Ten minutes, maybe less.
That’s all the time Dan Suski had from the moment he cut the marlin loose until he was treading water in the Atlantic, the 33-foot sport boat Reel Irie already on its way to the bottom some 1,800 feet below.
“That’s a pretty surreal feeling, seeing a boat just disappear into the blue,” says Dan, 34. “The sensation of being un-tethered with nothing to hold on to, at the mercy of the ocean—that’s a pretty scary feeling.”
Dan was 12 about miles offshore with his sister, Kate, and the boat’s crew, Captain Griffith Joseph and Tim Cooper. The sea conditions had been worsening all morning and Dan finally asked Griffith to turn for sheltered water in the lee of the island of St. Lucia. On the way they hooked the marlin, a big one, perhaps 400 pounds. The fish of a lifetime. All thought of running for shelter forgotten, they settled in for the fight. Kate worked the fish for a while before Dan took over, adrenaline chasing his seasickness away.
As the Blackfin 33 backed down on the big fish, however, something went wrong. Green waves had been crashing over the stern throughout the 90-minute fight, but now the water wasn’t draining out of the scuppers as before. Dan sensed something was amiss.
He glanced over his shoulder at Kate and Griffith, who were staring into an engine compartment nearly full of water. Kate assured him that everything was okay, but Dan wasn’t fooled. Their predicament was written all over her face. The Reel Irie was on its way to the bottom, and fast.
“I would say it was less than 10 minutes from the time we realized there was an issue to the boat being under the surface of the water,” Dan says. Griffith hurriedly called a friend in the vessel’s home port of Rodney Bay, reporting their coordinates. Then he prepared to abandon ship.
“When the captain showed up with the lifejackets, the little orange U-shaped ones, I remember thinking we’re really going to need this,” Dan says. “And within maybe two minutes we were swimming in the water with those life jackets on.”
It was about noon on April 21, 2013. The weather was overcast, with heavy seas and passing squalls. The island of St. Lucia was a purple smudge on the horizon, about 12 miles west.
Griffith reassured them that help was on the way. Most of the Rodney Bay charter fleet was in port, waiting out the rough weather. When word came that one of their own was in trouble, captains and crews rushed to aid in the search. Within minutes boats were streaming out of the harbor. They would arrive in less than an hour, Griffith said. They all agreed their best bet was to stay put, and stay together.
Survival experts agree that remaining at the scene is always the best course of action. Often a damaged boat will capsize but remain afloat, providing a more visible target for rescuers. Even if the boat sinks completely, as the Real Irie did, rescuers will focus their search on the vessel’s last known coordinates. Leaving the scene decreases the odds of being found.
After two hours and no sign of help, however, Dan and Kate convinced the others to start swimming slowly toward the island. Visibility was poor already, and if they weren’t found before nightfall they knew their chances of rescue would be drastically diminished.
Shortly after 2 p.m. they spotted a plane, flying low as if searching. Minutes later a helicopter came and hovered in the distance between the castaways and the island.
“I thought this is somebody here to rescue us, and I started swimming as hard as I could towards that helicopter, waving my arms,” Dan says. No one on the helicopter saw them. After it flew away Dan and Kate looked behind them for Griffith and Tim. They were nowhere to be seen. They shouted at the top of their lungs, and got no answer.
The siblings now faced an agonizing choice. Should they swim back and search for the others, or continue toward the island? They scanned the horizon and shouted some more. Again, they received no answer. Finally, they decided to swim on.
When clouds cleared they caught glimpses of the island. Sometimes they lost sight of it, but Dan had noted the wind direction. It was blowing toward the island. They continued swimming in that direction, and when darkness fell a few lonely lights appeared on the horizon. Now they were fully committed to the swim. Dawn was 12 hours away. No outside help could possibly come before then.
Each took turns buoying the other’s spirits. When something brushed Kate’s foot, Dan assured her there were no sharks in that part of the ocean. It was a lie. Later, when they seemed trapped in a contrary current, Kate told Dan they were making steady progress, even though she could see as well as he that the lights were getting no closer.
“I don’t think there’s any question that Dan and Kate’s relationship was what made it possible for them to survive the night,” says journalist Matt Halverson, who wrote a gripping feature story about the ordeal for Seattle Met magazine.
The siblings have always been close, despite an eight-year age difference. Growing up it was usually Kate who looked out for her younger brother, but that night in the water, the roles were reversed.
“I realized that it was entirely possible that we may not make it through this, and almost immediately after having that thought enter my head I would just think I need to keep swimming,” Dan says. “The only thing we can do is keep swimming. And that’s what we did.”
The lights kept getting closer, until sometime after midnight Kate and Dan could make out the black hulk of the island, underlined by white rows of breaking surf. They had made it to the island, but crashing waves and sheer cliffs made it impossible for them to get out. They would have to keep swimming.
They turned south along the coast, outside the breakers. The water was cooler now, due to upwelling from deeper waters. The siblings began to recognize the effects of hypothermia.
They finally came ashore on a rocky beach, crawling among slick stones the size of cantaloupes, struggling to stand in bare feet. It was “2, 3, maybe 4 o’clock in the morning,” Dan says. They’d been in the water at least 14 hours, perhaps more, swimming without water or food. Their ankles were inflamed from the constant kicking, their shoulders and necks rubbed raw by their lifejackets. They still have the scars, a daily reminder, Dan says, of the humble devices that saved their lives.
They staggered ashore and drank thirstily from a stream trickling into the bay. Dan wore only shorts; Kate a bathing suit. They shivered in the wind and intermittent rain. They stumbled up the hillside, gathering leaves and pulling up tall grass to huddle under for warmth. At daybreak they hiked about two miles inland where they met a farm worker named Benoit on his way to tend his fields. He called police, and by midmorning Dan and Kate were in an ambulance on the way to Tapion Hospital on the other side of the island.
They asked the police about Griffith and Tim. They were still unaccounted for. The search had resumed before dawn, but hope was waning.
Everyone on the island knows the current sets from the Atlantic into the Caribbean, rushing through the straight between St. Lucia and its neighbor to the north, Martinique. It was that current that had helped push Dan and Kate to shore, but Capt. Bruce Hackshaw knew it could just as easily sweep Griffith and Tim past the island. The next land was Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast, 1,500 miles west.
Hackshaw guessed that the current would have carried Griffith and Tim toward the northern tip of St. Lucia. That’s where he found them, shortly before noon on April 22. They’d been in the water almost 24 hours and Tim, especially, was in a bad way. “I reckon a few more minutes and that would have been the end of him,” Hackshaw told Halverson. Griffith and Tim were close to shore, but Hackshaw doubts they would have survived if washed up onto the rocks.
By early afternoon all four survivors were together in the hospital. Dan shared a room with Tim, whose friends and family soon began streaming through the ward. “It was so great to see them happy and relieved,” Dan says. “They were all incredibly nice. They went to the store and bought clothes for my sister and me. They brought us food and Gatorade.”
Dan is an experienced boater. He knows how fortunate all four of them were to survive. When the Reel Irie went down they had nothing but their lifejackets and Griffith’s phone in a waterproof pouch. No food, and no water beyond the half-full bottle Kate was carrying. They’d managed to alert rescuers, but lacked handheld VHF radios to communicate with them, or personal locater beacons (PLB), flares, even a whistle or mirror to signal their location. Searchers simply didn’t spot them, not even the French Coast Guard helicopter that joined the search from nearby Martinique. With a flare, they likely could have attracted its attention. Instead the group became separated as Dan and Kate raced toward the hovering chopper.
Dan, who owns a sailboat in Seattle, now makes it a point never to go leave the dock without a full complement of signaling devices and an overboard bag stocked with food, water and other essentials. But his survival, and the survival of Kate, Griffith and Tim, shows that the simplest piece of safety gear is also the most important: the lifejacket.