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.

By the couple's 30th day adrift, the sun had burned away the waterproofing on the raft's canopy. After that, the Butlers got soaked with every rogue wave that crashed into the raft and with every cloudburst. Most of their clothing having rotted from exposure to salt water, Bill and Simonne went naked, which was just as well, because of the heat. Whenever they spotted a ship A at least 40 passed within view A they'd pull on what ragged clothes they could and signal by waving a white shirt tied to a paddle, blowing a whistle, or, if it was dark enough outside, setting off one of their flares. Unfortunately the ships were either too far away to spot them or were navigating by radar and had no lookout posted.

Around the end of July, Simonne began to pick up radio reports about elaborate preparations being made in Costa Rica for the August 2 festival honoring Nuestra Se*ora de Los Angeles, also called La Negrita. (La Negrita, they would later discover, was Costa Rica's patron saint, and was also regarded by the citizens of that nation between two oceans as the protector and frequent savior of lost sailors.) The Butlers knew they were drifting closer to land, and it bolstered their spirits to envision themselves on shore when the festival began. As sharks continued to pummel the raft, they prayed to Nuestra Se*ora with increased fervor.

Meanwhile an island appeared, its outline growing exhilaratingly larger each day. When it became clear the current would take them past the island without making landfall, they attempted to use their paddles to row nearer, but they were too weak and too far away. August 2 passed, so did the island, and the Butlers continued to drift, and to pray.

Then, on Saturday, August 19, late in the afternoon, they were startled by the sight of a large white boat cruising up to their raft. It was the Punta Burica of the Costa Rican Coast Guard, based out of Golfito. Since dawn that day, the crew had been searching for a missing shrimp boat. They found Bill and Simonne Butler instead.

For five days the Butlers stayed in a Golfito hospital, then flew to San Jose, the Costa Rican capital, where they shared a large suite at the Sheraton with their children and grandchildren, who had flown down to meet them. The day before they returned to Miami, the couple made a pilgrimage to Carthago, the site of a shrine to Nuestra Se*ora de Los Angeles. A television crew from San Jose learned of their plans and arranged for the priest of the Carthago basilica to receive them. Having heard about the visit, the people of Carthago crowded the church inside and out, applauding, holding out babies to be blessed, crying, and praying. Bill and Simonne Butler cried, too, as they knelt slowly and stiffly before the altar, Simonne fingering her rosary. The priest presented them with a statuette of the virgin. Bill had brought along a neon-orange paddle he had used to ward off sharks; he left it as an offering to La Negrita.

As the Butlers left the church, a woman pressed another figure of Nuestra Senora into Simonne's hands. This one was quite different from the simple carved stone statuette. Fashioned of tin, the delicate figure of the Virgin was surrounded by metal spokes like rays of light, laden here and there with sparkling pieces of glass of many colors.

Bill Butler titled his account of the voyage Our Last Chance, after their raft. He submitted a first draft to William Morris in the summer of 1990 and a revised one in January 1991. The agency failed to interest a publisher.

"It was a fascinating story that I thought could be a best seller with a good writer," says Pam Bernstein, the Butlers' agent at William Morris. Bernstein, who now heads her own talent agency, wanted the Butlers to work with a writer of her choice, and was convinced a movie deal would follow the best-selling book. But the fascinating story had to be packaged in a way that would sell, and a professional writer had to do it.

"It's very hard to get publishers to publish books," says Bernstein, "and when he turned his manuscript in to me, I didn't think I could sell it. He just really needed to write this himself, which I respect. Sometimes they do it very successfully."

Undaunted, Butler shopped his manuscript to a dozen New York publishers, all of whom turned it down. He decided to publish the book himself.

In July of last year, he married Lirio del Valle, a longtime acquaintance who lived in Puerto Rico. Also that month he hired Banta Company of Harrisburg, Virginia, to print Our Last Chance, publishing it under the imprint of the export company he and Simonne had formed, Exmart. He typeset the book on his own laser printer. Simonne, he says, receives five percent of the selling price of each book. Bill's daughter Sally, a former radio producer, is promoting the book. Bill says they've sold about 2300 of the 10,500 copies they had printed. So far, he estimates, they've spent about $40,000 on publishing and promotion.

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