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.

This past week 63-year-old Bill Butler was making the rounds at the Miami International Boat and Sailboat Show, promoting and selling his book, talking with old sailing buddies, and meeting strangers who'd heard about his death-defying adventure. "You're the guy off Costa Rica who had the water maker!" exclaimed one man who stopped at Butler's table, which was piled with copies of the book. "You had it a little rough. You gonna do that again?"

Butler, smiling pacifically, his hazel eyes distant, replied, "In a raft, no."

"What kind of boat you lose?"
"A 38-foot cutter."
"Your wife still sail?"
Butler paused just a second. "No."

"Mine won't go now if she reads this book," said the man, chuckling. "So you still sail?"

"I bought a boat in June."
"Hey, I think you paid your penance. Nothing can happen to you now. Can I sail with you?"

They laughed, and the man moved off to inspect the rubber rafts behind Butler, one of them a larger version of the one in which he and Simonne had spent 66 days.

Butler says that after the rescue, he wasn't sure whether he'd ever recover his love of the sea and sailing. "Sitting in a raft so close to the water and with all the sharks and animals and storms, after we got back I didn't go near the water," he admits. "I'd lost the savoring, the love of the sea." It took him a year to get back on a boat, and when he finally did, for a Newport-to-Bermuda race, his joints were still so stiff that he could barely move. After the first few days at sea, though, the thrill was back. "As soon as we got past the Gulf Stream, the skies got blue and the sun started shining again," Butler remembers. "I finally decided the sea and I could get back together again. That trip confirmed to me the sea is still a wonderful place to be."

This past June Butler bought a new sailboat, a 40-footer he named New Chance. Although he now lives with his new wife in San Juan, Puerto Rico, he docks the New Chance in the same slip at Dinner Key where he used to keep Siboney. In late July 1992, he sailed from Miami to Cadiz, Spain, with his son Joe and a friend, and in October they joined the Americas 500 transatlantic race commemorating the Columbus quincentennial.

Butler doesn't sail nearly as much as he once did, however. Partly, he says, he's lost the obsession. And besides, his wife Lirio gets seasick if she stays on a boat more than a few hours.

This year A which, had everything gone as originally planned, would have marked the end of Siboney's around-the-world voyage A Butler intends to sell the remaining copies of Our Last Chance; along with Sally and Lirio, he has already taken the book to several boat shows and boating events around the U.S. After he completes a Spanish-language version of the story, Butler adds, he plans to write more books A a collection of humorous boating stories, and a history of several generations of his family.

As to the question of whether his divorce from Simonne might have been brought on by the crisis they weathered together, Bill will only say that "it would be very easy and convenient to say it happened because of that one factor, but life isn't that simple."

At Sally Butler's apartment in Coral Gables is a painting Bill commissioned from artist John Berkey, which depicts Siboney as Butler imagines it now: at the bottom of the ocean, two miles down, resting on a rocky dune in inky light.

Simonne Butler isn't at all pleased with Our Last Chance in its published form. "I read [the book] and don't find anything that is true. It's true, but it's not true," she says, smiling sadly and a little angrily. Her thin mouth is neatly lipsticked, but it's impossible to read her face closely; the hexagonal lenses of her glasses deflect light from her blue eyes. "I mean, everything I wrote, he'd cannibalize, and change my feelings."

Besides the depression that kept her from contributing as much as she would have liked to the original draft of the book, Simonne says she was further disheartened when Bill reworked much of the material she did write, until it no longer reflected her thoughts. Even worse, she complains, Bill portrays her as despairing and weak A "like a nincompoop, semi-hysterical" A constantly carping at him for taking her away from her mother and her two sons, possibly forever.

What the book doesn't portray, explains Simonne, is her increasing disquietude as she and her husband were forced to look at each other without the filters of the usual daily cares and diversions. She learned for the first time, for instance, that Bill hadn't included her sons (born from her previous marriage) in his will. "During those 66 days I discovered who he was," she says, "and I realized he really didn't love me. I actually cried more for the loss of this love [than because of their desperate straits]." She says that someday she'll publish her own account of their days on the raft, this one professionally ghostwritten.

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