Orphaned on the Ocean: The Unbelievable Story of Terry Jo Duperrault | Reader's Digest

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.

By Richard Logan and Tere Duperrault Fassbender from Alone: Orphaned on The Ocean
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine March 2014

duperrault family alone orphaned on the oceanLife 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.