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.

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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