Drama: Lost at Sea

The sailboat is gone. The night is dark. And there are four life jackets for five men.

By Kenneth Miller from Reader's Digest | May 2009

Travis Wright swam beneath the boat, avoiding the tangled rigging, and pushed himself up to the surface. After inflating his life vest, he peered across the pitching sea. What he saw in the starlight shocked him. The Cynthia Woods lay belly-up beneath a few feet of water, a great gash where its 5,000-pound keel had been.

Ross Busby and Joseph Savana were treading water nearby; about ten yards away, Steve Conway had Steven Guy in a lifeguard hold. Roger Stone was nowhere to be seen.

“Steven lost his vest,” Conway called out. “Somebody grab the life ring off the deck!” Wright, Busby, and Savana tried to pry the float from the railing of the submerged boat, but it stuck fast. The men watched in frustration as the ring’s strobe light, meant to alert searchers, blinked dimly in the murk. They swam to join Conway and Guy.

“What happened?” Savana asked. “Did we hit something?”

Conway, a white-bearded former Coast Guard commander, managed to speak calmly. “I have no idea. But we’ll be okay if we use our heads.”

“Where’s Roger?” asked Wright.

They hollered for Stone. No response. “Maybe he’s already drifted too far to hear,” Busby said.

“The first rule is, stay with the boat, but that’s going to be tough with this breeze blowing,” said Conway. “The most important thing is to stay together.” He lashed himself to Wright and Guy by running his belt through a loop on each of their shorts. Then he linked Busby to Savana, using the harness on Savana’s life vest, and told each pair to hold on to the other.

Soon the vessel was out of sight. As the men drifted, six-foot waves broke over their heads every few minutes. Conway reminded the others not to swallow; drinking salt water can cause hallucinations, even death. He also did his best to reassure them. The Cynthia Woods was equipped with an emergency radio beacon, set to alert the Coast Guard once the boat sank to a depth of 13 feet. “If it works, we could be picked up in a few hours,” Conway said. “If it doesn’t, we’ll have to wait a little longer.”

He was scheduled to check in with the university marina at 8 a.m.; the manager would know to call the Coast Guard if he didn’t hear from him.

The night wore on, and no one appeared. Lights from offshore drilling platforms twinkled on the horizon. Someone proposed swimming toward them, but Conway disagreed: “We need to conserve energy.”

To lift the guys’ spirits, Conway told sea stories, recounting rescues he’d carried out during his 21 years in uniform. At about four in the morning, a boat appeared a half mile away. Conway flashed a distress signal with his pocket light. But the boat moved on.

The night seemed a bit darker after that, the sea a bit colder. Even in the 85-degree water, the men were losing body heat. Conway knew that hypothermia would set in after 35 hours. He held off the chill with thoughts of his wife and four grown daughters, one of whom was eight months pregnant. I’m not going to die without seeing the baby, he promised himself.

“It won’t be long till sunup,” he said aloud. “They’ll be looking for us soon.”

Later that morning, with no call from Conway, the marina manager alerted the Coast Guard. A GPS tracking device on the Cynthia Woods showed that it was drifting 30 miles southeast of Freeport, Texas. But it wouldn’t be so easy to find the crew. The lifeboat launched by the Coast Guard had been forced back to shore by big waves, and an air search would take a couple of hours to organize.

Foot-long fish began to nibble at the men, and the sun began scorching their faces. Conway pointed to a purple Portuguese man-of-war lurking to their left. “The tentacles on those things can be 100 feet long,” Wright said. “If they touch you, game over.” But the lethal creature bobbed off.

Conway now suggested that the crew try to get to one of the oil rigs, about five miles away. Though almost certain that the shifting currents would make such a trip impossible, he thought the goal might boost morale. The men alternated leading and lying on their backs and kicking.

After an hour or two, a triangular fin sliced the surface of the water and circled the group. Tense minutes passed until Conway realized it was a harmless ling fish. The guys resumed talking, trading quips about the food they craved—Wright wanted a burger; Busby, a steak; Guy, his mom’s lasagna.

“I wonder what Roger’s doing now,” Wright said. The others fell silent.

Back in Galveston, most of the men’s families had gathered to wait for updates in a conference room at Texas A&M. But Linda Stone, Roger’s wife, had spent the previous day in Austin and didn’t know anything was wrong.

When she returned to her home near Houston, she received a call from the president of A&M’s Galveston branch, who told her what had happened and shared the latest development: The Coast Guard had spotted what might be the hull of the boat, and no one appeared to be on board.

Linda decided that was a good sign; her husband must have escaped. She was invited to join the other families but chose to wait for news at home. If she was wrong about Roger, she didn’t want to find out in a public place.

Several search planes, along with a Coast Guard cutter, came and went. Even with the others holding him up, Guy was exhausted from treading water for 18 hours without a life vest. Wright and Savana took turns lending him their vests. By midnight, they were all so sleep-deprived that they began dreaming in mid-stroke.

Then, at 2 a.m., a helicopter made a low pass, its taillight green against the sky. Conway pulsed his flashlight. Coast Guard petty officer Louis Bishop spotted the flickering pinpoint through his night-vision goggles and alerted his crew, who circled back for another look. “Those are life jackets!” the pilot said, switching on his floodlight.

Chief Petty Officer Albert Shannon descended on the helicopter’s 50-foot cable wearing a wet suit with a glow stick hooked to his goggles. “We’re here!” the men called out. “Thank you!”

Shannon plunged into the ocean and swam to them. “We had a crew list of six,” he said, “but I count only five heads.”

“One man is still with the boat,” said Wright.

“We’ll keep looking,” Shannon said, then turned to help Savana—without his vest at that moment—into the large wire basket the copter had lowered.

After all the men had been hauled up, spinning, into the helicopter, they were flown to Galveston and rushed by ambulance to the University of Texas Medical Branch. Despite severe dehydration and sunburn, they would recover from their 26-hour ordeal.

But that afternoon, six miles from the rescue point, a marine salvage diver found Roger Stone’s body floating in the upside-down cabin of the Cynthia Woods; he’d drowned after pushing out Guy and Wright. Hundreds of mourners attended his funeral, where he was lauded as a hero for putting his mates first. A Coast Guard investigation followed; it recently concluded that the boat’s keel had simply fallen off, having been improperly repaired after running aground several times. Texas A&M has not yet completed its own review.

The crew members were haunted by Stone’s sacrifice—”This is one of those things that wake you up at three in the morning for the rest of your life,” says Conway—but Stone’s wife didn’t want them to blame themselves. In late June, she invited the five survivors to her home. A grief counselor led them in repeating, “I am not responsible for Roger’s death.” Each man then wrote a note of gratitude to Stone, and Linda burned them, sending the messages skyward.

“There are a million ways to die,” Linda said. “This was Roger’s choice. He was always there for people.”

“He pushed us out because he believed it was his job. He wouldn’t have done anything less,” said Wright. Then he paused, thinking of Stone’s own term of highest praise. “Roger,” he added, “was a good sailor.”