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.

Their home, a four-person Switlik coastal life raft not designed for use on the open sea, measured 42 inches wide by 66 inches long. It was covered by a neon orange canopy supported by two arches, with zip-up windows on either side. Inside, with their supplies neatly stowed, the Butlers had virtually no room to move. On his first attempt to stand upright in the raft, Bill, who is six feet tall, nearly sank it. After that near disaster, he spent the remainder of the journey either on his back, which became covered with sores, or on his knees.

Insignificant everyday details of a life on land A such as standing up A assumed huge importance on the raft, and Bill Butler dutifully notes them in the book. Not once, for instance, during their last seven weeks on the raft, did either of them have a bowel movement. Simonne menstruated three times during the two-month voyage, dangerous episodes because of the shark-attracting potential of the blood. She tore up a heavy cotton sheet for sanitary napkins, storing them carefully in a can. This and other body waste the Butlers carefully dumped overboard, then rowed away with all the speed the two paddles supplied with the raft could muster.

Even as he and Simonne were desperately salvaging supplies and possessions from the sinking Siboney, Bill Butler writes, he couldn't bring himself to leave the cabin of the boat he had owned since 1966, and had twice rescued from the bottom of Biscayne Bay. He had been sailing since he was a child in Havana. His mother was Cuban, the great-granddaughter of a Spanish warship captain; his father was an engineer from the United States. After studying electrical engineering at Purdue University, Bill got a job with General Electric in Cuba. When Castro shut down GE there in 1960, the company moved Butler and his family to Manila. For the next 28 years, the father of five worked for GE in the U.S., the Philippines, and Venezuela. It was in Caracas, in the mid-Seventies, that he met Simonne. She was in Venezuela with her husband, an executive with a Swiss pharmaceutical company, and two sons.

When Bill was transferred to Miami in 1977, Simonne helped him sail Siboney up from Caracas. In 1979 he retired from GE and started an export business with Simonne; both had divorced by then, and Bill moved into Simonne's house in Kendall. They were married in 1983. By that time Bill already had a plan to sail around the world in Siboney, and although Simonne was hesitant about the voyage at first, she eventually agreed to go along on the adventure.

Simonne Salssi wasn't a sailor, but she had grown up on the sea, in a beach town near the Italian border in France. Her father dropped out of the seminary and went to England to fight during World War I and wound up traveling and prospecting for gold throughout Africa and in the Middle East. Heir to her father's wanderlust, Simonne left France after finishing secondary school and never returned to live. She studied and worked as an interpreter and translator in England, Germany, and Spain (she speaks five languages) before marrying and moving to Venezuela.

Aboard the life raft, the Butlers' only links to land were passing sea birds that perched atop nearby waves A and, on occasion, on or atop the raft A and a Walkman radio Simonne listened to for a few hours every day during the early morning. At first she picked up mainly Mexican stations; later Central American signals came in. Sometimes she even heard stations on the U.S. mainland, where they knew their children were beginning to wonder why their parents weren't keeping in touch.

Sally Butler, who was living in Mount Vernon, New York, at the time (she has since moved to Miami), awoke suddenly from sleep on several nights, filled with overwhelming sensations of terror; thousands of miles and several time zones away, Bill Butler was sending her telepathic cries for help. Sally contacted the Coast Guard several times, requesting that they mount a search. She was told the search area would be so vast that it wasn't feasible without some better idea of the Butlers' location.

Meanwhile, a strong easterly current appeared to be inching the raft closer to land, according to Bill's rough daily calculations. Sooner or later they'd wash up on some shore, he assured Simonne, if the sharks didn't get them first. But by the Fourth of July, 1989, their 20th day adrift, the Butlers were beginning to fear they would die of starvation before they were rescued. Though they sang patriotic songs and toasted the occasion with three drops of cognac apiece, Bill writes, their food supply was down to little more than a few dozen crackers and some peanut butter. It was on that day they managed to catch and kill a twenty-pound turtle, which staved off starvation, provided bait for future fishing expeditions, and reinforced their faith.

From then on Bill caught fish, by hook or by gloved hand, usually several pounds per day. Simonne didn't take readily to their diet of raw fish; Bill cut the trigger fish, triple-tail, or dolphin fillets into small pieces so she could get them down. Between the fish and the ample supply of water they were able to make with the desalinator, they remained alive and reasonably healthy. Constant harassment by sharks was their main concern.

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