A Sea of Trouble

For 66 days Bill and Simonne Butler drifted together on a tiny raft in the Pacific. After they were finally rescued and came back to Miami, they drifted apart.

In late 1989 the couple began work on their manuscript. At first the idea was to seam together the story from segments each would write separately. As it turned out, however, Bill wrote nearly all of the book; suffering from posttraumatic depression, Simonne wasn't able to contribute nearly as much as they had planned. Instead, her contributions take the form of occasional short vignettes interspersed throughout the narrative.

Closeted in the back of their house with his computer, Bill completed a first draft in June 1990 and a revision later that summer. Work was interrupted only by appearances on broadcast programs and at forums organized by sailing clubs, church groups, and the like. Other than those efforts, Bill says, he did little else but work on the book for more than two years. He estimates he made at least 25 full revisions in that time.

"One thing I have had to come to terms with is that my experience can never be accurately portrayed," writes naval architect Steven Callahan in Adrift, his account of surviving 76 days alone on a raft after his sailboat sank in the Atlantic Ocean in 1983. "The truth of my story is like one of Plato's forms, the perfect model after which the imperfect representation in reality is fashioned. After my return, many people wrote about my story. Some tied Christian dogma to it, others romantic adventure, others Hollywood hype. This was fine by me. Even my own rendition is but an imperfect representation of what I experienced. In many ways that is a good thing. If I could convey the true horror I felt at the time, no one would want to read this story."

In fashioning his representation of reality, Bill Butler, a seasoned sailor, drew upon Siboney's daily log, which he and Simonne had maintained throughout their ordeal. But they also discovered they had not forgotten very much, having lived each second fully exposed to the elemental forces of nature, their lives pared down to the most basic elements. "I did a lot of crying when I was writing the book," Butler admits.

The story is told pretty much chronologically, beginning with the Butlers' last-minute preparations to leave Miami on their around-the-world journey. After a relatively uneventful transit through the Panama Canal, Bill writes, Siboney (named for a love song popular in Cuba) made for Hawaii, about 4000 miles to the northwest.

On the night of June 14, 1989, a pod of pilot whales converged on Siboney. At first they appeared docile, but their behavior soon became more aggressive, and finally they attacked the boat: "Back on deck, I find the whales are now bigger, some half as long as Siboney. They breathe louder and act irritated. They rush at each other in an apparent struggle of titans for position. The boat trembles, and a sandpaperlike scratching sound echoes all along the starboard side." At 4:00 a.m. on June 15, the whales gashed a hole in the hull, and Siboney sank.

Butler theorizes that the whales mistakenly felt Siboney was another whale that was about to attack their pod. Other sailors have had their vessels sunk by whales: Lyn and Dougal Robertson's Lucette went down southwest of Panama in 1972 after an attack by killer whales (coincidentally, the Lucette sank on June 15, the same day as Siboney), and they were rescued 38 days later; and Maurice and Maralyn Bailey survived 118 days adrift on the Pacific after their boat was sunk by a sperm whale on March 4, 1973.

Aboard their inflatable life raft, which they christened Last Chance, Bill and Simonne Butler watched Siboney disappear underwater and numbly began to contemplate their fate. What, they wondered, had they done to bring on such a disaster? They catalogued their sins, promising themselves and God that they would begin a new life if they were given another chance. Among the articles they had managed to salvage were a state-of the-art water desalinator A which perhaps was the most important factor in their survival A a fishing rod, various foodstuffs and beverages, clothes and cushions, as well as their passports and credit cards, a still camera and a camcorder (the camcorder was subsequently dumped overboard; the camera and its film were ruined by water), and a .38 caliber revolver. They also had three flares, and a battery-operated device called an Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon (EPIRB), which transmits signals on two radio frequencies to help aircraft and satellites trace a vessel's location. The problem was that in order to be effective, an EPIRB must be transmitting within a satellite's or aircraft's line of sight. This proved to be worthless in the Butlers' case. They were literally in the middle of nowhere: 3000 miles east of the Hawaiian islands, 1100 miles west of Mexico, nowhere near regular shipping lanes.

As they drifted, Simonne, a devout Catholic since childhood, prayed unceasingly on the rosary she had managed to keep with her; she took a private vow of celibacy, to which Bill alludes in the book. Bill himself, who was not a deeply religious man before the sinking of Siboney and who was somewhat dismayed with his wife's lack of intimacy, nonetheless found solace in the psalms Simonne read each evening, and soon began to pray along with her.

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