Against The Odds – Surviving a Disaster at Sea

Against The Odds – Surviving a Disaster at Sea

The five shipwreck survivors clinging to the eleven-foot inflatable Zodiac were in the trough of a 30-foot swell and looked up into the green walls of water. That’s when they saw the sharks. Brad Cavanaugh, age 21, could clearly see three sharks, and one was larger than the Zodiac. “It was bad enough seeing how large that shark was, but even worse was that the shark could clearly see us,” Brad recalled. This shark knew there was life inside the life raft, and it wasn’t about to leave.

From the moment the sailboat he was on, named Trashman, sank, Brad made up his mind that he was going to live. He thought of his mother and how his death would crush her, so he said to himself, I’m going to take this as far as I can. And because this is now my world, my reality, I’m going to embrace it. I’m going to fight to the end. His reality was bleak; surviving was near impossible, and the world that he tried to embrace included four others—with very different thoughts—and Brad had to be cognizant of them in any decisions he made.

Illustration: Brett Affrunti

The Trashman had been sailing approximately 60 miles off North Carolina when a violent storm with 100 mile per hour winds and forty-foot seas sank the vessel at 1:30 p.m. on October 24, 1982. John, the Trashman’s captain, Brad, Deb, Mark, and Meg had just two minutes to leave the vessel before it dragged them to the ocean’s depths. There were no survival suits onboard and no time to even put on life jackets: the crew had to escape with the clothes on their backs.

As their boat sank, Mark tried to free the life raft from its canister while Brad untied the rubber Zodiac dinghy from the Trashman’s cabin top. When the life raft popped from its canister and inflated it was taken by the wind and disappeared into the chaotic void of crashing seas. The Zodiac came free of the Trashman as the sailboat was going down, and it too was snatched by the wind and began tumbling away.

Brad knew that if he didn’t corral the Zodiac, he and the rest of the crew were doomed, so he swam after it, kicking off his boots as he went. Somehow, he caught up with the tiny vessel and held onto its lifeline in the raging sea until the others could reach him. The group tried to hold onto to the outside of the Zodiac by clutching the lifeline, but the hurricane-force winds, coupled with breaking seas, sent the vessel rolling end over end. Some of the crew who were able to hang on were flipped with the dinghy while others lost their grip and had to swim after it. They soon learned it was easier to keep the Zodiac from getting caught by the wind if they kept it upside down and held on to its outer edges. The wind and waves lashed the crew and they all ingested seawater, but at least the dinghy stayed in place. About an hour into the ordeal, Brad was faced with the first of many crucial decisions that he had to convince the group to adopt. The air temperature was approximately 54 degrees Fahrenheit, but the survivors were not too cold as they continually treaded Gulf Stream warmed water and held the Zodiac snug to the ocean’s surface to keep it from blowing away. John thought they should turn the dinghy right-side up and get inside. Brad was certain that if they righted the vessel the wind and waves would flip it and toss everyone into the ocean where they may not be able to retrieve it. He shouted at John that the time was not right to get in the dinghy, but John was adamant.

Fortunately, Brad and Deb had another idea, an option no one had considered yet: get under the Zodiac. This would protect them from the blasting wind, and by holding onto the lifeline, they wouldn’t risk having the dinghy blown away. As the group huddled beneath the Zodiac on the up-wind side, they all wondered when the Coast Guard would come. On the boat they had been in communication with the Coast Guard, telling them about the severity of the storm and how the sailboat was damaged and in jeopardy of sinking. The Coast Guard responded by sending a C-130 aircraft into the storm and that plane located the Trashman.

A mechanical issue, however, forced the plane to turn back to Air Station Elizabeth City. Over the radio, Coast Guard Search and Rescue told John that two merchant ships were being diverted to the Trashman but would take several hours to arrive. The Coast Guard then asked John to return to the radio each hour and give them an update.

Now, with the boat at the bottom of the ocean and John missing that hourly update, the group wondered why another Coast Guard aircraft had not arrived on the scene. The survivors assumed that sooner or later the Coast Guard would come, but inexplicably that never happened. (Later, a lawsuit initiated by the castaways and/or family members against the Coast Guard was settled out of court.)

Four hours went by with the group huddled under the raft (Meg mostly stayed on the outside of the vessel because she was claustrophobic). They had been expending energy handling the Trashman before it sank, and now they were burning even more calories and strength treading water. All of the crew started shivering from their time in the water. Hypothermia was setting in, and a couple of the survivors’ teeth were chattering so loudly the others could hear the clicking. Again, Brad and Deb came up with an idea to improve their situation. Using a wire salvaged from the overturned dinghy, Brad stretched the wire from port to starboard. He then draped his legs over the wire, so that the wire supported his legs beneath the knee while his head and shoulders lay on the spray cover that extended over the dinghy’s bow. Mark, Deb, and John crammed next to and on top of Brad on the cover, keeping part of their bodies out of the water and sharing body heat. Meg, who had serious leg lacerations, still stayed on the outside of the overturned Zodiac.

In the morning, as the wind eased and the seas didn’t break as often, the group was able to turn the raft right-side up. Some were reluctant to get inside because the air felt so much colder than the water. But they changed their minds when Mark and Deb, who were outside the raft, looked down into the water and saw not one shark, but many!

All five castaways pulled themselves into the raft, which had floor space of only three feet wide by four feet long. There was not enough room to stretch out cramped legs, and each time one moved or bumped against another it caused pain because they all suffered from various abrasions that were now inflamed.

As the Zodiac rode a wave crest, Brad could see fins circling their vessel. In the trough, when he looked up into an approaching wave, he saw the especially large shark looking back at him. The little vessel was still in jeopardy of being capsized by the enormous swells and Brad made it his job to be the “balancer” of the life raft. He would shift his body as needed, mostly by using his legs and butt. Yet still he was afraid the raft would flip and send them into the shark-infested water. His mind was churning, trying to think of some way to make sure the group stayed inside the Zodiac.

Illustration: Brett Affrunti

It was becoming clear to Brad that only he and Deb were still thinking clearly in terms of their situation. The others were showing signs of defeat. Water and thirst were beginning to dominate discussions which Brad tried to shut out. He later explained, “I couldn’t go there. Put that one away. There was nothing I could do about the lack of water.” Brad consciously tried to direct his thoughts away from what was out of his control, and instead be alert for an opportunity or an idea that he could consider and take action on. The very act of doing something helped keep him from dwelling on all the many depravations and pain. In essence, he was clinging to the one thing he could control and that was his reaction to what was happening to him.

Brad and Meg decided they would make a sea anchor to trail behind the raft to add stability. They used the same piece of wire they previously hung their legs over and attached it to a small piece of wood that they pried off a storage space in the bow. Once it was rigged, Brad hurled it behind the raft. Almost immediately the raft was jerked backward. The big shark had grabbed the board!

Brad saw the shark take the board and just two seconds later release it. Mark quickly pulled the board in, and now the giant shark swam directly at the raft. Raising the board, Mark prepared to strike it.

“No!” Brad shouted, and he yanked the board from Mark’s grasp.

“Don’t rile it up! It might attack the raft!”

Instead, the shark slowly slid beneath the Zodiac, its head on one side and its fin on the other. A shiver went through Brad as he could feel the beast rub against the floor of the raft.

Goddamn, what else could go wrong? thought Brad. This is so bad, so utterly horrifyingly absurd, it’s almost comical. His idea to create a sea anchor was foiled by the shark. And later another idea to remove the thin aluminum sheets that covered the raft’s floor failed as well, in fact it resulted in Brad cracking his teeth trying to free the sheets. But the most critical fact was that Brad was still trying to better their situation. He and Deb were not done fighting, thinking, and hoping. In the hours to come—which eventually stretched into four days—that mindset, the continual process of taking little steps to try and improve their odds, was the number one reason they survived.

The hallucinations occurred on the third day. Brad believes they were caused by the combination of exhaustion, dehydration, and hypothermia. Mark and John exacerbated their mental deterioration by sipping small amounts of seawater. John soon became convinced they were just a few hundred yards off the coast of Falmouth, Massachusetts, and he began talking about getting his car. Although Brad had hallucinations, at this particular moment he was lucid, and he and Deb told John they were far out in the ocean, nowhere near the coast.

Suddenly, John acted on his vision, sliding over the side of the Zodiac. Brad and Meg shouted for him to get back in the dinghy, but John simply said, “I’m getting the car,” and swam off. Torn over whether to try and retrieve John, Brad soon realized it was a lost cause as John found the energy to stroke far from the raft. Then there was an awful scream.

Soon afterward, Mark started talking about going to the store because he needed cigarettes. “No,” said Brad. “You’re not going to the store. You’re in a life raft and you’re safe.” That calmed Mark down for a while and Brad closed his eyes trying to conserve what little energy he had left.

Then Mark went over the side, saying “I’m going to 7-Eleven to buy cigarettes.” The sharks yanked him under before he could even scream.

The sharks, now in a frenzy, set their sights on the raft, battering it from all sides. If one of the creatures bit down on the inflated rubber, it would be all over. Brad, Deb, and Meg huddled together in fear and to share body heat. At this point there was little more Brad and Deb could do to help Meg or their situation. Earlier they had scooped seaweed from the ocean and covered themselves with it for insulation, but the cold was penetrating to their cores. Even Brad started thinking they had just hours to live rather than days.

Mark and John’s loss was devastating. The hurt, Braid said was not just the loss of his friends but his resolve. “That opened the door for death to come into our raft,” he said. “I felt if one of us died, we were inviting death in, and our focus would shift from living to dying.”

As Brad lay in the raft and felt the sharks bumping it, he told himself over and over: Don’t give up. We’ve seen a couple ships in the distance, our luck is bound to change. Luck—really more like a miracle—is what Meg needed, but it never came, and she died that night. She likely expired from exhaustion and the infection that set into the wounds suffered while the sailboat was sinking. In the morning, Brad and Deb said a prayer over Meg’s lifeless body and then released her to the sea.

Later in the day Brad was faced with another crucial decision. As there were no sharks in sight, Deb wanted to flip the Zodiac so they could get the putrid water out of it. Brad worried the sharks were still nearby but unseen. He also knew that his strength was so low he may not be able to climb back in the dinghy (the weight on his 6’2” frame had dropped from 205 pounds to 165). But Brad also considered that Deb had gone along with his ideas and how it was essential that they remain united. He ultimately agreed with Deb.

The consequences of the decision almost cost Brad his life. After they intentionally flipped the raft, cleaned it, and then put it right side up, he labored to get out of the water and back in the Zodiac. Deb, whom Brad had helped push back into the raft, now struggled to pull Brad over the side.

They waited a moment, gathered all their strength and together maneuvered Brad into the vessel, where he collapsed and started vomiting. For the first time, Brad felt certain he would be dead within an hour. He simply had nothing left—nothing left physically that is. But mentally he wasn’t quite ready to call it quits. When he caught his breath, he managed to sit up and then talked with Deb about trying to catch fish. Earlier he had caught a very small fish with his bare hands, but it was nothing but skin and bones. He wasn’t sure he could catch a larger fish, but he had to say something positive, to shut the door on the thought of his death.

Not long after cleaning the Zodiac, the miracle that Brad and Deb so desperately needed came in the form of a Russian ship, which saved them. Let me rephrase that: the ship’s crew plucked them from the water, but what saved them was the power of little steps.

These two castaways made it largely because they kept focusing on the few things they could initiate, rather than let the despair they felt push them toward resignation. The fact that Brad and Deb kept thinking, experimenting, and attempting improvements—no matter how small—gave them a glimmer of achievement, and even a fleeting bit of control. The message for all of us is to take those little steps that might seem insignificant when you feel helpless and string a few actions together. Before you know it, you have advanced toward your objective.

As Brad explained his survival story to me, I was struck by the similarities in Brad’s thinking and actions of another survivor I interviewed many years earlier and grew close to. That man was Ernie Hazard, who survived the sinking of his fishing vessel by an estimated 90- to 100-foot rogue wave. One comment Ernie made to me during our discussions sounded as if it could have come from Brad. Ernie summed up his mindset during his ordeal this way: “I might not make it, but I’m going to go down fighting.”

Although Ernie’s actions, attitude and determination were similar to Brad’s, his story is important to tell because of one major difference. From the moment the wave hit to his ultimate survival three days later, Ernie was all alone. He offers us wisdom of how to overcome incredible odds when you have no one to talk to but yourself. Ernie’s saga began on a cold November day in 1980 when two fishing vessels, the Fair Wind and the Sea Fever, set out from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to catch offshore lobsters at Georges Bank, lying 130 miles to the southeast. On the day they departed, the weather reports forecast typical autumn conditions for the next three days on the fishing grounds. The National Weather Service issued this report even though the organization knew its lone weather buoy at Georges Bank was malfunctioning. The Weather Service also elected not to tell mariners of the malfunction.

When the Sea Fever and Fair Wind reached Georges Bank the next morning, the seas were building rapidly and the wind was approaching gale force. Over the course of the morning, the waves built to 60 feet and both vessels were trapped on Georges Bank, miles from safe harbor.

The storm soon reached hurricane force with winds topping an incredible 100 miles per hour, and both vessels were in grave danger. Captain Peter Brown on the Sea Fever (his father owned the Andrea Gail of Perfect Storm fame) swung the boat around so it would face the seas and avoid having its stern driven under by the breaking waves. Suddenly, a monstrous wave broke over the bow and smashed its windshield, sending water flooding down to the bilge.

Peter recovered from the blow, shouted out a Mayday on the radio, then turned the boat downwind so that another wave would not cascade through the gaping hole. He handed the wheel to crewman Gary Brown (no relation) and shouted for the other crewmembers to start cutting plywood for the shattered windows. Peter then tied a rope around his waist in preparation of going out on the deck to install the plywood.

That’s when an enormous wall of water hit the vessel. The force of the blow was so powerful it sent Gary Brown crashing through the wooden wall of the pilothouse and into the churning sea. The boat righted itself, but the engine conked out. While Peter Brown rushed below to restart the engine, the remaining two crewmembers ran to the stern where they saw Gary floating in the water, face up, about 15 feet away. They repeatedly threw a line to Gary, but the floating crewman was either in shock or unconscious, and he made no attempt to grab the lifeline. More huge waves battered the boat, sending it careening sideways into the valleys between the seas. For the next 12 hours, the three remaining crewmen were in the fight of their lives, trying to outlast this incredible storm.

On board the second boat, the Fair Wind, Captain Billy Garnos, first mate Ernie Hazard and two crewmembers were also struggling to stay afloat in rampaging seas. The same enormous wave that hit the Sea Fever came at their boat, and Garnos gave the vessel full throttle to climb the ninety-foot monster. The Fair Wind, however, was no match for the wall of water, and the vessel was spun around like a toy, careening bow first down the face of the wave. When it hit the trough, the bow buried itself in the water and the stern was lifted up and over the bow, “pitch-poling” the boat. Ernie Hazard and the three other crewmen were upside down in the flooded wheelhouse struggling to find a way out.

Only Ernie escaped the inverted boat. He found a small air pocket, grabbed a bite of air, and then swam downward toward a small area of gray light. His head collided with an intact window, and finding no escape, Ernie decided to return to the air pocket, but it was gone. With his last seconds of breath, he dove down once more, groping in the darkness for an exit from the pilothouse. Locating a small opening, Ernie swam through it and kicked toward the surface, his lungs screaming for air. Reaching the surface, Ernie encountered so much foam it was hard to breathe. He was on the windward side of the overturned Fair Wind, and despite his efforts to stay with the boat, the wind and waves were pushing it much faster than he could swim. Kicking his boots off and squirming out of his jacket, he struggled for gulps of air in the foam.

Debris from the Fair Wind swirled around Ernie and with his strength ebbing he grabbed a bucket and turned it over, trapping air inside. This provided him with enough buoyancy to get his head above the foam. He could see the boat—his only real chance of survival— drifting farther away.

One would think that Ernie was out of options. Most of us likely would have held onto the bucket to keep from drowning, but in so doing sealed our fate. We might last another half hour but still be killed by the combination of pounding waves and the 55-degree water.

But Ernie, as I came to realize after interviewing him over multiple days, processed information quickly despite his fear. While the bucket was keeping him alive, he knew it wasn’t the answer to his survival. “I had a decision to make,” he said. “I could stay with the bucket that acted as a float when the seas weren’t burying me. Or I could risk everything and let go of the bucket to try and get back to the boat by swimming and body surfing down the waves. It was an agonizing decision. I did not want to let go of that bucket.” Yet somehow he did just that, knowing the overturned boat was the better option, really the only option, to long-term survival.

Ernie made it to the capsized Fair Wind, but the hull was too slippery to hold onto, so he swam around to the vessel’s other side. That’s where he found the inflated life raft still tethered to the vessel! The raft was approximately six feet across with a domed canopy above and a ballast bag hanging underneath for stability. Ernie heaved himself inside, hoping to find his crewmembers waiting for him, but the tiny vessel was empty. Each time a wave pounded the Fair Wind, the life raft jerked violently and Ernie was afraid the tether would rip the raft’s fabric. He wanted to untie the tether, but he thought maybe his buddies might still make it out of the vessel. So he decided to risk staying right where he was, sticking his head out of the raft from time to time to look for his friends.

After 45 minutes Ernie saw that the hull of the boat was clearly sinking, so he quickly untied the tether from the raft. Now the seas, which seemed like a living, breathing beast out to destroy him, had complete control of the raft and sent it spinning and tumbling into the void. Ernie hung on inside, feeling like he was a punching bag, terrified he’d be thrown from the raft.

So far, Ernie had made two crucial, correct decisions: the first was letting go of the bucket and the second was to untie the raft from the Fair Wind just before it sank. There would be more decisions, and I compare them to taking a test where your score has to be a perfect 100 percent to continue to live. But Ernie again had something going for him that was crucial to his survival: throughout his 50-hour ordeal he fully utilized the power of little steps. Those steps buoyed his spirits and motivated him to fight just a little bit longer. Equally important: he paused before implementing a decision, trying to think of all its ramifications and consequences.

In the first few minutes after the raft was freed from its tether, a wave slammed it so hard Ernie was thrown from his life-saving capsule. Fortunately, he was able to swim back to the raft and crawl in. Panting and shivering in five inches of water sloshing around the floor he considered lashing himself inside to prevent being tossed out again. But Ernie ultimately rejected the idea, afraid that if the raft did a 180-degree roll, he’d be firmly secured upside down and drown.

Just a few minutes later, that’s exactly what happened, and Ernie found himself struggling underwater to kick free of the upside-down raft. Once outside he hung on to the ballast bag, but the waves kept collapsing on him, making it difficult to maintain his grasp. Minutes went by and again he made a small, but big decision—one that likely saved his life. He climbed inside the ballast bag, curling up in the fetal position atop the now overturned raft. This allowed him some protection from the 100 mile per hour winds and, just as important, it kept him in full contact with the raft so it wouldn’t blow away. His ingenuity allowed him to live a bit longer, and he told himself, Fight you son of a bitch, hang in there.

Later a wave knocked the raft right-side up and Ernie had to swim out of the now submerged ballast bag and scramble into the raft before it blew away. He experimented with different sitting positions to keep the raft from tumbling, and even tried lying down in the water that collected on the vessel’s floor.

Throughout his ordeal, Ernie kept despair at bay by talking to himself, giving himself pats on the back when he made the right move or the correct decision, saying, good job, Ernie, now keep it going. But every now and then he couldn’t help but think what a long shot it would be for the Coast Guard to come … if they came. The rogue wave had hit so suddenly Captain Billy Garnos never had a chance to radio a Mayday. Don’t think of it. Just get through the next hour, Ernie counseled himself.

And like Brad Cavanaugh, that’s what he did. He tackled one hour at a time, focusing on the now and the few things he could control. When I asked Ernie if he was worried about sharks, he laughed, and said, “Mike, sharks were the least of my worries. Drowning or hypothermia was going to kill me.” Brad Cavanaugh had a similar response to the same question: “Even though there were sharks all around the raft, I tried not to pay them any attention,” he said. “They were out of my control. I was focused on what I could do next to make our situation better.”

The psychological boost of ignoring what’s out of your control and experimenting with what’s within your control cannot be overstated. We are all guilty of worrying about the wrong things. On a personal note, Brad and Ernie taught me to be smarter about which problems I should work on while letting go of issues beyond my control. I realized I’d been using the power of little steps in my writing life to overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed. So many times, I’ve heard aspiring authors say that they have a great book idea but felt so beleaguered they gave up. My answer? Break that big goal of a book down to little steps. Start by just thinking about one chapter, don’t look beyond that. Have a file for that chapter or sub-files as well. Then when you complete the chapter, give yourself some positive reinforcement. Talk to yourself, tell yourself you did a good job, just like Ernie did.

Ernie’s survival was beyond all reasonable expectation. In fact, on Coast Guard survivability charts for hypothermia, Ernie should have died within the first half of his ordeal. He is living proof the mind can prod the body forward. I interviewed Tom McKenzie, the Coast Guardsman who found Ernie and put out in a launch for the life raft. He told me he expected the raft to be either empty or have dead crewmen inside. When he was just a couple feet from the raft, the doorway parted. A head appeared, and McKenzie told me: “I’ll never forget that moment because his [Ernie’s] skin was blue. His bare chest was blue, his arms were blue, and his face and neck were blue. Then beneath this big bushy beard I saw this man smile. I simply could not believe he could smile after what he must have endured.”

So next time you have a goal that seems insurmountable, block out the naysayers, keep making those little steps and be like Ernie, who proved that hypothermia charts aren’t always right. They can’t measure the added benefits of pure determination.

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This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.


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