Lost at Sea

Ben Pollock, his cousin Frank Doolin and their boys lazed on the deck of his 20-foot fishing boat. It had

Ben Pollock, his cousin Frank Doolin and their boys lazed on the deck of his 20-foot fishing boat. It had been one of the finest fishing days in memory — a fresh spring day in May 2004, during which they had caught a good 70 sea bass, groupers and grunts, enough to pack everyone’s freezer.

The two men and their oldest sons, Gabriel Pollock and Michael Doolin, and another cousin, Jordan Stokes, had been out in the Gulf of Mexico since early morning, and now were enjoying the last warm rays of sunshine before turning back to port in Hudson, Florida. About 40 miles and two hours from shore, and an hour before sunset, they were looking forward to taking their catch home.

The boys never imagined being lost in the open sea.
These boys never imagined being lost in the open sea.

Pollock had recently bought the 1972-vintage craft and had taken it for a test run in the rougher waters of the Atlantic. Like most older boats, it had not been “foamed” (insulated with material to keep it buoyant if it capsized). Doolin had an uneasy feeling about this and told Pollock he wouldn’t go out in an unfoamed vessel. But Pollock kidded with him until he relented.

Now as they turned off the reef, the boat seemed a bit sluggish. Pollock figured the hull had taken on some water. Easy to remedy. He pulled the plug from the hull to let gravity drain it as they motored back toward shore.

Several minutes later, the engine, out of gas, sputtered and died. Time to fill up from the spare tank.

Doolin had gotten little sleep the night before — an hour at best. But during that brief time, he’d had a nightmare. He dreamed about his son Michael — and in the dream Michael was drowning. It stayed with him, pricked his consciousness, as he headed to the back of the boat. Meanwhile, Pollock replaced the plug in the hull, grabbed the fuel and a funnel, and prepared to refill the side tank.

But now things were happening very quickly. The stern dipped low in the water. Waves began to wash over the sides. It felt like a hand was pushing the boat down. Doolin grabbed a five-gallon plastic bucket and began to bail. “Get the fuel in,” he yelled.

Pollock bounded over. They dumped in the gas. Pollock frantically turned the key, trying to get the engine to crank. But it wouldn’t catch — it was already underwater. “Grab the life vests. Grab anything that will float!” Doolin called out. The boys jumped, and the men were flung into the water as the boat rolled.

Doolin gathered Michael, 13, and Jordan, 12, close to him as loose gear began popping up all around them. He took out his cell phone, which he kept in a plastic bag — and punched 911. Nothing. They were too far out.

“Get the rope,” he yelled to Pollock. The anchor was pulling the boat down. And they would need the yellow plastic line. Pollock and Gabriel, the oldest boy at 14, sawed it off using the edge of the propeller. Then, balanced on the rocking, overturned boat, the younger two used it to tie themselves together.

“You boys just sit here,” Doolin said, climbing aboard. “Don’t let this thing tip over, because we might have to be out here all night.” Outwardly the youngsters remained calm, but Doolin knew they must be terrified.

Pollock and Gabriel dove below to look for equipment and popped up in an air pocket — a pocket that reeked with gas fumes. Gabriel kicked his way back up and gathered life vests floating on the surface. While the others put the vests on, Pollock continued to dive, retrieving flares, a flashlight, a knife, an orange distress flag from inside the boat. He put these items into a small ice chest bobbing on the waves, and went down again.

Then came the hissing sound of escaping air. The boat was sinking. “Jump away, so it can’t suck you under,” Doolin yelled.

A moment later, the stern tipped downward; the bow pointed to the sky. Their largest ice chest, a king-sized white Igloo, about five feet long by three feet wide, was still tightly wedged between the steering column and the hull. It was packed with food and water, but was buoyant. They could use it to keep afloat. Pollock decided to risk one more dive.

He swam downward and grabbed the cooler’s handle. It wouldn’t budge. The sinking boat pulled him down with it, faster and faster. He yanked again, and it shot to the surface like a torpedo. Man and ice chest bounced out of the water.

“Whoo-hoo!” Pollock called jubilantly, swimming with the huge Igloo to the others. After donning a life jacket, he tied himself between his son and Jordan. Supplies were floating up all around them, and without thinking, Pollock opened another small cooler. Dozens of bloody fish spilled out. “Good grief, we’re nothing but chum for the sharks,” he cried. “We’ve got to get out of here. Swim!”

When they looked back from a hundred yards away, the boat was gone. The five of them were clinging to a bobbing ice chest in the open sea.

Pollock assured them help would come. Emulating his dad, Gabriel exuded bravado. “Man, this is nothing,” he claimed. “The Marines do this all the time.”

But Doolin knew the worst was still ahead. Within minutes, the gulf would swallow the big orange sun. No one could see them now. Nobody would be looking. Pollock had told their families that they might stay out an extra day — not to give it a thought if they didn’t come home that night.

Temperatures fell. The gulf wind, soothing in the afternoon, sucked warmth from their bodies. Water temperatures in the 70s could bring on hypothermia within three hours. They shivered; their teeth chattered. And the fathers hugged the boys close.

It was about 10:15 p.m. A shrimp boat was speeding along a mile or so away. “Give me a flare!” Pollock shouted. On a night as dark as this, a flare would surely catch the eye of anyone on deck. He set it off, expecting a wide arc of flame. But the device barely flashed up an inch before dying.

“That was a flare?” Doolin said, half-laughing. Pollock popped a second. It shot up a bit higher, then fizzled. A third sputtered and flickered out, giving no more light than a matchstick. The flares he had retrieved were the oldest ones he’d had on board.

The flashlight! Its beam might be weaker, but would shine longer. Pollock rummaged through the small cooler where he had stowed salvaged items. Where was it? It had to be here. But it was gone. They all watched the shrimp boat disappear.

Every bone in Doolin’s body was rattling. It would be so easy to give up now, to close his eyes and allow the sea to take him. But he had to stay in this for Michael.

A tall, thin boy, Michael had almost no body fat to insulate him from the cold. He was lethargic now, at times barely conscious. “Wake up, wake up,” Doolin urged. The boy mumbled, and Doolin held him close, trying to forget the dream of the night before, praying that his son wouldn’t die.

The other boys had also become weak and disoriented. Gabriel had the dry heaves from salt water he’d swallowed. His father cradled him, rubbed his arms to keep him warm. Jordan seemed to be hallucinating. The men couldn’t understand what he was saying, but they understood his fear.

As dawn broke, Gabriel and Jordan perked up some. Michael was too weak to keep his head up. Doolin and Pollock tied him to the handle of the ice chest in order to keep his face out of the water. They had been adrift for almost 12 hours with no relief from the cold. It would be hours still before the sun warmed the air and sea.

They swam east toward the shore. Jellyfish stung their legs, but they pushed on. By 7 a.m., staring at the vast emptiness, Pollock felt despair. Where were all the boats? They had been an hour from shore when their own went down. They should be seeing fishing vessels out on the water soon. But would the boats see them?

Doolin understood that nobody was going to spot five heads bobbing just above the water. He had fished the Florida Keys and knew that fishermen looked for diving frigate birds to point them to fish. What could they toss in the air that would resemble a bird diving for prey? They had the small white cooler — that would have to do.

Sometime past eight o’clock, two boats appeared, far southwest of them. Doolin threw the little cooler into the air. Pollock tossed their distress flag. Gabriel and Jordan joined in, shouting, yelling, throwing whatever they could. The boats sped past.

Doolin took a close look at Michael. He was as limp as a dishrag, barely conscious, no longer even trembling. Haunted by his dream, Doolin blamed himself for bringing his boy fishing, and for their predicament.

Joe Miley, James Fullerton and his wife, Carol, were headed to a fishing hole 35 miles out from Hudson. With Miley at the wheel, InTheCooler sped along at 24 knots. After more than an hour pounding over the waves, Miley stopped to give them all a break. Idling, the boat acted like it had picked up some sea grass. As Miley checked the prop, the boat drifted south.

When he finished, he glanced to the horizon. Something was moving. It was just a speck. Birds diving, or maybe sea turtles. That could mean a reef. And reefs meant fish. “You mind if we go downrange a couple of miles?” he asked Fullerton.

Fullerton was reluctant. “Man, we’ve got a ways to go.”

But, if they found fish, Miley said, they wouldn’t have to go any farther. They decided to check it out.

Drawing closer, the movement looked more like debris floating on the water than birds or turtles. But Miley pushed on. Maybe that white thing hopping up and down in the air was a bird after all.

Closer still, and he thought for a second that it looked like people out there. But it couldn’t be. “Oh, my God,” cried Carol Fullerton. “There are children in the water.” Now they could hear shouting and yelling.

Tears welled up in Doolin’s eyes as the boat pulled alongside them. The people on deck helped get Michael and the other two kids into the boat. Then he and Pollock climbed aboard. A woman wrapped his son in blankets and towels, while the men powered the boat toward shore.

Over and over, Doolin, Pollock and the boys thanked their rescuers.

What to make of Doolin’s dream? Was it a premonition? Coincidence? What we do know is that Michael and the others survived, healthy and with no lasting effects. We know that they all owe their lives to a big cooler that kept them afloat, a little cooler that flew like a bird, and three fishermen aboard InTheCooler who found them adrift in the open sea.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest