Each year some 700 people die in boating accidents in America, 17 times the annual death toll for snowboarding and skiing and 28 times the number of climbing deaths. Capsizing is by far the most lethal mishap, with more than half of those incidents resulting in fatalities. This past spring, the dangers came into sharp relief after a group of college and NFL football players were lost off the coast of Florida. Of the four who went into the 63-degree water—all of whom were elite athletes wearing life jackets—only one survived the next 46 hours at sea. So what separates those who survive from those who don’t? The Coast Guard points to fixed variables such as age, water temperature, and a person’s innate ability to ward off hypothermia. But shipwreck victims are case studies in the intangible attributes of survivors. Like the men from Rupert, most don’t head out in search of adventure—but they find it nonetheless. Their survival journey provides key insights into what sustains those who are confronted with the unexpected.
Huddled together on the overturned hull, the seven men steadied themselves against the pontoons as seawater sloshed around up to their knees. Captain Clarke reassured the men that they were, despite appearances to the contrary, not in terrible danger. When he failed to dock at 6:30, Clarke explained, with no radio contact, the Marlin Quay Marina would send out a flotilla of fishing boats that would soon be tacking their way along his well-known route inbound. The Coast Guard would be searching by sea and air too. In Clarke’s estimation it might take several uncomfortable hours, but the group would be rescued soon enough. When bottles of water and bags of corn chips began popping to the surface, Spradlin offered to jump in and fetch them, just in case. But Clarke gently ordered him off, unaware of just how rapidly their situation was deteriorating.
Immediately after the accident the southwesterly winds began to build, the four-foot seas whipped into whitecaps. With no landmarks in view, the men didn’t realize the wind and current were working in concert, turning the boat’s bow to the north and exposing the open-ended stern to the full force of the waves moving in from the south. Standing on the twin-hulled boat, with its silken gel-coated bottom set between three-foot-high pontoons, the men were negotiating a seesawing waterslide. After a wave hit the stern, cold seawater gushed down the 26-foot boat like a mini flash flood. Unprepared the first time, all seven men were swept into the sea and had to once again scramble back aboard. Then the unthinkable happened.