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 in Reader's Digest Magazine March 2014

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.

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.

John Galanakis/Courtesy Titletown Publishing

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