FRIDAY, MAY 19; ABOUT 9 AM.
The call to the Port O’Connor Coast Guard station was so routine that Chief Martin Dobrin greeted it with a yawn. A small pleasure craft had apparently dragged anchor during the night and now was blocking the narrow Port O’Connor ship channel. Give it another 15 minutes, and it would jam up ship traffic for miles.
At his desk overlooking Matagorda Bay, Chief Dobrin sighed and rubbed his neck. Jesus, would they never learn? The Gulf could not be trusted. Period. Not 20 miles out, not at anchor in five feet of water in Matagorda Bay. Currents could shift as quickly and unnoticeably as a summer breeze; even the tide, supposedly the one unchanging factor in the sea, could change from dawn to dawn. The sailors and Fishermen along the Texas coast called the Gulf many things – the Little Atlantic, the Poor Man’s Caribbean, the Big Mud Puddle. Chief Dobrin preferred to call it something less endearing. He called it quicksand.
This year alone Chief Dobrin and his men had fished more than 150 lost or disabled boats from the waters off Port O’Connor, Texas. Three quarters of these were minor distress calls – weekend boaters or shrimpers who’d encountered engine trouble or wandered off their navigation plans. Generally, these weren’t too much trouble. But sometimes the shifty Gulf waters could turn a “minor” case into a major search-and-rescue mission.
Dobrin dispatched a skiff to check out the problem in the ship channel. It didn’t sound serious. The majority of Gulf boaters were cordial and well-meaning; they just needed to be a little more careful. Within minutes, the bosun in charge of the skiff reported back to the chief: No problem, he said. The boaters were apologetic. The skipper, a blond fellow named Sauls, had thought two anchors would suffice; apparently he’d underestimated the tide. Indeed, thought Dobrin.
There were three of them in the boat. From the looks of the equipment on board, they planned to dive. The boat checked out fine. She was a 22-footer named Linda Lou.
Several hours later, the Linda Lou left the bay again. Hal Sauls checked his compass heading and glanced at his watch. Bearing at precisely 140 – almost due southeast. They would reach the sunken Liberty ship in another couple of hours. Allowing for suiting up and checking out their gear, that would put the three of them in the water no later than three o’clock. After 15 minutes of exploring the ship, ogling the fish, maybe a little spearfishing, they’d retire to the boat. Then they could troll for fish, or just sit around and drink beer in the glorious Gulf sun. It didn’t matter to him. This was a vacation. He didn’t have to answer to anybody for his time.
Sauls cut back the throttle and guided the Linda Lou through a particularly rough set of swells. Not only did all of them want to dive today; they needed to dive. That embarrassing business with the Coast Guard this morning hadn’t been the half of it: To begin with, they’d gotten a late start from Dallas the night before, making the seven-hour drive through the inky forests of East Texas seem especially long. Then, when they’d finally arrived, stowed their gear in the boat, and cast off, Sauls had made the mistake of assuming he could negotiate the ship channel in the dark, running aground before they found a quiet inlet in Matagorda Bay where they could anchor and sleep. By that time it was two in the morning and all of them had caught their second wind. So they drank. Two or three rum-and-Cokes later, Norman and Joe had dropped quietly off to sleep. Hal had stayed up to finish a nightcap. He hadn’t, however, planned on that nightcap being a mouthful of seawater.
A slight momentum problem, Sauls reflected. He’d decided to relieve himself at about 4:30, and, lacking toilet facilities on board, he’d stepped to the swimming platform at the bow. Sleepy, a little high, he’d misjudged the width of the platform by a step and tumbled into the shallow water. He could still hear Norman’s muted giggle as he pulled himself back on board, drenched and shivering.
And the bad luck hadn’t stopped there. Following the Coast Guard caper, they’d motored to a marina to fuel up and grab some breakfast. At the fuel dock the gas cap slipped into the bay, sinking quickly. It took an extra half hour for one of them to suit up and dive down into the grimy, oil-filled waters to retrieve the cap.
Despite their troubles, the trip itself was as solidly planned as a diving excursion could be. Since none of them had dived the Gulf before, they’d taken special care to prepare for every contingency. Each diver sported the finest equipment: quarter-inch double-lined neoprene wet-suits, the best tanks, masks, and fins. Sauls had added five new channels to his ship-to-shore in case they needed to call for help. They had packed an extra air tank, which they would float near the surface in case of a decompression crisis. Since none of them was familiar with this water, they had rigged a descent line which they could follow from the bow of the Linda Lou to the ocean floor 100 feet below. They had plenty of food and water on board in case they became lost in the Gulf. Sauls had even thought to pack extra medical supplies: The Gulf was notorious for its variety of jellyfish, with their crippling stings.
The three had taken the YMCA scuba course together three years ago. Though very different men, they shared a passion for detail. Norman Gin, 29, a shy Chinese-American, and Joe Marshall, 36, a gregarious North Dallas WASP, were stockbrokers: They approached diving as they did a potential sale; thorough preparation was the key. Sauls, the mercurial architectural designer, attacked the sport with the precision of a draftsman. Planning a dive was like designing a building: One started with what could go wrong.
None of them foresaw any problems in this dive. They’d each completed more than 30 dives, and had dived to the same depth, 100 feet, before in the Caribbean. They knew their tanks would last them 17 minutes at best; and they knew that descent and ascent could be perilous if rushed. There would be sharks, but in the unlikely event of an attack, Hal had a speargun and they all would carry knives. The water would probably be slightly murkier, perhaps a little rougher than the Caribbean, which most divers thought of as almost a swimming pool. But other than that, the same basic rules of diving applied – keep your buddies in sight at all times, take things slow and easy, and keep your eye on your watch.
They knew of only one thing that they had forgotten. Hal Sauls did not regard it as a major oversight. In the confusion and rush that morning, he hadn’t filed a float plan with the Coast Guard. A float plan was a precaution suggested, though not required, by the Coast Guard as a hedge against unforeseen troubles: By telling the Coast Guard where he would be and when he expected to return to shore, a boater could rest assured that the CG would come searching in case he ran out of fuel or wandered off course. A good idea, Sauls thought, but not necessary in this case. The boat carried plenty of fuel and the engine was perfectly tuned. From previous fishing trips to the area, he knew exactly where he was going. And the weather was good: moderate winds, clear skies.
The buoy marking the sunken Liberty ship appeared suddenly, almost magically. Hal Sauls was a little surprised that they’d found it so easily: On his previous trips to this area, his hosts had overshot the site by as much as three miles. A least that hadn’t happened. The spring sun was hot, and the pitching of the boat in the swells hadn’t helped their dispositions. Norman, in fact, was feeling a little nauseated: The motion of the boat, combined with the spicy meatloaf they’d bolted down before taking off that morning, had turned his golden-tanned face a little pale. All the more reason to hurry up and get in the water, Sauls thought. Only one sure cure for sea-sickness: The cool and quiet beneath the surface.
Sauls approached the buoy gingerly, jockeying the Linda Lou sideways through the choppy waters. Tying off to a buoy 30 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico was no simple task: The wind and the water can play all kinds of havoc with a small craft that is throttled down; if the sailor isn’t careful, he can become involved in an endless tug of war with the elements.
Sauls immediately guided the craft to within reaching distance of the tie-off rope on the buoy. There would be no need for an anchor. The marker buoy was as steadfast as anything could be in the ocean, firmly attached by chain to the hull of the scuttled ship 100 feet below.
They got ready to dive. Sauls rigged the spare airtank to a short rope and dropped it off the starboard side, where it dangled some 20 feet down; then he tied a set of weights to a longer rope and dropped it off the stern. This would be their descent line. Each man packed his spare gear in a safe place, in case thieves spotted the empty boat. Finally, Sauls hid the ignition key under the driver’s seat.
In the meantime, Norman had turned even paler. The nauseating motion of the boat had only increased since they had moored; now he was wondering if he should go down at all. Maybe he ought to wait. “Nah,” said Joe in his firm salesman’s voice. “What you need is to get in and stabilize and cool off.” Norman nodded, walked slowly to the side of the boat and vomited a stomachful of meatloaf into the ocean. “Much better,” he said. “I think I’m ready now.”
They began to suit up. Methodically, they pulled on the heavy rubber pants and boots, then the tops; next, the brightly-colored life vests (called buoyancy compensators, or BCs), and the weight belts; then the heavy airtanks and the 18-inch fins. Finally, they cleaned their masks with their own spittle and cleared their snorkels.
Norman went down the line first, slowly deflating his buoyancy compensator until he reached the 20-foot mark. Hal followed down the line; Joe entered simultaneously a few feet from the descent line. The water was immediately soothing: Norman Gin forgot his nausea as he watched Hal float down the line toward him in his electric-blue wetsuit. When Hal reached him, Norman waited for the bubbles from the deflating BC to clear and signaled the “okay” sign. Sauls returned it. Both searched the water above and around for Joe. The first and foremost rule of diving: Know where your buddies are at all times. The visibility at this depth was poor – eight, maybe ten feet. Joe was nowhere in sight.
Norman tapped Hal’s shoulder and spelled out “Joe,” shrugging as if to ask, “Where is he?” Hal shook his head and pointed toward the surface. The reply was not clear to Norman, but he thought Hal was telling him that Joe was still topside, perhaps still on the boat. The two waited another two minutes; then Norman made the descent signal. They had only 17 minutes of air, at best, and they’d already been in the water for three; if they didn’t hurry, they wouldn’t have much time to explore the ship. Joe would turn up. He was probably on his way now; or maybe he was back on the boat.
Hal and Norman let go of the line and began to sink into the gray-green void. It was like parachuting out of an airplane in pitch darkness. Sauls kept his eye on his depth gauge. They passed 30 feet, 60, then 75. He slowed down. He was having trouble “clearing” – equalizing the pressure within and without his body – and it was beginning to make him short of breath. Norman slowed with him, careful to stay above him and to the right, away from Hal’s speargun.
When Hal had cleared, they dropped quickly to the ocean floor. Sauls immediately checked his watch: 3:15. He turned slowly to get his bearings. By his reckoning, they should be within a couple of strokes of the ship. He peered left, right, behind him, above him. He couldn’t see a damned thing. The visibility was nil – maybe two feet in all directions. The water was a swirl of sand and bits of seaweed, an underwater dust storm. Above him, off his right shoulder, he spotted Norman, a fuzzy inkblot in the churning water. At least he could see Norman. Sauls didn’t like to think of being in waters like these alone.
Dammit, whispered Hal Sauls through his mouthpiece. So this was the touted Liberty ship dive. Great. Just great. Here they spend a few hundred apiece and a day and a half getting here, and the water turns out to be a sewer. Sauls checked his watch: 3:17. He had l0 minutes of air left. But where in the hell was he supposed to go? If he ventured too far, he might lose Norman or the descent line – or both. He had half a mind to go back topside and pop a beer.
Just then, he caught sight of something out of the corner of his right eye. Something dark, shadowy, large. A shark? Sauls reached out tentatively; his hand touched something hard, cold. Steel. They had landed squarely on top of the sunken ship. Sauls followed a seam in the metal upward until he found an edge to grasp. He took a deep breath and pulled himself up until he reached what he assumed to be the deck.
He couldn’t believe what he saw. Up here, 10 feet from the floor, the water suddenly calmed and cleared. It was hauntingly tranquil, pristine. The visibility was incredible. Sauls saw tiny skittering minnows; huge, lumbering groupers and grunts – some six, eight feet long. And sharks: He had already spotted a small nurse shark about 30 feet the other side of the ship.
This is what diving is all about, Sauls thought, glancing about for Norman. This made it all worthwhile – the long drive, the hassle, the heat, even his unfortunate pre-dawn tumble into Matagor-da Bay. Non-divers could never understand what it was like down here. It was like visiting an alien planet. It had its own customs, its own language and laws. He was an intruder, one of the privileged few who’d been granted the right to see it. It made Hal Sauls feel special.
Sauls motioned to his partner and they began paddling slowly along the deck of the ship. Actually, the deck itself was gone, leaving only the massive bulkheads and the empty hull. The ship had probably been stripped to make it sink evenly when the government scuttled it to create an artificial reef. Sauls swam tentatively into the hull: He knew it was perfectly safe, but it gave him the sensation of descending into a gloomy dungeon.
On the other side of the hull, Sauls confronted a grouper of the gargantuan variety known as the Warsaw. Groupers are dull and harmless fish, but the sudden tete-a-tete with the monster startled Sauls: The fish’s eyes must have been about a foot apart, its slack jaws easily large enough to accommodate a man’s head. Sauls stared at the fish for a few seconds, then poked it playfully with the butt end of his speargun. The huge fish churned off into the shadows, creating a powerful swirl in its wake.
Sauls motioned to Norman and the two paddled off in hot pursuit. After three or four minutes of fruitless search, Sauls paused to check his watch and his tank regulator. It was a little after 3:20; he had 500 pounds of air left. That meant he could stay down another two minutes before ascending. Sauls signaled his situation to Norman, who replied with the “okay” sign. The two searched about them for the descent line. It was nowhere in sight. They decided to do a free ascent.
Well, Sauls thought, slowly inflating his BC, if we do surface a ways from the boat, Joe can always pick us up.
Joe Marshall could not believe what was happening to him. For the past 10 minutes, he’d been swimming for his life: Crawling, breaststroking, paddling, frogging into mountainous swells until his muscles knotted and his breath left him. His mouth was raw and parched from the constant rubbing of his snorkel mouthpiece. And from fear.
He was now farther away from the Linda Lou than when he began swimming.
How did it happen? Marshall’s frazzled mind raced through the trauma of the past quarter-hour: He’d entered the water just to the left of Hal, a few feet from the descent line. He’d dropped just fine to the 50-foot mark; then he’d inexplicably slowed down. The weights. He had only 12 pounds on his belt; this depth obviously required more like 16. He’d thought Hal and Norman were just to his right, but he couldn’t see them. Instinctively, he had gone back topside. The first rule of diving: Never lose sight of your buddies. Where were Hal and Norman? Didn’t they realize he wasn’t with them?
Floating on the surface, Marshall had searched the water for bubbles. If he could spot Hal’s or Norman’s air bubbles, he could swim to the spot, dive again, and find them. He had decided to swim back to the boat, which was about 100 feet away. Then, he could add more weight and drop down the descent line.
It had taken only five seconds for him to realize he was in trouble. Swimming at full strength, he could barely maintain his distance from the boat; when he slowed down to catch his breath, he began to drift away from it. In just five minutes, the current had carried him 50 yards from the boat.
Marshall slackened his pace to allow his aching muscles to unwind. Floating free, he was like a human fishing bob in the rolling waters. His buoyancy compensator held his shoulders and head out of the water. By relaxing his legs and arms, he could ride the five-foot swells with little effort or discomfort. The problem was, the swells were carrying him away from the boat.
Was there some way he could position himself to take advantage of the waves? He thought that by swimming at an angle to his right, he might be able to pull himself parallel with the bow of the Linda Lou. Once he was ahead of the boat, the waters would shove him directly back into it. Marshall adjusted his mask and secured his snorkel in his mouth. He swam for 15 minutes before raising his head to check his position. It hadn’t changed.
He decided on another gambit. Maybe if he re-descended to, say, 20 feet, he could swim under the current. He knew it extended beneath the surface for some distance, but perhaps it was weaker, more staggered beneath. Anything was worth a shot. Marshall stuffed his airtank mouthpiece into his mouth and deflated his BC. He sank to 25 feet and began paddling through the misty water. Again, he swam for 15 minutes. He reinflated his BC and surfaced.
He was still farther from the boat.
Where were Hal and Norman? They should be up by now. Had they run into trouble? Sharks? Embolism? Mechanical malfunction in a tank or regulator? Hal and Norman were his only chance now. When, and if, they came up, one of them should be able to make it to the boat. After all, they had the descent line. This current was strong, but it wasn’t strong enough to rip a man off a descent line.
Joe Marshall snapped himself back to reality. Maybe Hal and Norman were coming soon, but in the meantime, he was moving away from that boat at a frightening pace. I can’t just wait for them, he thought. 1 have to do something. I’ll keep swimming. Maybe I can make it.
But then, Joe Marshall glanced around him. In every direction, a flat, empty horizon. He whispered through his snorkel mouthpiece, “God help me. God please help me.”
Hal Sauls and Norman Gin surfaced simultaneously, about five feet apart. “Wow, did you see that fish?” Norman gurgled through his mouthpiece. “Yeah, nice dive. Really nice dive,” Hal replied, clearing his mask.
“Where’s the boat?” Norman sounded confused.
“Over there,” Sauls pointed directly in front of them. The boat was 50 to 75 yards off, rocking gently in the rolling waters. “Let’s swim.”
The two swam for about 10 minutes before raising their heads to check their progress. They hadn’t moved. “What the hell is going on?” Sauls muttered to himself. They swam for another 10 minutes, this time with quicker, firmer strokes. They still hadn’t made any progress. Their legs and arms were beginning to stiffen, their breaths beginning to shorten. What the hell is going on?
“Hal, I’ve dumped my tank and weights.” Norman’s voice was edged with resignation. “I don’t think I can make it. I’m going to float. You go on.”
“Well, hell,” Hal shouted, “somebody’s got to make it!” He dug his mask deeper in the water and thrashed at it angrily. Still no progress. “Hey, Joe,” he shouted into the wind. “Come on and get us, Joe! We’re over here!” His right leg was cramping badly, so he decided to rest. Let that muscle unwind, Sauls thought, and then he could swim some more. He could make it. He’d just run up against a little bit of a current, that’s all. If the cramp continued, Joe should be along fairly soon. Joe was on the boat. He must know that he and Norman were up. “Hey Joe, come and get us!”
How can I get closer to that boat? The engineer’s half of his mind went to work: Where am I vis-a-vis the boat? What is the wind? What direction is the current taking me? What is the wave action? From what direction did we approach the buoy? Somewhere in all of that there had to be a solution. While surveying the water for possible clues, Sauls looked back and saw Norman bobbing in the swells, maybe 50, 75 feet to his right. Beyond Norman, he saw a second mask and snorkel among the waves. It was Joe.
Sauls saw Norman and Joe drop off the horizon at 4:30 p.m. From the direction of Norman’s drift, they had probably managed to hook up with one another. Good, thought Sauls. Two heads are always better than one, particularly when the foe is the sea. At 5:10, he lost sight of the Linda Lou. He was alone now. Joe or Norman might make it to the boat; he would keep listening for the rumble of the Linda Lou’s engine. But odds were, he would spend the night in the water. The fishermen were already back in port. They wouldn’t return until nine in the morning. He might run across a tanker or a Coast Guard patrol boat, but at night, his odds of being spotted were slim. For at least the next twelve hours, he would have to live in the sea.
Sauls gathered his thoughts and began devising a game plan for survival. He wasn’t panicked; he wasn’t really even scared. His buoyancy compensator held his head and shoulders out of the water; he had his mask and his snorkel. There was little danger of drowning, unless a storm came up. His wetsuit would protect him from the chill of the water and the next day’s sun. He had his knife and his tank in case of shark attack. He had his watch and his compass.
The compass might be his ticket back to the boat. By his reckoning, he was drifting out to sea. If he made it through the night, he could get a bearing in the morning and try to swim for it. Maybe the current would let up by then.
Sauls searched through his equipment and found the red plastic console that held his compass and depth gauge. The console was attached to his regulator hose. If I use the hose to ward off a shark, he thought, it might take a bite out of that console and swallow my damned compass. Better cut it out of there and get it inside my wetsuit. Sauls pulled his diving knife from the sheath and began hacking at the console. The compass was countersunk in the plastic and secured with screws. He cut with the blade away from him: All he needed was to cut himself, he thought. That’d be like ringing the dinner bell for the sharks.
It seemed to happen in slow motion: Sauls saw the knife blade slicing into the tip of his left middle finger. He wanted to stop it, to pull the knife back. But it was too late. A small sliver of flesh came free, followed by a steady stream of purplish blood. Sauls cursed aloud. Now he’d done it. Now he was scared. It didn’t take much blood to bring a shark from hundreds of feet away. They were probably on their way right now.
Sauls searched his belongings for something to stop the bleeding with. He had plenty of extra cloth on his BC, but a makeshift bandage might not be enough: The water would keep the cut soft, unco-agulated; it would take only minutes for the bandage to become saturated with blood. There was only one thing to do: He pressed his left thumb to the center of the wound, pushing until the pain was almost unbearable. Slowly, the bleeding subsided. Despite the pain, he would have to hold his fingers in this position as long as he was in the water.
And how long would that be? The sight of his own blood had shaken Sauls. He had to face it: It was dusk on a Friday afternoon. No one knew where they were. No one was expecting them. They hadn’t mentioned their plans to anyone in the port. They hadn’t filed a “float plan.” The Linda Lou, he figured, would not last the night. The high waters near the buoy would eventually swamp her; she would sink the full 100-foot length of the mooring line and come to rest on top of the sunken Liberty ship. The turbulence would smash her against the wreckage. By morning, there would be no trace of her.
His wife, Linda, knew where he was, but she was not expecting him until late Sunday night. If he wasn’t home by 10 or so, she would go to bed without him. At the earliest, she would know something was awry Monday morning when she awoke in an empty bed. By the time she contacted the authorities and they got underway, it would be late Monday afternoon. Full-scale search would not begin until Tuesday. At best, he would be found Tuesday afternoon. He’d read that a man could survive maybe five days without food or water in an environment of extreme exposure.
They had better come Tuesday. Wednesday he would die.
SATURDAY, MAY 20; ABOUT 1:30 PM
The call from the fishing boat Trophy I to the Port O’Connor Coast Guard station was unusual. Chief Martin Dobrin put aside the clutter of busywork- on his desk and read the report three times. The captain of the Trophy I, trolling the waters near the sunken Liberty ship, 30 miles out, had found a small pleasure craft moored to the marker buoy there. It had a diver’s flag raised. The captain hadn’t seen a sign of life on the boat for four hours.
It didn’t add up. At those depths, a man couldn’t dive for more than 20 minutes. Someone should have shown up on board that boat in the course of four hours. Dobrin furrowed his brow. Possibility one: The divers had encountered an underwater mishap – a decompression crisis, a faulty tank, maybe sharks. Possibility two: They encountered foul play topside. This didn’t seem very likely: The so-called “Gulf pirates” theory was making popular reading these days, but Dobrin placed about as much stock in it as he did in the Bermuda Triangle theory. Possibility three: Somehow, the divers had been unable to swim back to the boat after surfacing. Now that was possible: That part of the Gulf was a matrix of tricky and unpredictable currents. It was entirely possible that they had gone down without checking the water or hanging out a “trailer rope” – an extra precaution many Gulf divers employed in case of sudden current shifts. If that was true, they could be anywhere.
One thing bothered Dobrin about hypothesis number three, though. It really didn’t add up either. Obviously, whoever had been on that boat was an experienced sailor and diver. A novice wouldn’t have gone to the 30-mile mark. But a pro would never have gone down without leaving someone topside. That was a cardinal principle of ocean scuba diving. A man on board was necessary insurance against the vagaries of the sea. If possibility number three were it, someone had made a big mistake.
Chief Dobrin listened intently as Bosun’s Mate First Class David Boyer reported on the deserted pleasure craft. The fishermen were right. The boat was neat and orderly. On board were some masks and fins, some canned food, a partially consumed bottle of rum. There was also a camera bag, with a tag inscribed, “Joe Marshall, Dallas Texas.” Two lines had been strung overboard: One holding weights – presumably a diving descent line – and one holding a filled air tank.
“What’s her name?” Dobrin asked.
“The Linda Lou,” Boyer replied. “Her name’s the Linda Lou.”
Chief Dobrin took a deep breath and drummed his fingers on the desktop. Well, that certainly cleared a few things up: the Linda Lou. Apparently the boaters hadn’t learned their lesson. At least he knew what he was looking for: They were divers, three of them. The odds against an underwater mishap now seemed large: Boyer had found no evidence of a shark attack or a drowning – blood or stray diving equipment that might have floated to the surface following an accident. Odds were the three had dived together, neglecting to leave someone topside; upon surfacing, they’d run up against a rough current. They were now bobbing around somewhere in the five-foot swells of the open Gulf. It seemed likely that they were together, though one couldn’t bank on it. Gulf currents tended to run in layers: The surface current might shove them all in the same direction, but cross currents below could gradually separate them.
Dobrin tore a fresh sheet from his legal pad and began devising a search scheme. He had several options: Coast Guard search-and-rescue is well-developed and well-tested. There are hundreds of intricate search patterns employing both sea and air craft; each pattern or combination of patterns is designed to fit a particular set of circumstances: wind, weather, current patterns, the number of stranded personnel, their length of time exposed, the time of year.
In this case, Dobrin started with the obvious: He would have Coast Guard Cutter 41401 begin an “expanding square” pattern in the area of the abandoned boat. It was an elementary but effective pattern: The search vessel begins at the scene of the presumed mishap and travels north about a quarter of a mile; then turns east and travels a half mile; then south for three quarters of a mile; then west for a mile, and so forth. The idea is to cover more and more open water.
At the same time, Dobrin decided to mobilize at least one chopper to augment the 41401’s efforts. The helicopter, from the Coast Guard Air Station in Corpus Christi, would do a repeating zig-zag over the cutter’s expanding square pattern. As a third measure, he cleared a channel on the radio and began notifying tankers and other ships traveling the ship channels in the area to be on the lookout for men overboard.
Hal Sauls lay back in the water and watched the sun peek through the thick bank of cumulus clouds. Screened and refracted, the sun’s rays streaked across the leaden waters like searchlights. Sauls wished they were searchlights. He was tired and he was thirsty and he was bored. Being adrift in the open sea for 20 hours is a lot of things: grueling, frightening, awe-inspiring. But mainly, Sauls reflected, it is boring.
Better to be merely bored, he figured, than tormented – as he had been the night before. It was easy enough to be bored now: He felt in control of his world – the two-foot circle in front of him. He could see what was happening – the huge rolling swells, the fish, the gulls. From the peaks of the waves, he could even scan the horizon for ships and aircraft. And with the sun out, a lookout could see him too. In daylight, at least there would be a chance.
In darkness, there was no chance. By night, a man loses any sense of compatibility he might have with the open sea. The shadows play tricks on the senses: Whitecaps become huge dorsal fins; the rushing of the swells can sound like approaching danger. And it is cold. Bone-chilling cold.
And there were the remoras. Throughout the night, the disgusting little things had been with him constantly: circling, bumping, poking at his ribs and legs. Apparently they thought he was a shark and were trying to attach themselves: Re-moras, from one to three feet in length, are scavengers; because they lack the jaws to kill other fish, they attach themselves to sharks and other large fish with a small suction-cup appendage and feed on their leftovers. By day, the constant bumping and poking was merely bothersome. By night, it had become terrifying. With every bump, Hal Sauls had prepared to say his final words. To make matters worse, the remora is built somewhat like a miniature shark: lean and lithe with a large dorsal fin. With only the light of the moon to see by, it had been impossible to calculate the size of those fins that kept circling him. Sauls had spent the night flinching from imaginary shark attacks.
Sauls had been too morose to sleep. During the hours of late afternoon and dusk, he had been preoccupied with plotting and scheming, too busy to allow his plight to depress him. But the darkness had washed away any hint of optimism in his mind: He paddled aimlessly to keep himself from shivering to death. He checked his watch incessantly. Every ten minutes, he’d whirl slowly in the water to check his surroundings. He had hoped he would see lights, a ship, an oil rig – anything to restore his flagging belief that there were other men out here.
About 9:30, his hopes were momentarily buoyed. He thought he heard voices. No, he was sure he heard voices, barely audible, like a conversation in another room. He had spun in the water to locate them. It was useless: The voices were just out there. Could it be Norman and Joe? By his calculation, they were behind him, between him and the boat. It could be that the same fickle currents that had separated them had brought them back together.
He had blown desperately on his emergency whistle: Four shrill toots, pause, four more, pause. No reply. He blew on the whistle twice, six, a dozen more times. Nothing.
His mental anguish had been worsened by his physical state. His thumb was cramped and numb from pressing against his wounded finger; his tongue was swollen and parched; his lips were chapped from his snorkel mouthpiece and the acid-like erosion of the saltwater. He wanted to urinate, but he could not. Since nightfall, he’d urinated off and on constantly. Now he knew he was becoming dehydrated. But the chill of the water kept prodding his innards to contract anyway. It was a sensation he’d felt before in a lukewarm shower: The body cranking through the motions of discharging without having any fluid to pass. On those occasions the pain had quickly subsided. Now it was relentless. He had spent what seemed like hours doubled over in agony, praying that he could relieve himself. He spoke aloud to God, asking forgiveness, mercy. The pain seemed to bring death closer. He did not want to die – not like this. What would become of his wife, his sons?
Hal Sauls was a man who neither bragged nor apologized for his life. He was merely satisfied with it. He had made it the hard way. The son of an itinerant salesman: 26 schools before he was 18 years old. Few friends that he could remember. A high school dropout who followed in his dad’s footsteps and became a sales manager for a West Coast shoe company at the age of 20. A restless young man, who dumped the sales position to return to high school and junior college, where he eventually earned an associate degree in drafting. He had never earned his full architecture degree, but that hadn’t slowed him down. He had become a competent and sought-after designer in Dallas, a tireless worker who made up for his lack of schooling with eagerness and drive. He was self-taught and self-made. And after one unsuccessful marriage, he had settled down happily with Linda. Like many men’s, his life had not fallen together until he approached 40. The prospect of that life now ending in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, in darkness, was absurd.
Sunrise lifted his depression. The fishermen would be out soon; so would the tankers and patrol boats. At least now they could see him. All in all, he still felt fit: He was thirsty, but thirst had not become an obsession. His finger still bled somewhat when he removed his thumb, but it was showing signs of clotting. The weather looked clear and calm.
As the sun rose, he began plotting again. He made plans to protect his balding head and fair complexion from the scorching Gulf sun. He unsnapped his wetsuit and carefully sliced his nylon swimming trunks off. With some string from his regulator hose, he tied the cloth to each side of his mask, creating a bonnet. Then he cut both pockets off his BC. When the sun reached its zenith, he would stuff the nylon pockets into his mask to protect his eyes.
For the present, though, he wanted to see. About nine a.m., he had been scanning the horizon for planes and boats. In the distance, he spotted something in the clouds. A gull? No, it seemed larger, bulkier. He heard a dull rumble in the air, the sound of an engine. It was a helicopter! He pulled off his mask and began trying to use it as a signaling mirror. He thrashed the air with his arms and waved his white nylon bonnet. The chopper drew closer and slowed down, hovering a few hundred feet over the water. I am saved, Hal Sauls thought. I am saved. He began screaming, “Over here! I’m over here!” The chopper hovered for a few moments, then spun in a lazy arc and flew away. They’re going to get a cutter to pick me up, or maybe they’re checking Joe and Norman. They’ll be back. They saw me.
An hour later, Hal Sauls gave up on the helicopter. In the intense glare of the morning sun, every whitecap looked like an approaching ship. But Sauls had gotten tired of being fooled by the sea. First he had heard things. Now apparently he was seeing things. Had the helicopter been real? His eyes had begun to play tricks on him: Occasionally, while staring at the horizon, he would see the faint outline of a huge oil derrick, a tower reaching from the surface of the ocean all the way up through the clouds. The structures were vague and undetailed, but they were definitely there. Or at least they were there until he shook his head and squinted; then they would disappear.
His senses were being baked out of him by the Gulf sun, and that sent Hal Sauls back into depression. He was growing too tired and too bored to care. He decided to dump his tank: Initially, he had thought it might prove valuable, not only as an anchor to keep him from drifting too far from the boat, but as a weapon to fight off sharks. Now it was becoming a nuisance. Before cutting loose the tank, though, he had decided to carve a message on it: If I’m not going to get out of this thing, he thought, at least I’d like someone to know I was here. Painstakingly he carved a message in the steel with his knife: “Hal Sauls, lost at sea, 5-19-78 . . . area code 214-350-71. . . .” He had run out of tank. Typical.
Now it was early afternoon, and he was killing time by watching the clouds above and the darting fish below. The sea was full of amberjacks and triggerfish, groupers and grunts. There seemed to be millions of them, shooting through the shafts of sunlight that stretched down into the water.
About one thirty, Sauls flipped onto his back to relax. Idly, without thinking, he began slapping his large flippers in the water, watching the tiny droplets of water fly into the air and plop back into the ocean. Suddenly, he realized what he was doing. Sharks will generally pass by anything that is still. But a disturbance in the water means fish, and that means food.
Sauls pulled himself upright in the water and prayed that no sharks had mistaken his mindless playfulness for a sign of prey. If he was perfectly quiet, perhaps the sharks would forget the disturbance he had created.
The bump on the inside of his right calf was firm. Quickly Sauls examined the surface about him for dorsal fins. Nothing. Maybe it was an amberjack or a grunt. There were plenty of fish out there large enough to make that kind of bump.
Sauls lowered his mask into the water below him. He hadn’t felt another bump; whatever it was had probably left. He looked slowly down the front of his wet-suit, past his abdomen to his crotch. He lowered them another inch to inspect the area between his legs.
Two eyes stared back at him. Large, black, oval eyes, at least two feet apart. Hal Sauls was no expert on marine wildlife, but he knew the eyes of a hammer-head shark.
His mind raced, but he managed to keep his body still. If I panic, he thought, if I try to swim, he will surely jump me. And that will be it. From the looks of him, he’s eight, maybe ten feet long.
Somehow, a plan emerged in his mind. He had read that sharks feared only one other fish in the ocean: the porpoise. Perhaps if he rolled slowly to his back and began the subtle, rhythmic undulating motion of a porpoise, the shark would leave.
Sauls swam on his back, “porpoising.” Each instant, he expected huge jaws to snap a leg or an arm, for pain to stab throughout his body. One, two minutes passed. Finally, he summoned the courage to check the water again. If the hammerhead were still there, it really would be all over. Beneath him, to his left and right, behind him, Sauls found nothing but tranquil, empty water. The shark had left. Hal Sauls decided at that moment that he would no longer try to fight the sea. And he certainly wouldn’t play with it anymore. If he had to lie quietly on his back until Tuesday, he would do it. It was the only way to survive.
As he rolled on to his back, feeling the afternoon sun burn his skin, Hal Sauls made himself a promise. He promised himself that if he made it through this ordeal, he would approach life more calmly and quietly. He was, in his own estimation, an impetuous and temperamental man. But the quiet power of the sea had taught him the value of patience. If he ever made it “back there,” he would try to respect the lesson.
Had Joe Marshall been there, he surely would have disagreed with his friend. Marshall had a healthy respect for the sea. But even after 20 hours of fighting her, he wasn’t about to give up. The salesman in him still governed his survival strategy: He had to do something. He couldn’t just drift with the current. Since watching the boat drop out of sight the afternoon before, he had been swimming almost constantly. Now his entire body ached and his diving gear had begun to dig strawberries into his neck, shoulders, and feet. The weight of the airtank was creating an excruciating stabbing pain in his lower back. It hurt like hell to keep swimming. But he had to.
He had considered doing nothing. He had seriously considered suicide. Early last evening, as the sun was disappearing over the broad, flat horizon, he had analyzed the proposition in detail. He figured he’d never make it to shore and that he’d never be found. Was it worth all the suffering to fight? It would be very easy to pull the knife from his leg-sheath and plunge it into his stomach, or to descend thirty feet, fill his lungs with air, and come up without exhaling. The pressure would burst his lungs like overfilled balloons.
But he had reasoned himself out of it. There was a chance, however slim. If I’m going to go down, he thought, at least I can go down trying. By his guess, the water was taking him northwest, toward shore. By swimming at a steady pace, he could cover a half mile every two hours. At that rate he could reach shore in two days. Even if he didn’t reach land, he would at least be closer to more boats.
Like Sauls, Marshall had spent a rough night in the water. Since he had kept swimming almost constantly, the cold had only bothered him intermittently. But the pain in his back was murderous. The only way he could relieve the pressure was to remove the tank from his back, strap it to his waist, and straddle it. That had helped some, but not enough to eliminate the ache. To forget the pain, he had riveted his mind on his goal: Getting somewhere. He had forced himself not to look at his watch.
While swimming the night before, he’d spotted some encouraging lights in the distance. They had appeared to outline a large oil derrick. He had taken a deep breath and tried to swim for them. The current had held him back. The current: Joe Marshall had done some thinking about currents since losing the boat the day before. They had made the simplest, dumbest error an ocean diver could make: They hadn’t left a man topside. How many times had their diving instructors drilled that into their heads?
He’d managed to do some thinking too, about his life in general. The way he saw it, he had some promises to keep if he ever got out of this. He would marry again and finally settle down and raise his children in a real family. He’d made one more decision: He would become a Catholic. He’d long believed the Catholic Church was, in essence, the Church. Praying as he had prayed all night had convinced him to make a commitment to it. If I make it through this, he had thought, I owe someone an awful lot.
Since sunrise, however, he hadn’t been thinking; he had been swimming. The seas were rough and the tide was in his face, but he found that by slowly stroking up the faces of the swells, and sliding down the backs, he could make reasonable progress. Every half hour or so, he would take a ten-minute rest. A small white shawl he’d found in the water afforded some protection for his head, but the sun was still devilishly hot, and his back continued to ache. During one of the rest periods, he noticed a flock of gulls flying above him. One of them seemed especially interested in him, as if delegated by the flock to inspect this alien creature floating in their ocean.
Marshall began to whistle and shout at the gull. “Show me the way to land! Show me the way!” The gull promptly flew off. Moments later, it returned and they repeated the ritual. The gull flew off again. Finally, the bird returned a third time and hovered closer to him. A moment later, Marshall felt a gentle thump on his skull. The gull had landed on his head.
Did it understand him? Was it going to lead him to shore? Slowly, Marshall reached up to touch the gull’s leg. He stroked something brittle and thin. It didn’t flinch. The gull understood! Marshall repeated the stroking and then decided to get a closer look at his savior. Slowly, he pulled the thin white shawl from his head. Something seemed to move and flutter. He reached up again. The gull was gone.
If it had ever been there. Marshall wasn’t sure. Moments after his flirtation with the seagull, he reached up to adjust his snorkel.
It felt brittle and thin.
As he swam through the swells this afternoon, Joe Marshall was sure he could see the bottom. Was that possible? Could he be getting that close to shore this early? He didn’t know. But he could not deny what his eyes told him. Within four or five feet, he saw the ocean floor. It was unlike any ocean floor he’d ever seen: There was a thin, bamboo-like tube in the center of it, running, it seemed, to infinity. It seemed to be guiding him somewhere. The tube was surrounded by a complex, almost ornate pattern of woven wires. It looked like a hand-hooked Indian rug.
Was this a special road laid here especially for overboard sailors and divers?
Sometime that afternoon, he saw a huge derrick-like structure in the distance. It was pinkish-gray and appeared to be within swimming distance. He decided to make a go of it. With the steadiness of a pack mule, he plodded through the water. Fifteen, nearly thirty minutes passed, by his guess. The structure was now within a hundred feet. He quickened his pace. Suddenly, a huge silo appeared before him, blocking his view of the derrick. He paused a moment, then swam to the left of it. The derrick reappeared. He was almost there. A few more minutes and he could at last grasp something solid. As he came up to the immense steel structure, he reached for it. He thrust out his hand and waved his arm in front of him. The derrick disappeared.
Meanwhile, Norman Gin was fast asleep. Since the mishap Friday afternoon, he’d managed to catch 20 minutes of sleep out of every half hour. He wasn’t unconcerned; he was just being realistic. There was nothing he could do to fight the sea. Someone would come to get him. He had no doubt that he would survive.
All Gin had to do was pass the time. The night had been cold and uncomfortable; the passing ships he’d seen had been a frustration. But there had been a kind of beauty about it too: Early the previous morning, he’d been dozing, when the water around him exploded. It was as if an undersea volcano had erupted.
Sharks? It had been Norman Gin’s first guess. They have come to get me. Here I’ve been thinking that I’m nearly invisible in this black diving suit, and they’ve been watching me the whole time. Now, in darkness, they have come for me.
Gin had raised himself up in the water to survey the commotion. In the moonlight, he .could barely make out the shapes: They were like missiles, oblong and shiny-gray, ripping through the water. Porpoises. He was in the path of a school of porpoises. They were so close to him he could feel the breeze created by their passing. Could he touch one? He reached out tentatively. He felt something cool and slick brush his hand.
Take me to shore, he had thought. Let me jump on your back and grab the dorsal fin and you can take me to shore. You must know I don’t belong here. I’m lost. Save me.
Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, the porpoises were gone.
Since sunrise, Norman Gin had done little but doze and watch the cloud formations. Swimming was out. What was the point? Where would he be going? The sea had disoriented him: Its featureless horizon had confused his sense of direction and perspective. He had no idea which way the waves were carrying him. He guessed toward shore, but that was more wishful thinking than anything else. Better to lie still and conserve energy. He might be here for a while.
This was not a conscious strategy; it was almost instinct. His training in karate and judo as a youngster had taught him the virtue of carefully assessing the power of your opponent. Once that was measured, a man could decide on his battle plan. The martial arts were a way of life. They taught concentration and calm. Patience. How a man could adjust his rhythms to those of nature.
That was how he would cope with the sea. He would become a part of it. He would move with the sea’s currents; he would not buck her tides. Perhaps she would not notice he was there.
And why was he there? Because they had been stupid. Now they all might die. The thought of dying here did not scare Norman Gin. It angered him. This was a stupid way to die.
Now, as he sat upright in the water, allowing the swells to take him wherever they were going, he tried to erase any thought from his mind. He wanted to sleep. He flopped his head face-down in the water and closed his eyes. He thought of juicy, succulent fruits, peaches and pears. He pictured himself in a Mexican cantina, drinking cool pineapple juice. Then, in the misty moments before sleep, he saw his friend Joe, floating face up, mouth agape. Joe was dead.
Hal Sauls rolled over on his back and checked his watch. It was 4:30 p.m. The sun had become excruciating: His lips felt like raw hamburger; his tongue like a piece of toast. Better check the horizon for boats, he thought. He pulled off his mask and removed the orange nylon stuffing he used to protect his eyes. He checked the water to his left and right, in front of him. Should he check behind him? He didn’t want to. Behind him was that hideous, scorching sun. But he had to. He hadn’t checked in that direction in a couple of hours.
The boat was big and ornate. In the distance, it looked like a riverboat. The Robert E. Lee in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico? It’s an illusion, thought Sauls. It’s got to be an illusion. He turned away. Moments later, he heard the dull roar of engines. He turned once again into the sun. The ship was drawing closer now. Sauls could make out its details clearly: It wasn’t a riverboat. It was a tanker. And it was coming his way.
Hal Sauls swam as he had never swum before in his life. Hand over hand, chrashing and pulling at the water. The ship was a little less than a quarter of a mile away, but the current, at last, was with him. By his reckoning, he would converge precisely with it. This was his chance. His prayers had been answered.
As he neared the massive hull, Sauls pulled off his mask and began waving his white nylon bonnet. The ship was less than 200 yards off now, but he was beginning to worry that no one would spot him. He saw no sign of life on deck and the tanker seemed to be holding its speed. Oh God, don’t let them miss me! I don’t want to die! This is my chance!
He saw a man running down the gangway toward the side of the ship. Now there were two, three of them. Could they see him? Sauls continued to wave the bonnet wildly and began screaming. “I’m here! Over here!” One of the figures pointed toward him. Did they see him?
The tanker throttled down, its engines moaning and grinding. Hal Sauls thought of sharks. Now they’ll come and get me. In fifteen minutes, I could be saved. But they won’t let me. All my thrashing has attracted them. The boat will draw so close that I can touch it, and then the sharks will come for me.
Suddenly he felt relief. What am I worrying about myself for? I’m saved. But Norman and Joe are still out here. “May-day,” he screamed. “Mayday! Two more, two more!” He repeated the chant a dozen, two dozen times. His voice grew raw and raspy.
As the Coast Guard Cutter 41401 tore around the bow of the tanker, sirens wailing, blue emergency lights flashing, Hal Sauls felt a rush of euphoria. The boat pulled up beside him; he grabbed the extended boat hook eagerly and pulled himself up on the bow. He immediately collapsed. It was over.
Now all he felt was guilt.
Chief Dobrin lit a cigarette and surveyed the report from Cutter 41401. The first diver, Hal Sauls, had been lifted from the water about six miles west of the Linda Lou. He had been in the water for about 25 hours. He had kept his tank on much of the time; it had probably acted as an anchor. At least one of the divers had dropped his tank immediately. He and the third diver were probably on the same general line, but how far they had drifted was anyone’s guess.
Sauls seemed convinced that his friends were somewhere between the Linda Lou and the site of his rescue. That was possible, Dobrin thought, but he’d better extend the search westward just in case. The search team was now twice the original size: Two choppers and a single-engine plane patrolled the sky; in addition to the 41401, the Cutter Point Baker from Port Aransas had been ordered into the effort. Six commercial vessels had received permission from their owners to stay in the area and aid in the search.
Little effective searching could be done before sundown. Sauls was picked up a little after five. Once he was debriefed it was nearly six. That gave them two hours of light. At that, the shadows of approaching dusk would make the search difficult. The men on the 41401 had already been out 12 hours. In dim light, they would probably begin to see things. The long search had already produced a myriad of false alarms: Beer cans that looked like diving tanks; pieces of drift-wood that looked like human arms. With the sun low and the clouds moving in, the search would turn into a farce.
But headquarters at Corpus Christi, now coordinating the overall search, wanted to continue until the vessels had used up their fuel. Those other two men had now been in the sea more than 24 hours. Another night would make it 36. They had to be reaching a mental breaking point. The dehydration of such constant exposure does more than make a man thirsty. It raises the salt concentration of his body; this, in turn, affects his brain. He can begin seeing and hearing things. His judgment becomes worthless.
They had to get to those other two before they killed themselves.
SUNDAY, MAY 21; ABOUT 7 AM
Dr. Ed Boyer savored the cool morning air and guided the French Connection through a set of steep swells. Sailing, as always, was sweet relief from the rigors of his medical practice in Houston. Out here, at the helm of his 37-foot sloop, he was free and easy.
This was his most ambitious outing since he had begun sailing three years ago. Until now, he had been little more than a weekend lake sailor. The Gulf, he had to admit, was vastly different; its sheer size was both exhilarating and frightening. They had left the day before from Gal-veston, hoping to reach Corpus Christi by sundown Sunday. He had hoped to sail at the 60-fathom curve, where the swells were higher and more steady. But rough water had sent him back to 45 fathoms, closer to shore.
The cool quiet of the morning on the sea was captivating. His wife, Anna Mae, and their friends, Jay and Sandy Basso, were asleep below. The only sounds were the lapping of the water, the rustle of the wind and the muted drone of Jay’s snoring. It was a pleasant lullabye, Boyer reflected. If sea air weren’t so invigorating, he could fall back to sleep.
But now another sound joined the symphony. It was faint, distant, like an infant moaning in its sleep. Probably a boat, Boyer thought. The sound was gone for a few moments. Then it returned, this time louder, more distinct. Boyer scanned the water about him for the source. It couldn’t be another boat.
Was it a porpoise? Boyer had heard its eerie, moaning call on television specials. This sounded somewhat like that, but Boyer wondered if the unaided human ear could perceive such a sound. He scanned the water again, this time double-checking the area behind the boat. At the top of a swell, something appeared. A log? A small buoy?
No. It was a human arm. It was waving wildly and beckoning. Boyer squinted his eyes to get a closer look. The arm belonged to a man in a black wetsuit. His mouth was moving and the strange sound was becoming a shrill cry. “Help me! Help! Over here!” Boyer quickly tacked the French Connection about, preparing to circle back to the diver. Someone must have gotten himself in a mess, he thought. Could that poor guy have been out here for a day, two days, a week? That seemed incredible. They were only a couple miles off Matagorda Island. Maybe he’d just come out diving this morning and lost his boat.
Or maybe, Boyer thought, he isn’t a diver at all. From an article he’d read in a sailing magazine, this fellow could be a Gulf pirate. One of the methods used by such pirates, the story said, was a variation on the old bait and hook scam: One of the divers would pose as a lost diver or sailor; when a boat came by, he’d hail for help. Once aboard the boat, he’d pull a gun and rob them.
Could this fellow be a pirate? Boyer didn’t know, but he was damned sure going to be careful. Gently, he tacked the boat in a large loop around the diver, straining to get a better look at his face. It was hard to tell, but he looked Oriental. As he drew closer, Boyer could see that the face was haggard and drawn, the lips chapped and raw. It didn’t look like the face of a would-be robber.
As he pulled closer, Boyer quickly was convinced that his fears were unwarranted. The compactly built man in the black diving suit was obviously sea-ravaged. His lips were raw, his hands looked like withered leather. When he opened his mouth to speak, Boyer could see that the man’s tongue was grossly swollen.
Carefully, he helped the man aboard and sat him down in the bow of the boat. He was obviously exhausted and dehydrated. It didn’t take a doctor to see that.
“How long you been out there?”
The solemn face stared out to sea.
“Would you like something to drink?”
The voice spoke raspily. “Don’t go to any trouble. If it’s no bother, I’d like some water.” Boyer quickly got the man some water and roused his wife and traveling companions.
“Get him something to eat,” he said. “Something with lots of protein.”
Only a few minutes later Norman Gin slumped in the bow of the French Connection and sighed. The ordeal was over. If he could just make it through this gummy peanut butter sandwich one of the ladies had given him, he would be fine. His rescuer, a doctor, had ordered protein, and protein it was. But he couldn’t begin to get it down. When they weren’t looking, Gin dropped three quarters of the sandwich into the Gulf.
In a matter of minutes, a chopper from the Coast Guard arrived and hovered over the French Connection. Norman’s heart dropped when the bullhorn informed him that he would have to re-enter the water for pick-up. No. But the voice insisted. Lowering the rescue seat down to a sailboat might “cause serious damage to the mast. Norman closed his eyes and did a spider jump into the sea. The water felt warm, familiar, but uncomfortable. He wanted out of it as quickly as possible.
Inside the copter, he flopped into a seat and cinched his seatbelt. He sighed long and deep.
Then Norman Gin cried.
On the bridge of the Coast Guard Cutter Point Baker, Chief Kenneth Byrd scanned the gray horizon and checked his watch. It was now about nine o’clock. The second diver had been picked up a little after seven that morning, after 40 hours in the water. His position had stunned everyone: Found only two miles from shore, Norman Gin had drifted some 27 miles during his day-and-a-half stay in the water. That was one hell of a current all right: It had carried a man at an average rate of more than half a mile an hour for nearly two days.
That made locating the third man a tricky proposition. Gin had dumped his gear early; that, combined with his light weight, probably accounted for the distance of his drift. There was no way of knowing whether the third man, Marshall, had dumped his gear or not. He was bound to be farther along than Sauls had been; how far beyond was the question. There was a good 20 miles between the rescue sites of the first two divers. The copters and cutters were gradually eating away at it, but time was running short. Marshall was completing his second full day in the Gulf. He was bound to be running into serious dehydration troubles. If he had been fighting the water, there was no telling what kind of shape he was in.
Byrd scratched at his mustache and tried to draw upon his 21 years’ experience in Coast Guard search and rescue. They had two of the divers; somewhere in their stories there had to be the basis for a hunch on the location of the third man. He leafed through a current chart. All of the four currents that could have swept these men from their boat ran toward shore. There had been some speculation that Marshall might be to seaward now because of the tides. But Byrd doubted it. If that current was strong enough to sweep a man nearly 30 miles in less than two days, the tides would have little effect on it.
If Marshall were traveling slightly slower than Gin – say an even half-mile per hour – he should be somewhere between five and ten miles from shore. Since the drift seemed to be slightly northward as well as westward, that would put him somewhere off the coast of Matagorda Island, perhaps midway between Port O’Connor and Corpus Christi.
Byrd got on the headset and instructed his helmsman to begin a slow, deliberate “crawling line” search pattern beginning a few miles north and east of where Norman Gin had been found. The “crawling line” was the only option, Byrd thought. It was the only search pattern painstaking enough to find a lone man in this much water: As he calculated it, the cutter would travel three miles north, then a quarter-mile west, then three miles south, then a quarter mile east, another three miles north, and so on. By moving slowly they could triple-check every square inch of that water.
Joe Marshall did not know where he was. His second night at sea had been a nightmare – literally. Hallucinations and illusions had been fairly common during the afternoon; but he’d been so busy swimming, he’d been able to ignore them. Once darkness had descended, however, the mirages dominated.
Early in the evening, he began hearing ship engines: At first, they were distant, easily dismissible as auditory illusions. But as the night thickened, they became distinct and near. At one point, the engines seemed to be moving in some sort of pattern. A search pattern, he had wondered? Perhaps. It sounded as if one set of engines were approaching from his left, and another from his right. From the ebb and flow of the sound, they seemed to be moving in a zig-zag pattern.
The engines had grown louder and louder, until it sounded as if the ships were almost upon him. The water seemed to be getting higher and the breeze stiffened. They had to be real: His ears and his eyes could fool him, but the feel of the water was unmistakable. Or was it? Just as the engines had grown deafeningly close, they seemed to pause, and then begin moving away. Oh Jesus, he had thought. They haven’t overshot me, have they? How could they miss me? I’m right here! He wished he had kept his camera with the strobe attachment. It seemed like a good idea to unload the cumbersome camera the day before. Had he kept it, the search boats might have saved him.
lf they were ever there in the first place. Marshall wasn’t sure anymore. At midnight, he had begun to hear loudspeakers; bright lights appeared on the horizon. Each time he saw or heard some sign of hope, he swam as fast as his arms would take him. Generally, the sound or the lights would quickly disappear. Sometimes they would change shape. He was bedeviled by imaginary signs of salvation.
In the predawn hours, a huge tower of lights appeared. At each side, large ships, also brightly lighted, appeared to rendezvous. Were they the search craft he’d heard earlier? Were they the source of the loudspeakers he had heard? He thought it was worth a swim to find out. As he drew himself closer to the tower, the swells seemed to grow larger. He raised his face out of the water and looked to his left. A huge, steaming tanker was bearing down on him, barely 500 yards off. At the rate it seemed to be moving, it would run him down in a matter of minutes.
He thrashed desperately at the choppy waters to escape the ship. Harder and harder he pulled at the water until his arms felt as if they might fall off. He had looked up to check on the position of the big ship. It was drawing closer, almost upon him.
He stuck his head back in the water, then turned to look one last time.
The ship had turned around.
He barely noticed the dawn of his second day adrift. He was exhausted. His neck and ankles were raw and bloody from the constant rubbing of his wetsuit; his mouth was so tender he could barely touch it. His back had only worsened from the constant swimming. Joe Marshall was still fighting. But not by much. To relieve the pain in his back, he’d removed his BC and spread it on the water before him, like a pillow. For the first time in his 40 hours in the Gulf, sleep seemed irresistible. He had fought the Gulf lick for lick for nearly two days, and now it appeared that she was winning.
Joe Marshall lay his head on his hands and squinted at the green water and escaped into a painless sleep.
Joe Marshall thought he had it figured out now. It was all a game. It was all a ridiculous, childish game. The rules were simple: All he had to do was make it to one of the rescue points on the map he had and he would win. Hal and Norman had already made it. It couldn’t be too hard.
Maybe he should try that dock over there. He swam over to the small dock and tried to pull himself up. He couldn’t. He tried again. He just couldn’t make it. Maybe he should try that land over there. It looked close and he could just walk out of the water onto shore. He swam over to shore and walked to a small cafe by the water. Norman and Hal were already there. They wanted to drive back to Dallas and go to Lake Texoma. Fine with me, Joe Marshall said, I can go back and pick up my girlfriend Ann.
They met at a cafe at Lake Texoma. His boat was already there. He and Ann, Hal and Norman, and his diving instructor Dave Mienhardt all climbed in his boat and took off. Somewhere around the first bend of land, the boat filled with water. The rest of the passengers went over-board. When the boat was almost submerged, he and Ann went over too.
They drifted for a while. Then, suddenly, Ann was gone. He was alone. Alone, drifting in Lake Texoma. Someone come and get me! I’m out here drifting in Lake Texoma! Come and get me!
It didn’t take Chief Byrd more than a second to understand what the cry from the bow of the Point Baker meant. A lookout had found the third diver. There could be no mistaking the gleeful squeal that came from the young man’s mouth. Chief Byrd’s hunch had been right: Glancing through his binoculars, he located Joe Marshall directly in line with the bow of the cutter. If they hadn’t spotted him, they surely would have run him down.
As the cutter pulled alongside Marshall, Byrd could see the man was savaged by the sea. His face and hands were mottled from exposure to sun and water. He appeared to have serious rubber burns along his neck and ankles. His mouth was slack with exhaustion.
As they pulled the diver onto the deck and settled him into a comfortable position, he spoke in a faint voice. “I’ve already been saved from the Gulf,” he said softly. “I’m out here in Lake Texoma. My girlfriend Ann is right over there. Go tell her I’m here.” Byrd grabbed a crewman by the shoulder and whispered in his ear. “You watch that fellow like a hawk. There’s no telling what he might do.”
With that, he returned to the bridge for the trip back to Port O’Connor. Chief Kenneth Byrd had been with the Coast Guard for more than half of his 38 years. But he would never forget the look in Joe Marshall’s eyes and what he said. Never.
A man could not turn his back on the Gulf of Mexico.
Norman Gin and Joe Marshall were admitted to Wagner General Hospital in Placios for treatment for exposure and immersion. Both were put on intravenous feeding to replace lost fluid and sugar. Both men were exhausted, but neither had suffered serious physical harm from the ordeal. Hal Sauls chose to recuperate in his room at the Tarpon Inn. By Wednesday, the three were ready to return to Dallas.
In mid-August, Hal Sauls, Norman Gin, and Joe Marshall traveled to Grand Cayman in the British West Indies. The first afternoon, they pulled on their wet-suits. fins. and masks. and thev dived.
FRIDAY, MAY 19; ABOUT 9 AM.