Ever spent the night floating in the ocean far offshore? Trust me, you don’t want to. We’ve all seen movies in which people are cast adrift miles offshore and contemplated the horror. But having actually done it, I can tell you that it’s more horrifying than you can possibly imagine. At least it was for me.
At the time, I was attending the University of Miami and desperately wanted to be out in the blue waters not on shore looking at them. So I convinced two of my buddies to pool our meager savings and we bought a well-used, 16-foot boat.
I can still remember the excitement as we idled out of Bear Cut past Key Biscayne and set off on our very first diving adventure. Our favorite dive site was on the edge of the Gulf Stream near Fowey Rocks which we dove so frequently that we became cocky. We had all been diving for years and were convinced we were invulnerable. Eventually, this led to a series of little mistakes which, taken together, had big consequences.
Normally, we always took four divers so one pair could remain on the boat at all times. But on that fateful afternoon, we could only raise three and elected to go anyhow-mistake one. After wasting time trying to get a fourth diver, we got underway much later than usual-mistake number two. Even though we found the seas were heavy, we were not about to quit-mistake number three.
*** [Pub. in the Sun Herald on Sept. 1, 2013, p . 6B] ***
One problem with this area was the current. Occasionally it was so strong that one of our buddies, fresh from Navy dive school, could not make it from the back of the boat to the anchor line. So when we began our dive and realized that we were anchored up current from the dive spot we knew that we should surface and reposition the boat. But since it was late, we broke our hard rule and dove down current which meant that we could not drift back to the boat in the event of a problem- huge mistake number four.
The dive went well and I burned up a lot of air spearing and fighting a large fish. When it was time to head back to the boat, we found ourselves fighting a wicked current. When we finally ran out of air and were forced to surface, we found ourselves too far from the boat to make it back against the raging current. We were in deep trouble! With little appetite for raw fish and seeing no reason to lay down a chum slick, I ditched my kill. We then each grabbed an end of my speargun to avoid being separated in the heavy seas.
We were both scared, desperate, frustrated, and angry at our stupidity. We were miles off shore, with heavy seas in shark-infested waters. I was thinking, What a mess! How could this get any worse?
Just before it became totally black, we spotted a large vessel bearing the bold orange bow stripe and blinking blue light of the US Coast Guard. We’re saved! But we had already drifted so far that the Coast Guard was not yet looking for us. Our shouts were drowned out by the engines as the vessel passed close by.
Drifting with the lights of Miami on the far horizon, we were out of options. Our best case scenario was being found the next day –if we made it until dawn. Oddly, along with facing certain death, came a sense of calm. All we could do was trust in God—my faith was never stronger than that night.
Then a helicopter appeared and began a search pattern several miles away. It searched for what seemed forever. But then gradually, it moved closer until the searchlight beam finally fell directly on us for a instant.
We were saved! Or so we thought until the beam moved away and they lost us. We later learned the Coast Guard had spotted something but weren’t sure exactly what. So they hovered close enough that we could see a crewmember when he dropped a flare which nearly landed on us.
To get that close to being rescued only to see the chopper lift off once again to continue searching was not was disheartening. But a few minutes later, they spotted us again and landed a short distance away.
As I swam toward the chopper, I recalled reading about sharks being attracted to low-frequency sound and could imagine a huge set of jaws behind me. I’ll never forget saw the smiling face of the crewman as he extended his hand to pull us into the chopper.
As experienced divers we had become cocky and our emergency situation was self-inflicted, the result of a series of bad decisions. But I was grateful for a second chance to learn from my mistakes.
One incredible note, the Coast Guard had just received funding and installed the search light a couple of weeks earlier. They told us that with the old one they never would have spotted us. Maybe it was our faith that saved us.
Disclaimer: Frank Wilem is an author, speaker, and all around funny and entertaining guy. On this blog, his stories are based on his real life experiences, often with a satirical twist.
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