The Butlers Did It

The following excerpt from Our Last Chance recounts the events of Tuesday, July 4, 1992, Bill and Simonne Butler's 20th day adrift on their inflatable life raft. The food they had managed to salvage from their sailboat before it sank A including crackers, beer, soda, juice, peanut butter, canned vegetables and fruit, and half a bottle of cognac A was carefully rationed, but after nearly three weeks they were running short on supplies, and they were beginning to fear starvation. Although fishing was a possibility, they had no suitable bait.

From the beginning, turtles and sharks had been attracted to the raft. Dozens of sharks nudged, butted, or battered it every day. They were mostly younger, smaller lemon sharks and silky sharks; the bigger makos and deadly hammerheads A at least twice as long as the raft A began circling at dusk. Though they could have destroyed the craft, and the Butlers, with a slash of their tails, they never chose to do so.

Turtles posed a less aggressive but at times equally dangerous threat. These imperturbable creatures bumped against the raft for hours at a time A a pair mating, or a lone turtle seemingly trying to mate with the raft, sometimes getting caught in the ballast bags underneath the small vessel. Turtles with barnacle-encrusted or broken shells were especially worrisome; rough edges could have punctured the air chamber. The Butlers used the raft's paddles to fend off the uninvited guests.

We celebrate the Fourth of July with a quarter can of juice, one half of a cookie, and three drops of Hennessy for each. We sing "The Star Spangled Banner" and follow it with "America the Beautiful." When we sing "From sea to shining sea," anguish overwhelms us with such force that tears drown out our little celebration. The party ends prematurely.

Our thoughts go to shore and to how each of our family members are celebrating the day. Are they watching fireworks at Miami's Bayfront Park? The greatest Fourth of July we ever experienced was in 1986, aboard Siboney, in New York Harbor. We sailed from Miami to Cape May, New Jersey in nine days, stopped a few days in Atlantic City, then motored up to Sandy Hook. On the third of July, we took Siboney through the Narrows, into New York Harbor, and to an anchorage off Ellis Island. With thousands of other boats, we witnessed one of the most incredible two-day shows the harbor has ever seen.

While reminiscing with Sim, I have been scratching a large number twenty on a full sheet of paper. Sim looks over, but I manage to hide my artwork. She burns with curiosity.

At last, I'm ready. "Sim, make yourself pretty; it's picture-taking time. This is day twenty and also the Fourth of July. A picture for posterity."

"Posterity. Do you really think there's any posterity for us? This is the end of the road."

"Bull. Hand me the camera." Enclosed in a Ziploc, my Minolta has so far remained dry. [The camera and film were subsequently ruined by water.] I find a place for it on the opposite air chamber. We settle on a pose. I spring the timer as Sim holds the page with the twenty on it in front of her bare bosom. The camera clicks. Our raft-bound Fourth of July celebration complete I settle down for a nap.

Sim startles me out of dreamland with a gentle nudge. She whispers excitedly: "A turtle. Just the right size. There."

I sit up. She's right. A turtle, with a shiny, light-brown carapace and about twenty inches in diameter, swims towards the raft. We don't make a move so as not to spook it. While it approaches, I thread the fishing cord through the eye on the rod. At the end of the cord, I make a noose.

As the turtle comes alongside, Sim grabs a flipper then holds it firmly by its shell. I lean over her to put the noose around the turtle's neck and draw it up tight as Sim pulls the turtle out of the water. Flippers flail and its jaws reach out at Sim. She passes the flapping turtle through the raft and drops it in the water on my side. This is the first small turtle we have seen and the break we need to survive. Our prayers have been answered.

All four flippers thrash as the turtle struggles fiercely for its life. I push the pole deep into the water to keep its claws from damaging the raft. The slightest mistake on our part could make the difference between food and hunger. Worse yet, between life and death. As I wait for the turtle to die, I look up.

Skies are clear blue. A perfect day for a parade. It's now around three. The barbecue back home is going. Hamburgers, sweet corn, apple pie. But we'll have our own feast. Our first fresh food in twenty days. God has provided. He must intend to save us.

Thirty minutes pass, and the turtle continues to struggle violently. With an inexplicable force, it twists and snaps the pole in three pieces. I managed to catch one of the pieces and hang on to the line. Killing her is going to be harder than I thought.

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