by Aaron Ralston, sailing vessel, Blow Me Away
Editor's Note: This is not a story for the faint of heart. We heard this story one evening while having rum & cokes aboard Blow Me Away. Aaron spins a good yarn ... if only it weren't true.
NO…Blow Me Away has not sunk. This is a story Lyla wants me to put in text. I know many friends have heard this story before, but some might find it of interest. Many Years Ago I had a dream to travel more, so I bought a backpack and along with my girlfriend, Trenna, headed south to Mexico and further south with the hope of a year or two of laying on the beach swimming and emerging ourselves into the locale culture. When we reached Belize, we had found a little touch of heaven. The year was 1981 and Belize had just received their independence from Britain, so locals were hopeful in their future. The island towns where small and simple in comparison to today. We spent about two months in Belize and figured it was time to move south to Honduras, but that was not possible. The rebels had just pulled 2 nuns off a bus and shot them in the ditch so Americans where discouraged from traveling in Honduras. The cost of flying to Costa Rica would of put some hurt on our budget. While we were trying to figure out what to do next, a 57 ft Chris craft powerboat arrived at the dock. While talking to the Captain, we discovered the boat was headed to Columbia and they would be happy to take us with them, so we signed on as crew. The boat was planning to stop at a couple of islands, so we had options to get off if we didn’t like it. The Captain’s name was George and he had been an officer in the Columbian navy and spoke broken English. The crew were two, Johnny, a 19 year old kid who was the general deckhand and Oriano, a 30 year old diesel mechanic who spent all his time in the engine room working the two large engines prior to leaving port.
We dropped the lines off the dock on April 22, 1981 at 3.30 pm on a clear day. We motored out of the cut into 4 to 6 ft seas. Shortly after dark, we ran into a squall with winds building to the point where we were looking up to the crest while standing on the top deck about 8ft above the water. To say the least, everybody started to get seasick, except the captain. We had all done a one hour go at the wheel to get used to how the boat handles, since all of us would be hand steering during our shifts. The boat didn’t have an autopilot. At about 8pm while I was at the wheel, Oriano went down to the aft cabin to get some seasickness pills. He started screaming in Spanish and even though I understand very little Spanish, I had this gut feeling that we were sinking. George and Johnny ran down to inspect the problem and pulled the engine covers off. They saw that water was gushing in on the starboard side. We were sinking fast from a split in the seam in the wood planks which made up the hull.
Captain George took over the wheel and I went down to help with the big hand pump and told Trenna to get my small backpack and gather our stuff and fill it with what ever water or juice she could find to get ready to abandon ship. George had turned the boat around and had gunned the engines which made it scary working around the roaring engines. It was quite obvious that the water was coming in faster than we could pump it out. Looking out the window, I could see that the water was about to cover the deck. It was time to prepare to abandon ship. We didn’t want to get caught in the engine room when the boat sunk. Now standing on the deck, I had time to reflect on what was happening and what lay ahead. We were about 20 miles offshore on a moonless night and I was getting ready to step off the deck of the first boat I had ever been on in the ocean. When I stepped off that boat, I new we had a slim to no chance of surviving. Even if the current was flowing in, our chance of hitting one of the small islands, which are behind the second longest barrier reef in the world was bleak. The jagged coral that reaches the surface would cut us to pieces if we ever got that close and then the sharks that cruised the reef would finish us off before we could make it to any land for protection.
The captain wanted to tie us all together so we would stay in a group. I wanted no part of that and told Trenna as she stepped off the boat, to swim away quickly from the boat so as to not get caught in the undertow. I was given a large, old life jacket and Trenna a child size one. Johnny and Oriano had jackets like mine, but Captain George had two life jackets on plus he had tied two white boat fenders on himself as well. He wouldn’t give Trenna the other large lifejacket. He tied Johnny and Oriano to him with a long line. Oriano was on the very end. They stepped off the boat and started swimming towards us. I rolled on my back to watch the boat go down as the aft went under, the bow rose up into the sky. It only took seconds for the boat to sink. Then the night was filled with screams of panic which I hope never to hear the likes of again. As I looked toward where the screams were from, I could see Oriano swimming toward us in a panic. Johnny was not in sight and Captain George was struggling as he was being pulled under. They had left the rope on the boat and it had snagged on something as the boat went down. Oriano swam right between us scared to death. After what seemed like a long time, George and Johnny popped back up, due to all the flotation that Captain George had on. We could hear them screaming, but by this time we were out of sight, so we worked for 20 minutes to get back together. Once we were back together, we came across some debris floating in the water which were parts of the boat. It was an engine cover board about 4ft X 2Ft. So, we hung on to it to give us some minor protection. We could just see a glow of lights far off in the distance. We surmised it was San Pedro and Cay Caulker and started swimming in that direction. We did not know if we were going in with the tide or out until about 1AM, when we spotted our first light bulb. That gave us a sense of hope and relief knowing we were going in with the tide. Captain George sent Johnny and Oriano, who were scared as the rest of us, to swim ahead towards the light. They reluctantly did, but could only make it as far as 50 yards in front of us. By this time, our body temperatures had dropped significantly and it took everything we had to stay swimming just to keep warm. Our efforts to swim ashore were minimal since we were barefoot and you are at the mercy of the sea. It was dark, cold, chilling to the bone and my thoughts reflected back to my past. And at times, Trenna would ask me why I was laughing. I replied that I was just thinking of something funny that happened when I was a kid. Even though I was having the worst day of my life, these memories sustained me and kept me positive. The hours passed by slowly, and I was glad to have this opportunity to reflect back on my past rather than to die quickly. As the sun begin to rise, I rolled on to my back and looked east and said to myself as I had many mornings awaking in my hammock on the beach, there’s nothing like seeing the sun rise over the ocean. The sun gave us warmth and hope. We still couldn’t see land, but knew it was there in the distance.
At around 630am, the ocean filled with small fish about 2 inches long. There were so many fish that you could not see your hands in front of you. These little fish starting eating our skin that had pruned up and turned soft. As annoying as this was, little did we know it was going to get worse. Following these little fish, were schools of jacks, which are 12-14 inches long. It was feeding time, breakfast was served. Following the jacks, were the sharks. Yes, makos. All I could see was a blur of shadows passing by. This sent chills and terror. They would rub up against us. Their skin is like ladies pantyhose. Or sandpaper. Captain George went into a panic. Trenna was between us and he tried moving her closer to the sharks to save himself. Asshole. Trenna crouched in a ball behind the board we were clinging onto, and I pulled out my Swiss army knife. There were times where I had to kick a shark away. I slapped the water in efforts to scare them away and ending up hitting one as it went by. I knew that sharks don’t normally eat man, and that if we could keep them away from us, eventually they would follow their normal food source. I watched them, paying close attention to see if they would go into a feeding frenzy, and if they did I was prepared to cut the Captain to save ourselves. I saw him as disposable, since his cowardly behavior and screams throughout the night had not helped the situation. Trenna, unfortunately, was on her period. Not good timing. The sharks slowly started to follow the other fish and within 30 minutes they were gone. Hopefully. Even though the fear of sharks never left us, our next biggest fear was the barrier reef and how to get passed it without cutting ourselves open. Then of course, the sharks would return for sure.
From all my days of snorkeling earlier, I knew the coral reached to the top and there was very few places where you could cross from the blue water into the shallow banks. I had seen seas breaking onto the reef, 4-5 ft. and this wasn’t the time to learn surfing. At 9-10 am , we had reached the reef and Cay Caulker lay ahead of us about a ¼ mile away. How we made it over the reef, I don’t know. We must of come thru a cut, but there was never a time I could stand up. But to our dismay, the tide had changed and now we were being pulled back out to sea and drifting north missing the island. I knew that we had to swim for it. I told Trenna to stay with George and that I was going to try to make it in. Not having flippers is a hindrance, and Trenna was not liking the idea of staying behind with George. So we both started swimming. This was the longest swim of my life. It took us over 2 hours of constantly swimming to make head way about ¾ of the way to the island. If we stopped for one second, we lost the entire distance that we had made in the last 10 minutes. There were times where I had to grab Trenna by the shirt to keep us from going backwards. We finally made it to a coral head where a piece of debris had lodged and we used it to crawl up on it. The warmth that this provided was a blessing. I didn’t know someone could be so cold. Once we had situated ourselves on this little piece of heaven, I was able to take my lifejacket off and rest on that. We sat like this for maybe a half hour, when we spotted a small fishing boat running along the reef. I stood up on the coral to flag him down, and cut my feet up pretty badly in the process. I was waving my lifejacket over my head trying desperately to get his attention. It was such a relief and immediate joy when he turned in our direction. The boat that came up along side of us, were a couple of Americans who had moved to Belize a couple of years ago. I told them we had been shipwrecked and needed a ride to shore. They had spotted debris along the reef earlier and were in the process of looking for survivors. Lucky for us. The feeling of being rescued and knowing the nightmare was over was too much and we started crying. All of us.
We had spent 17 hours in the water. An experience I would not wish on my worst enemy. They took us into the main village on Cay Caulker and led us to the police station. Upon telling our story to the sheriff, he exclaimed “We always find the wreckage, but the makos always get the people.” A survivor had never been found before. I informed him that there were 3 Columbians still out there and did my best in describing where I thought they could be found. The sheriff stepped outside and rang a huge bell and within minutes all of the townsfolk were walking towards the town square. It was so incredible to see the numbers of people who upon hearing about a shipwreck, jumped into their boats and went searching for the other 3 survivors. They found Johnny clinging onto a mangrove on the north side of the island. Oriano had missed the island and was found floating north towards San Pedro. The Captain was found three hours later. He had been taken back out to sea in the deep blue. If I had not decided to make a swim for it, none of us would have been found. When we were all reunited, it was quite emotional to know that all of us had survived. We were ushered to the medical clinic and given checkups. Johnny had to be immediately placed on a boat and transported to the mainland for treatment. The little fish had eaten so much of his skin that he was pink. I had lost about 15 pounds in the ordeal. Trenna was in shock for quite awhile, not speaking or eating much. The town women gave us clothes and cooked us a meal and rooms were given to us in the nearby hotel. Their kindness and generosity will never be forgotten. They wanted to take us to the mainland so that plans could be made for our return to the states. I had wanted to continue our journey, but Trenna wanted nothing to do with that idea. Trenna refused to be transported by boat. But there was no airport and no other option. After a week, she had calmed down enough to make the trip. One of the locals was going to take us in his 20 ft. fishing boat. Not more than two miles into the trip, the engine died. While the driver was working on the engine, we spotted a 14 ft. hammerhead shark swimming right alongside the boat and continued circling.
Trenna went into hysterics, screaming and squeezing my arm so tight that her fingernails were digging into my flesh. There wasn’t anything I could do to calm her down. Our poor driver worked fast to get the engine running again. He successfully did, but Trenna was back in shock. Upon arriving in Belize City, we went to the US Embassy and talked to the consulate. Upon hearing our story and our requests for help in getting back home, he didn’t believe us since he had not heard anything about a shipwreck. The most he would do was to allow us to make a collect phone call. Upon leaving the Embassy, we ran into a couple of friends from Canada, Bill and Elsa, whom we had met in San Pedro, and they had heard about the shipwreck. We explained to them that we had lost all of our money and the US Embassy refused to help us. Bill and Elsa were leaving the next day and offered to pay for our flights on his credit card. It was quite a culture shock to land in Miami after living the island life with only a backpack for luggage for the last five months. I know that some of you are asking the question, why would I go sailing around the world after such a horrible experience. My only answer is this: