At 5 p.m. on May 16, 2006, Bob Clarke, the 74-year-old captain of the Super Suds II, received a routine radio call requesting his position from the marina manager in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. The captain reported that he was 25 nautical miles east of Georgetown. Moving at 20 knots through two- to four-foot seas, this would put the boat at port well before sunset, at 6:30 pm. After signing off, Captain Clarke gave command to his longtime first mate, Gerald “Wayne” Smith, and took a seat on a cooler next to Mike Robinson, a heavyset biker nursing a wad of tobacco under his bottom lip. The captain wanted to ask the tough ex–coal miner something in private while he still had the chance.
There were seven men aboard Clarke’s 26-foot fishing boat that day. The five paying customers all hailed from around Rupert, West Virginia, a sliver of muddy timber depots, used truck lots, and modular ranch houses hugging rural Route 60. Like most men from the area they had done time in the coal mines, with Bryan “Chris” Yoakum, 40, still pulling regular shifts. They also loved motorcycles, packing up when life permitted for soothing night rides through the region’s hollows and hills.
It was this passion for cruising that ultimately led them to the Super Suds II. Earlier that week the group had driven down to Myrtle Beach for Bike Week, a 300,000-strong celebration of chromed lowriders and America. Robinson, the 56-year-old group leader, had arranged the fishing trip as a midweek breather for the boys, chartering with the upbeat, potbellied Bob Clarke just as he’d done the previous two years. Robinson originally planned to fish for sea trout offshore, but when Clarke recognized him at the marina, the captain instead pitched, at no extra cost, the Marlin Quay Deluxe Package: a 60-mile early season run out into the warming Gulf Stream for a daylong trawl for tuna, wahoo, and dolphin fish.
By the time Clarke handed control of the boat over to Smith, the winds were kicking up, blowing out of the southwest at upwards of 15 miles an hour. In the Gulf Stream, the period between wave crests had been a comfortable eight seconds, but these more powerful gusts were pushing the waves together every four, making for an increasingly bumpy ride. Mark Spradlin, a 37-year-old carpenter, and Dwayne “Biggin” Wills, 39, Robinson’s stepson, joined Smith at the helm. Fifty-six-year-old Jennings Hughart, nicknamed “White Owl” after his preferred boyhood brand of smokes, held on in the padded fighting chair at the stern, and Yoakum rode out the thumps on a giant beanbag against the starboard hull. Opposite him, seated atop a cooler, Clarke was asking Robinson if he wanted to hook up for a week or two of deep-sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico that coming winter. That’s when Robinson spotted a peculiar wave forming just off the starboard side. Because of the blue skies and small seas no one was wearing a life jacket.
“It was not a large wave. It didn’t come over the top of that boat like people think,” said Robinson, recalling the freak accident. The wave had a deep trough, so as it rolled under the starboard bow of the twin-hulled boat, the portside pontoon dug into the water. The Super Suds II tilted just enough to send the men and equipment sliding across the deck, forcing the boat perpendicular to the waterline. Another small wave then broadsided the exposed hull. In all it took no more than a few seconds for the two-ton boat to flip. Of those who would survive the long nightmare to come, all remember the next moments as slowing into a surreal montage of air bubbles, eerie shafts of sunlight piercing the water, matted heads breaking the surface, and men clambering every which way onto the flat part of the overturned vessel. When all seven had finally climbed atop the boat, there was silence—no voices, no equipment humming—nothing save labored panting and the sea splashing against the upturned pontoons. They were 13 miles from shore in choppy, unseasonably cold 68-degree water. There had been no time to radio for help or trigger the emergency beacon. The usually reserved Biggin Wills, a six-foot-two, 300-pound gentle giant, was the first to speak up. “So what do we do now?” he asked.
“How do I know?” Clarke answered, half jokingly. “This ain’t ever happened to me before.”
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.
Rogue waves have been the stuff of seamen’s lore for centuries. The mere phrase conjures up visions of a mountain of seawater rising out of the mist without warning and swallowing the mightiest of ships. But by one definition a “rogue” is simply any wave that’s double the size of a sea’s “significant wave height” (which itself is defined as the mean of the third highest waves in the water). Rogue waves can theoretically be as high as 198 feet or as tiny as a few feet. Up until the mid-1990s such statistically anomalous waves were disputed by mainstream science. Then on New Year’s Day 1995, the Draupner oil platform off the coast of Norway measured the first irrefutable rogue on record, an 84-footer that nipped the underside of the rig in 39-foot seas. Ever since, scientists have struggled to explain what causes the waves, focusing their research on several areas with consistently strong currents, including the Agulhas off South Africa and the Gulf Stream astride the southeastern U.S. One theory holds that rogues appear in choppy, windblown seas when the interval between waves shortens enough for several small waves to merge into a freakishly large one. Waves such as this are inherently unstable and short-lived, featuring a sheer vertical face and a very deep trough. It was just this kind of wave that broke over the Super Suds II not 15 minutes after it capsized.
“That wave comes and it ain’t no three or four foot,” said Mike Robinson, who was standing alongside Captain Clarke at the stern. “I’m six feet tall. I’m standing up on that boat and that boat is sticking out the water a few feet, and that wave was way over my head. That wave caught me and the captain and took us what looked like five miles from the boat.”
Yoakum, Spradlin, first mate Smith, and Biggin Wills managed to climb out of the water minutes after the rogue hit, each exhausted. Yoakum and Spradlin then jury-rigged a lifeline from three belts and a Harley-Davidson windbreaker to haul in a struggling White Owl. Only after the five men were safely aboard did they see Robinson and Clarke bobbing more than 50 yards away, a look of panic on Robinson’s face. “I got excited out there,” Robinson said. “I was yelling, ‘Come out here and get me! Come get me!’ And that captain, he swam over to me and said, ‘You calm down. You have to get your head on straight if we’re gonna make it through this.’”
Back on the overturned boat, Smith, a husky, tattooed, two-tour Marine combat veteran of the Vietnam War, took off his shoes and prepared for a rescue. Smith regarded Bob Clarke as not just a boss but something of a father figure, the man who had taught the once aimless Smith all he knew about the sea and fishing for 14 years. “The water was whitecapping. The seas were building,” Smith said. “I was just so tired from being in the water, and I just couldn’t make it to them—and Bobby knew it too. He hollered for me to take care of the guys I had and he’d take care of Mike.”
Fortunately (and what would later prove a great misfortune) the rogue had dislodged both a floatable seat cushion and a buoyant cooler marked S.S. SUPER SUDS II from the boat’s cabin. Smith flung the cushion as hard as he could in Clarke’s direction. “I almost hit him in the nose with it. It was a God-driven throw, that’s all I can say.” Biggin Wills heaved the cooler like a discus, but it was blunted by the wind not 15 feet off the bow. Within 15 minutes Clarke and Robinson, kicking to stay afloat while clutching the ten-by-ten-inch cushion, began drifting quickly to the north. Minutes later they vanished. It was 5:30, only half an hour since the accident.
By 7:30 the sun was melting into an amber glow on the western horizon. The temperature had dropped from a high of 68 to a blustery 54, and the five men grasping the hull were no longer keeping their worst fears a secret for the sake of group morale. Chief among them: As night fell, they would lose the critical ability to spot incoming waves. While they all believed Bob Clarke’s reasoned prediction of a timely rescue, being swept off the hull in the dark would spell certain death.
For two hours Spradlin, still a fine athlete despite his heft, played defense at the bow every time a wave rushed through. Twenty times he had to backstop the others, even Biggin Wills who morphed into a human wrecking ball each time he coursed down the hull. Exhausted, Spradlin decided they simply couldn’t wait for a rescuer to happen upon them. He suggested someone dive below to recover the flare gun. First mate Smith disagreed. After an eight-foot dive into the dark, he said, whoever went below would have to grope blindly while being tossed and turned among a spider’s web of swirling wires, ropes, and invisible fishing lines.
But Spradlin wouldn’t give in, eventually arriving at his big idea after glancing at the makeshift lifeline that he and Yoakum had strung together to save White Owl.
The boat’s anchor was located in a compartment in the bow, accessible only by lifting up and turning a quarter-size handle inset in the small hatch. The compartment was easy enough to spot but the choppy sea made it difficult to insert a finger inside the handle. Smith, who volunteered to go below first, struggled mightily against the countervailing water pressure but finally managed to open the hatch. Then it was Spradlin’s turn. The carpenter dove into the black a dozen times before yanking free enough anchor rope to reach topside. Yoakum then climbed onto the upturned motors at the stern and looped the rope around both props. Smith tied off five handles at two-foot intervals, knotting what remained and tossing it off the bow as an emergency lifeline. It was 8:30—and no sooner had the five men finished than rescue ships began appearing, just like Clarke said they would.
“They’d go a little ways and stop and turn the motor off,” Spradlin recalled. “And we’d scream and scream and scream. And then they’d fire back up and move a bit and turn the motor off again. And you could see them shining spotlights looking for us.”
For an hour fishing boats prowled the waters around the capsized Super Suds II, one straying so close Smith recognized its engine’s idiosyncratic whir as belonging to a good friend. The mood aboard was expectant and hopes were extremely high. Then around 9:40 a large ship appeared, the lights atop its rigging clearly visible. Yoakum tried to signal it with the light on his watch. The ship stopped and held position. Fifteen minutes later, on the far side of the search vessel, three flares raced into the sky and burst high over the horizon. The large ship immediately throttled up and sailed off toward the flares. Unbeknownst to the five men, and Mike Robinson and Captain Clarke, who were watching from not a mile away, the mysterious flares were the first in a series of false leads that would hamper an ever expanding circle of rescuers.
For four hours, while the five aboard the Super Suds II devised a way to stay on the overturned hull, Robinson and Clarke had drifted north up the Carolina coastline, clinging to a cushion. Reassuring Robinson, Clarke repeated the inevitable logic of a rescue: Everyone knew him at the Marlin Quay Marina; his course inbound was well-known; the Coast Guard had plenty of assets in the vicinity; and the search area was small enough to all but guarantee a rescue. Stuck face-to-face for hours, however, their conversation eventually became routine. They talked about family. Business. Their personal lives. Robinson told Clarke the story of how he was forced to retire after the coal mine he’d worked in for 26 years went bankrupt, but he had since rebounded nicely and now owned a thriving assisted living facility outside Rupert. Despite his casual way and beach bum appearance, it turned out Bob Clarke was also a man of means. He had taken over his father’s beer distributorship in the mid-1970s, supplying six counties with Pabst Blue Ribbon, Strohs, and Colt 45 before selling the entire thing for a huge sum in 2000. After retirement Clarke moved to the beach with his wife to live the dream of hanging at the marina and chartering full time. Two of his three sons had also taken up chartering, he told Robinson, with his eldest, Vaughn, owning a captain’s license like him.
“Then at about 9:30, the captain and I see that big boat with lights on the rigging,” Robinson said. “And then we see them flares shoot off, and we figure they got them boys and soon they will get us too. But instead, the boat motors away. And the captain gets a little excited, a little upset. He says, ‘They should have come up here and got us. We should be seeing more boats. We should be seeing all kinds of boats by now.’”
For the first time, Clarke began to despair. In a reversal of roles, it was Robinson who now calmed Clarke by predicting a rescue. But no sooner had Clarke settled down than he began to complain about his legs. Robinson slid the 200-pound-plus captain onto the cushion, kicking for both of them. Then Clarke stopped talking. “After he went to getting quiet I tried to keep him talking, answering, just anything. ‘Are you alright Captain Bob?’ ‘Are you awake?’ But all he did was answer me with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’”
The ocean never dipped below 62 degrees that night, but water saps heat from the body 25 times more efficiently than air. As the body’s temperature drops, blood retreats from the extremities into the core. Symptoms of hypothermia—including fatigue, impeded reasoning, and delusions—overtake the victim slowly, imperceptibly. When the body’s core temperature slips below 89 degrees, cellular metabolism is impeded, which left untreated can cause major organ failure and death. Generally, due to a decreased ability to maintain vascular dilation, the older a person is, the less likely that he or she can ward off hypothermia.
Several times over the next hour Clarke released his grip and drifted off the cushion. Each time Robinson reined the captain in by his shirt collar, pleading with Clarke to hang on. “OK,” Clarke would mutter. Around 11 p.m. Clarke floated off once more, but when Robinson dragged him back the captain was limp, his head slack in the water. Robinson shouted, “Captain Bob! You got to grab hold of that cushion!” There was no answer. Robinson felt for a pulse but couldn’t find one. “I was scared as hell. I did not want to be alone in that water,” Robinson said. “I got him by the shirt collar and I would not let loose of him.” For an hour the pair drifted like this, in silence, the lifeless Clarke still providing Robinson with a modicum of solace and strength. Then around midnight a small wave broke directly on Robinson and pushed him beneath the water. He lost his grip on Clarke. When he reached the surface he saw the captain floating 20 feet away. Robinson frantically swam for him, but another wave picked up Clarke and swept him away into the night like a surfboard. Now suddenly and terrifyingly alone, Robinson began to scream. “Captain Bob! Captain Bob!”
Captain Bob Clarke had been right all along. When he didn’t dock at 6:30 p.m. and couldn’t be reached via radio, the manager of Marlin Quay Marina notified the Coast Guard and organized a rescue party at the marina. By 7:30 p.m. several Good Samaritan rescue ships had crossed through Murrells Inlet into the Atlantic and followed the regular route inbound toward Clarke’s last known destination. The Coast Guard dispatched two vessels and a pair of rescue helicopters to perform a grid search on a relatively manageable 300 square miles.
At first the would-be rescuers assumed the overdue Super Suds II had simply become disabled at sea. The ship had experienced electrical problems several months prior, exactly the type that could short out an entire electrical system, including the radio. With seas cresting at no more than five feet and an experienced crew, no one considered capsizing a credible possibility. So when three flares soared skyward at 9:45 that night, both the Coast Guard and the marina’s rescue ships believed it was finally the long awaited distress signal from the Super Suds II, not realizing the flares were in fact part of a scheduled U.S. naval exercise.
Captain Clarke’s son Vaughn had spent that day fishing the waters off Georgetown. After docking late that afternoon he called his father and left a message about reeling in his first ever blue marlin. Later he learned that the Super Suds II was overdue. But like everyone else, he figured its batteries had shorted out and that the boat was simply adrift. “Then about 12 o’clock my dad’s sister called, and she was terrified,” Vaughn recalled. “About 3:30 in the morning I told my wife, ‘I’m going down to Marlin Quay.’”
During the night the Coast Guard had authorized “first light” searches by C-130 aircraft based out of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and summoned the Coast Guard cutter Tarpon from Georgia. At sunup one of the Coast Guard’s ships happened upon the cooler Biggin Wills had heaved into the water the night before. The current had carried it to within 15 miles of the North Carolina border. This more than doubled the search area—to 700 square miles—further reducing the already dwindling odds that the survivors could be found in time. According to Coast Guard experts, the rescue crews had until no later than 10 a.m. to find the men, at which time the deadly effects of hypothermia were likely to set in, a literal deadline euphemistically termed the “functional limit.”
Vaughn Clarke arrived at the Marlin Quay Marina just before dawn. Shortly thereafter his two brothers drove up. Together they decided that if their father and the other men had not been located by 8 a.m., Vaughn would borrow a friend’s boat, the Ruthless, and the Clarke brothers would conduct their own search. Based on his knowledge of the local currents, Vaughn drew up a search grid. Later that morning he compared it with the Coast Guard’s after they had adjusted it for the cooler. “I felt the Coast Guard was setting up way too big a grid to search,” Vaughn said. “The problem is, a cooler is gonna skip across the top of the water with the wind. I dive a lot. I’m very familiar with how far a person can drift. The Coast Guard’s search wasn’t realistic.”
It had been a long night for the five aboard the overturned Super Suds II. It was moonless dark, so the men could make out only each other’s ghostly silhouettes. They huddled for warmth against the pontoons, but it did little good. “At night I was thinking, as cold as I was, and I’m sure the other guys were too, if something knocked us off the boat then that would probably be it,” Smith said. “I never imagined you could be that cold.” All were suffering terribly but none like White Owl. “Several times White Owl said, ‘If I roll over the side of boat, just let me go. I can’t take no more of this,’” Spradlin recalled. “I told him, ‘If you roll over, I’m coming after you. And if you roll off again, I’m coming after you.’”
Almost as if on cue, when the sun rose at 6:30, a C-130 appeared in the sky heading straight for them. The low, lumbering Coast Guard rescue plane flew directly overhead as the five maniacally waved and cheered, the plane passing so close that the men could see white stripes on the pilot’s helmet. The C-130, however, had not been equipped with modern heat-seeking detectors, which would have cinched a rescue, but instead had an old radar system, useful only for picking up large objects such as upright boats. Soon after the plane roared past, a Coast Guard helicopter appeared, then vanished, several miles to the north. The sky now empty, Smith decided that if they continued on as is, they would not be rescued that day, or at all. He devised a plan. First, he said, they needed to retrieve the insulated life jackets, then use White Owl’s Leatherman to cut a hole in a cooler that held bottled water and sandwiches. They would collect the extra anchor rope to weave a hammock between the pontoons, and, if it came to it, bring up reels, fishing line, and hooks, and do what Smith knew best—fish.
But Smith’s plan was hardly without risk. The life jackets were entangled in hundreds of feet of anchor rope and chain. To pry them loose, Smith and Spradlin had to stand upside down underwater, using the boat as leverage. “I put my feet against the floor like the boat was right side up,” Spradlin recalled. “It was like trying to pull a bumper off a truck.” It took three hours for the two men to wrangle four life jackets free. “We got enough except for Biggin’s,” Spradlin said. “So Biggin was like, ‘Alright, I’m taking one of those life jackets and whoever I take the life jacket from I’m throwing you over the side.’ We told him, ‘We ain’t forgot about you. We’re gonna go back to get one.’
‘I know,’ Biggin said. ‘I’m just trying to lighten the mood.’”
ALONE AT SEA
Five miles to the northeast Mike Robinson was alone in the Atlantic. He too greeted the dawn as his savior, only to have his hopes of imminent rescue dashed by the flyover of the same C-130. He was barely visible, a lone man floating on a blue cushion in the vastness of the ocean. To fight off despair, he gave his survival a purpose: to live long enough to reunite with his wife, Nancy, and Biggin and his grandson, Mike Jr.
“I did a lot of praying and promising,” Robinson said. “If you just get me back to Nancy, just get me back to Nancy, I told Him I would help with charities. I prayed that Biggin would get back to take care of his mom, as she would be all in pieces.”
As the sun rose ever higher, and Robinson’s body temperature began dipping below 90 degrees, he started to see things. A white house with a white fence appeared on the waves, and Robinson swam for the safety of the lawn. He wasted 15 minutes of energy before convincing himself that the house, the lawn, all of it couldn’t be real. He drifted perhaps another hour before a yellow Caterpillar crane materialized, its engine punching out a familiar oily exhaust. It was operated by a man named Sam, who turned out to be a stern son of a bitch. No matter how hard Robinson begged, Sam wouldn’t scoop him out of the sea, not even for a measly ten-minute break.
By 11 a.m., Robinson had been in the water for almost 18 hours, a full hour past the Coast Guard’s “functional” deadline. He hadn’t seen a ship or rescue plane since early that morning. He could barely kick anymore, his legs awash in superhuman levels of lactic acid. Worse, he was losing control of his brain again. He saw before him a large white catamaran, just like the Super Suds II, only much bigger. For Robinson, the phantom vessel signaled the end. “No one was gonna find me,” Robinson said. “I went to praying for Biggin so he could get home to his young’un and his wife, and for them boys on the bottom of that boat: ‘If you can’t do nothing for me, then do something for them.’
“I made my peace,” he continued. “I was all set to push that cushion away and that would be it.”
Vaughn Clarke and his two brothers had set off from Marlin Quay a little before 9 a.m., their departure delayed an hour by a false sighting of the Super Suds II. The brothers sailed eight miles into the Atlantic and then executed Vaughn’s search plan: a 30-degree zigzagging pattern a mile wide along their father’s usual heading, a narrow band of ocean far south of where the Coast Guard was operating. All aboard assumed they were still looking for an upright boat without power. Then two hours into the search one of the Clarke brothers, Steven, spotted something a hundred feet off starboard. It was Mike Robinson. “Honest to God, Mike’s head looked like an old crab buoy. I was like, ‘I can’t believe it.’ Then my heart dropped,” Vaughn recalled. “‘Oh shit,’ I thought, ‘They’re all in the water. We might have seven dead people.’” Vaughn steered the Ruthless, a 32-foot white catamaran, south of Robinson, then let the current carry the boat to him. It took all four men to drag the nearly unconscious 230-pound man aboard.
Laid out on deck, Robinson mumbled on about a freakish capsizing, a rogue wave, and losing Captain Bob during the night, then lapsed into convulsions. Vaughn Clarke immediately radioed the Coast Guard, which had a rescue helicopter on the scene within ten minutes. On the flight to Georgetown Memorial Hospital Robinson heard a clipped message over the helicopter’s radio: “Five bodies” from the Super Suds II had just been recovered.
After Robinson’s rescue, the Coast Guard reoriented its search ten miles south, factoring in the current, wind speeds, and the drag of the overturned boat. A recalled HH-65 helicopter flew to the area, and rescue swimmer Brian Goodbody spotted the Super Suds II on its last pass. “By then we knew they’d been in the water a long time,” Goodbody said. “It was still pretty early in the season. The water was cold. After that long, it’s just hit or miss.”
Goodbody suited up and dove into the sea. There, floating in the four-foot waves, he found five men in astonishingly good condition, all whooping and hollering. They immediately asked if anyone else had been recovered. Goodbody told them one man, but he didn’t know his name. After all five were safely aboard the HH-65, again Biggin Wills asked for the name of the rescued man. “Mike Robinson,” Goodbody said. The men from Rupert burst into applause. “They were happy and I was happy because all five of them were safe,” Smith said, still emotional at the memory. “But after a brief cheer they all hugged up on me because they knew Bobby was gone.”
Wilfrid Noyce, a legendary British mountaineer and author, sought out adventure as a way of life. He died young, at 44, after falling 4,000 feet while descending Mount Garmo in Tajikistan. Just before his death in 1962, he completed his ninth book, They Survived: A Study of the Will to Live. In the preface he writes of his lifelong fascination with the qualities that see survivors through disaster, especially ordinary people snagged by calamity. Noyce discovered that many such survivors possess a determined will to live, emotional stability, and a knack for adapting to a crisis. But in the end Noyce wrote that the most essential quality was a simple feeling of connection with others; this hidden spiritual spring, he wrote, offered “ordinary human beings” life-sustaining reserves of energy and will.
The seven men on the Super Suds II were family men, weekend bikers, fishermen—all “ordinary men” according to Noyce’s definition. Many had major physical deficits going into the capsizing, such as poor health and, in Bob Clarke’s case, an aged cardiovascular system. White Owl could barely swim. Despite this, six made it home. All of the survivors reported emotionally resuscitating moments during the ordeal. For Mike Robinson, that time came after the death of Captain Clarke, when he summoned memories of his wife and kids. The others spoke of steeling themselves during the night with thoughts of loved ones and prayers for the other men. “I asked God to forgive me for my sins. I also asked him to help me help the others, to help me know what to do,” Smith said, recalling the hours before dawn. “After that I got a calm over me and started thinking things clearly.”
Today Mike Robinson lives on a 19-acre spread in Rupert. A neighbor’s horses graze in his fields and board in a big red barn just off the driveway. In the backyard there’s an inground pool and a fully loaded barbecue. It is here, around May 17, that the survivors of the Super Suds II and their families gather for a party on the anniversary of their rescue—a get-together Mike’s wife, Nancy, calls the “Living Party.”
Weeks before this year’s Living Party Robinson rolls around his living room in a wheelchair, having recently snapped both legs below the knee in an accident at work. Regardless, he’s in good spirits. Like the others aboard the Super Suds II, Robinson feels he has become a better man for the ordeal: more patient with family, more appreciative of friends, and less materialistic. He also thinks a lot about Bob Clarke. “That captain was an A-1 fella,” he says. “And I feel guilty that I could have done more to save him, but I know I couldn’t.” Robinson then asks his grandson, Mike Jr., to fetch a blue nylon cushion from the den, the same cushion that Robinson and Clarke had clung to three years before. The cushion is no longer square but slightly U-shaped, a mold of Robinson’s chest as he clutched it throughout those last, long desperate hours at sea. Delivered to him by the Coast Guard after the accident, Robinson keeps it as a reminder of what could have been. “It feels like a part of me,” Robinson says, rubbing its haunted curves. “It always will.”