Orphaned on the Ocean: The Unbelievable Story of Terry Jo Duperrault

A young girl alone on a raft. A mysterious yacht accident. A missing family. It's a strange and tragic tale.

duperrault family alone orphaned on the ocean
Life Magazine/Courtesy Titletown Publishing
Brian, Jean, Rene, and Arthur Duperrault (from left)

Arthur Duperrault had long dreamed of taking his family sailing on the azure seas of the tropics. Looking out on the chilly blue waters of Lake Michigan, the optometrist from Green Bay, Wisconsin, recalled the warmer waters 
to the far south that he had sailed during World War II. He spoke often of wanting to live for a year on a sailboat, cruising around the world from island to island.

By 1961, Duperrault had become successful enough to fulfill that dream, at least in part. That year, instead of facing a hard Wisconsin winter, he, his wife, Jean, son, Brian, 14, and daughters Terry Jo, 11, and René, seven, would head to the Bahamas.

They planned to spend a week trying out life at sea on a chartered yacht and to extend the sabbatical if all went well. They arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where they had rented the Bluebelle, a two-masted sailboat, and hired Julian Harvey, a former Air Force fighter pilot and an experienced sailor, to captain the ship. Harvey’s wife, Dene, would be joining the group on the cruise.

On the morning of Wednesday, November 8, 1961, the Duperraults went aboard the Bluebelle to begin their eagerly awaited voyage. The ship’s 115-horsepower Chrysler engine rumbled softly as Captain Harvey steered the boat away from the dock, wisps of exhaust sputtering from the stern.

As her sails filled, the Bluebelle appeared to fly as she sailed gracefully from the dark waters of the harbor into the green of the open sea and finally the deep blue of the Gulf Stream, the mighty river in the sea that passes between Florida and the Bahamas.

Above the horizon ahead, the 700 islands of the Bahamas archipelago basked in the 100,000 square miles of sun-washed seas, holding the promise of fulfillment of Duperrault’s dream of family adventure.

Over the next four days, Harvey piloted the Bluebelle east, toward the tiny island chain of Bimini, then farther east to Sandy Point, a village on the southwestern tip of Great Abaco Island. The group spent the week snorkeling and collecting shells on the white and pink beaches.

Early Sunday, Duperrault and the Harveys stopped by the office of Sandy Point village commissioner Roderick W. Pinder to fill out forms for leaving the Bahamas and returning to the United States. “This has been a once-in-a-lifetime vacation,” Duperrault told Pinder. “We’ll be back before Christmas.” That night, Dene prepared a dinner of chicken cacciatore and salad. It was to be the last meal ever served on the Bluebelle.

Around 9 p.m., Terry Jo headed below deck to her sleeping quarters in a small cabin at the back of the boat. Ordinarily, René slept there, too, but on this night, her younger sister remained with her parents and brother on deck in the cockpit. In the middle of the night, Terry Jo was startled awake by her brother yelling, “Help, Daddy! Help!” She also heard brief running and stamping noises. Then silence. She lay in her bed shivering, disoriented and terrified. After about five minutes, Terry Jo crept out of her cabin. She saw her mother and brother lying crumpled in a pool of blood in the main cabin, which functioned as a kitchen and dining room during the day and was converted into a bedroom at night. She knew instantly they were dead.

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The Bluebelle alone orphaned on the ocean
Life Magazine/Courtesy Titletown Publishing
The Bluebelle

Slowly, Terry Jo climbed the stairs and stuck her head out of the hatch. She saw more blood pooled on the starboard side of the cockpit, and possibly a knife. She climbed on deck and turned toward the front of the boat. Suddenly Captain Harvey lunged at her and shoved her down the stairs. “Get back down there!” he growled.

Heart pounding, Terry Jo averted her eyes from her mother’s and brother’s bodies, returned to her sleeping quarters, and crawled back onto her bunk. Then she heard sloshing. Soon, oily-smelling water seeped into her cabin and covered the floor. Terry Jo realized the ship was filling with water, but she was afraid to move.

Suddenly she saw the captain’s dark form silhouetted in the cabin’s doorway. He had something in his hands, possibly her brother’s rifle, and stood looking down at her. The only sounds in the room were of his heavy breathing, the thundering of her heart in her ears, and the slap of the rising water against the bulkheads.

Then the captain turned and walked out of the cabin, and she heard him climb the stairs back to the upper deck.

With water lapping over the top of her mattress, Terry Jo knew she had to abandon the cabin. Wading through waist-deep water to the stairs, she climbed to the top again. From the light of a bulb atop the boat’s main mast, Terry Jo saw that the ship’s dinghy and rubber life raft were floating beside the boat on the port side.

“Is the ship sinking?” she called out.

“Yes!” Harvey shouted, coming up from behind her. He pushed the line to the dinghy into her hands. “Hold this!” he shouted. Numb from shock, Terry Jo let the line slip through her fingers.

The dinghy slowly drifted away from the sinking Bluebelle. Harvey jumped overboard to catch it. Terry Jo watched him swim after the dinghy as he disappeared into the night.

She remembered the cork life float that was kept lashed to the top right side of the main cabin, which was now just barely above-water. She scrambled to the small, oblong float and quickly untied it. Just as the float came free, the boat deck sank beneath her feet into the ocean. Half crawling, half swimming, she pushed the float into the open water.

As she climbed onto the float, one of its lines snagged on the sinking ship. For a breathless moment, Terry Jo and the float were pulled underwater as the Bluebelle went down. Then the line came free, and the float with Terry Jo on it popped back up to the surface. She huddled low on the float, afraid that the captain might be lying in wait for her in the dark waters.

She had no water, no food, and, in her thin white blouse and pink pants, nothing to protect her from the chill of the night. The moon had set, and heavy clouds denied her even the light of the stars. She could hear the moan of the wind but see nothing. Waves broke without warning, the salt water stinging her eyes and lips. A sudden shower drenched her, and she began to shiver uncontrollably. Soon one thought began to occupy her mind: Where is my father?

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terry jo duperrault alone orphaned on the ocean
John Galanakis/Courtesy Titletown Publishing
Terry Jo Duperrault on November 16, 1961, moments before her rescue

The next morning, a Monday, the sun drove the chill from Terry Jo’s slender body, but she soon realized it would bring a greater danger. As the day progressed, the temperature quickly rose to 85 degrees, and the sun began to scorch her. The flimsy float was beginning to disintegrate, exposing her legs and feet to the sharp teeth of parrot fish. With each passing hour, her tongue became drier and her throat more parched. Even so, she had no appetite and wasn’t thirsty.

On Tuesday, a small red plane circled overhead. She watched it and waved at it for a long time with her blouse. At one point, it dived in her direction. She waved frantically, her heart pounding with hope. The plane passed directly over her, close enough that she could see the details of its underside but at an angle that made it impossible for the pilots to see her.

The chances were slim that someone in a passing ship or plane would spot Terry Jo. Her white float and blouse and blond hair made her look like just another whitecap among multitudes tumbling over the blue surface of the sea. She was floating in the Northwest Providence Channel, which soon would drift north with the Gulf Stream and then east, carrying her across the wide Atlantic to 
the British Isles.

Early that afternoon, Terry Jo saw ghostly shapes about 30 yards from her float, just beneath the water’s surface. Her heart caught in her throat. The shapes came closer, and she could see they were porpoises. They stared up at her with large, dark eyes. Terry Jo felt oddly comforted by the whooshing sounds the creatures made as they came to the surface to breathe. She said a little prayer of thanks to God for sending them. They remained close-by for hours.

As the piercing sun broke through the clouds in the late afternoon, Terry Jo splashed some water over her scorched, tightened skin. The cool forests of Wisconsin and the cold waters of Green Bay seemed so far away. The sun dropped and finally sank below the horizon.

Tuesday night brought back the awful unknown in the darkness, but it also brought blessed relief to her body. As the float rose and fell on the waves that cold third night, she dreamed that she was in the cockpit of an airliner coming in for a landing. She saw the long, straight, converging lines of iridescent landing lights standing out with surreal brilliance against a fathomless, flowing blackness.

In the dream, she saw her father, seated peacefully with a glass of red wine. Although she had never tasted wine, it looked refreshing, just what she needed to quench her thirst. And she heard his voice call out to her, “Come on, Terry Jo! We’re leaving!”Wednesday dawned bright and clear, and it grew hot very quickly. The glare of the sun caused her dry eyes severe pain. All her muscles ached. Her skin burned through her blouse and pants. Her lips were rough and swollen. For most of the time, Terry Jo had to balance rigidly on the edges of the unsteady float because much of its rope webbing had broken away. She hallucinated more now, imagining a tiny desert island complete with a solitary palm tree. She tried paddling toward it, but it disappeared. Finally, she fell unconscious.

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When the cruel sun rose on Thursday, she did not feel its burning rays. She was in a deep sleep close to the threshold of death. Walls of water came at her one after another. Her raft was lifted to the tops of steep cliffs, then lowered into dark valleys.

Only the faintest spark of life now flickered. Midmorning on her fourth day alone on the raft, however, she emerged from her stupor and opened her eyes. A huge shadow loomed before her like a great beast. Its rumble was so deep that she could feel its pounding rhythm in her chest. As she watched, it seemed to metamorphose from an unworldly vessel floating above the sea into a great whale and then into a solid black wall suspended in the air above her. When she looked up to the top of that great wall, she saw heads and waving arms. She could faintly hear voices shouting. Finally, she felt herself suspended in space. Strong arms lifted her up slowly as she slid back into oblivion.

terry jo duperrault hospital alone orphaned on the ocean
AP Photo
Terry Jo spent 11 days in a Miami hospital but had no permanent injuries

When Julian Harvey was hired as skipper of the Bluebelle, not a lot was known about his earlier life. The 44-year-old was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel married to Mary Dene Jordan, an aspiring writer and a former TWA flight attendant.

The day after the Bluebelle went down, the lookout on a Puerto Rico–bound oil tanker spotted a small wooden dinghy floating in the middle of the broad and deep Northwest Providence Channel. When the captain pulled the tanker closer, a man in the dinghy yelled, “My name is Julian Harvey. I am master of the Bluebelle.”

In the days that followed, Harvey told the Coast Guard in Miami that he was the sole survivor of a grave accident. In the middle of the previous night, he reported, a sudden squall damaged the sailboat. His wife, Dene, and the Duperraults were injured when the masts and rigging collapsed. Gas lines in the engine room ruptured, and the ship caught fire as it slowly sank. Harvey said he had managed to launch the dinghy and raft and dive overboard, but tangled rigging trapped everyone else on board.

A few days later, installed at the Sandman Hotel, Harvey heard that Terry Jo had survived. The next day, a maid at the hotel saw blood on the sheets in Harvey’s room. When she couldn’t open the bathroom door, her manager called the police. They forced the door open and found Harvey’s bloody, lifeless body on the floor, a suicide.

After being pulled from the ocean by an officer of the Greek freighter Captain Theo, Terry Jo was taken by helicopter to a Miami hospital. A week after her rescue, officials questioned Terry Jo in her hospital bed. Her story, as recounted here, disproved Harvey’s account of the events. Her father, mother, brother, and younger sister, along with Dene Harvey, had been slaughtered aboard the Bluebelle, at the hands of Julian Harvey. The police suspect that Harvey killed his wife to collect money from her life insurance, and one theory suggests that Duperrault caught Harvey in the act, prompting the other murders.

Terry Jo returned to Green Bay to live with her father’s sister and three cousins. When she was 12, she changed her name to Tere. Nearly 50 years later, in 2010, Tere finally revealed the details of the night her family was killed and her days spent drifting in open water in Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean. “I always believed I was saved for a reason,” Tere told CBS News. “If one person heals from a life tragedy [after reading my story], my journey will have been worth it.”

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