We make drinking water using the desalinization pump, fend off curious sharks and sea turtles as best we can, and try to keep our miserable handful of supplies safe and dry.
It’s the nights that are the real test: The sharks that keep their distance during the day grow bold. Hour after hour they torment us, smacking the raft with their tails and bumping it with their snouts as if it were a giant bath toy. Whack! We tense as a shark gives the side of the raft a jolting blow with its tail. Bang! Another hits it from underneath, sending the raft spinning in circles. The floor is so thin we can actually feel the snouts of the sharks as they bump against it. How many? Do they mean to eat us? Are they simply curious? Whatever the answer, one thing is sure: A single, tiny tear will deflate the raft and send it to the bottom of the ocean more than two miles below.
The fact that the sharks’ endless onslaughts haven’t produced such a tear yet, or simply knocked the raft to pieces, is something akin to a miracle. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” Sim prays almost ceaselessly. The more dire our predicament becomes, the stronger her faith and the more she prays. I find myself praying with her occasionally now, self-consciously. There’s nothing behind it. I just figure, Why not? Can’t hurt.
Sunday, July 16
“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep.” I join Sim in her morning prayer reading out of habit. Yet I am struck at how comforting these lines from Psalm 107 have become. She recites them all the time. Despite the sharks and sea turtles that menace it from below, despite being tossed by 20-foot waves and blasted by gale winds, the raft is, incredibly, still in one piece. Sim and I, on the other hand, are falling apart. At first I’d had every confidence that someone would find us out here, that my wiles would somehow see us through. But as the wind and water dragged us ever farther from the shipping lanes, my hope sank. I’d never quite felt like this—hopeless. All my life I was a doer. Action led to results. Initiative was its own reward.
My breaking point might have come a relatively few days into our time in the raft. A huge freighter appeared out of nowhere and came so terrifyingly close it almost rammed us. Despite Sim’s and my desperate screams, despite my setting off a flare, the freighter rumbled on. The odds of that freighter passing so close in the middle of this vast ocean were a million to one. Pure luck. Yet even when it was right on top of us, no one aboard noticed our tiny craft. There is no missing the reality of our situation: Only a miracle will help us now.
Maybe that’s why I’ve begun joining Sim in her daily prayer-card readings. It’s been a month. No man knows what he’s truly made of until he faces a test such as this. I know that Sim and I are probably going to die out here. It fills me with a sadness I can’t even describe, yet there is something freeing about it in a strange way—freeing in that it makes me look at myself in a way I never have before, as a dying man. I think about that more and more.… These are my last days, this will be one of the last times I talk to Sim or touch her.
I find myself not at peace, but wanting so much more out of my life. No, not more of it, just more meaning before it’s over, as if there is something essential that I’ve turned my back on and it’s almost too late. Something completely unexpected is happening to me out here in this vast place. I am learning how to believe—to believe in a power greater than myself and greater than this huge sea we are lost in, something greater, even, than “luck.” “Then they cry to the Lord and he brings them out of their distress.” Praying the last lines of the Psalm with Sim, I feel tears falling down my cheeks.
Saturday, August 12
“Look, Bill, there it is again!” Sim cries.
Eight weeks have passed. Sim and I are still afloat, still alive. Combined we’ve lost more than 100 pounds. Every day the sun beats down without mercy. Every night, the sharks menace us. But we haven’t given up. This is a test of faith—mine new, Sim’s deep—more than of survival. I don’t care if I die. I just don’t want to lose this incredible thing I’ve found. I don’t want suffering to steal it away. That’s what I pray for. I pray to keep my faith. Each day, with our single fishing hook, I have somehow been able to bring enough food aboard to keep us alive. I’ve almost sunk the raft twice in the course of trying to make repairs. And today, rising out of the mist on the distant horizon, Sim has spotted something. “Are you sure, Sim?” I ask weakly. “It could just be clouds on the horizon.”
“I’m positive,” she says. I raise myself up and look in the direction Sim is pointing. I see it too. It’s no cloud formation. The current has swept us a thousand miles back to the coast of Central America. Though land is still far away, I have no doubt that we will make it. A million “lucky breaks” have kept us alive. One day, on the verge of starvation, I baited our single hook with the last little rotten piece of fish meat aboard. Tossing it over the side, I’d instantly hooked a fish large enough to keep us going and provide fresh bait. On another day, attempting to fix a leak in the raft, I’d bungled the job and almost swamped the raft, only to somehow get the leak plugged again at the very last second.
A single bite from a shark, a single wave hitting us wrong, and we would have gone down. The odds against us making it this far are astronomical—impossible even. But we have made it, and I’ve discovered something deep and precious that I didn’t have the night Sim and I frantically climbed aboard this raft. Something that truly saved me.
Bill and Simonne were picked up by a patrol boat a few days later, 13 miles off the coast of Costa Rica. Altogether, they spent 66 days in the raft.