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.

"Sim, quick! Hold the turtle while I get the other pole ready."
Simonne leans over me and holds the animal. I prepare the larger pole. As Simonne holds the wildly tossing turtle, I put the other end of the cord through the eye on the larger pole, make another noose, and put it around the turtle's neck. I draw the cord up tight and push the turtle down. I've got it this time.

Another half-hour passes. The turtle appears dead. The instant I loosen my grip on it, it thrashes madly and tries to escape. I know turtles don't drown easily, but I thought an hour should do it.

We are both tired, not to mention hungry. Funny, we have spent three days with almost no food, and we're not all that hungry. Now, with food at hand, we can't wait. It's time to cut this exercise short.

"Sim, let's bring it on board."
"Are you sure? It's still alive."
"Put the sailbag on my lap. I'll lift it up and put it upside down on top of the sailbag. You hold the line around its neck taut. Stay away from the beak. Cover its flippers with the bag. Ready?"

I flip the turtle onto my lap. It struggles wildly for air and life. It must weigh all of twenty pounds. Sim holds the bucket with one hand and the line around the turtle's neck with the other. I lift the turtle over the bucket with one hand. Claws at the end of the flippers flail wildly. I reach for the knife and saw away at its throat.

The turtle jerks and exhales air and blood with a gush and a gurgle. Blood sprays us and the whole inside of the raft. A whistling sputter surges from its windpipe. Sim flinches but holds the turtle firmly. Strength ebbs from our prey as its blood drips into the bucket. The intensity of its struggle lessens; its laborious breathing weakens. A spasm shakes the entire shell, and it dies.

I wanted to save Sim from this mess by drowning the turtle, but if we ever catch another one, we'll cut its throat right off. It's obvious now that turtles don't drown or asphyxiate easily. One of our more primitive animals, they've got to be tough to have survived through the ages.

Sim calls out. "Bill, watch out! Look, near the tail. What are those?"
"Remoras!" I hadn't noticed two three-inch black eel-like remoras, similar to eels, fastened to the carapace near the turtle's tail. At the precise second when the turtle died, the remoras released their hold and wiggled free. They search for something live to attach to with the suction device on top of their head.

"Quickly, hand me the can," I call out as the remoras slither on my lap in search of flesh. I push them into the can with the knife. "I'll keep them for bait." They squirm out of the can and head for Sim. She screams.

"Get rid of them. They'll grab onto one of us." I scoop them back into the can and throw them over the side.

Head down, the turtle remains over the bucket. Blood rains as Sim and I catch our breath and recover. I have never killed a turtle before. In fact, I've never seen a turtle butchered. General Electric stationed me at the naval base in Key West in 1952, on an assignment testing torpedoes. Most of the local eateries advertised turtle burgers. They were good, but that's as close as I'd ever been to a dead turtle.

When blood no longer drips out of its slashed neck. I turn the turtle bottom-up on my lap. I saw through the soft bottom carapace, lift one half of the shell and cut away under it. I saw around the outside edges of both halves. In no time, the bottom of the turtle is loose and off. Vivid greens, oranges, blues, and reds cover the entire shell. All I can see are lungs and intestines.

Baffled, I question: "Sim, where's the meat? All I see looks terrible."
Sim is a good cook and meat handler. "Here. Try cutting there in the muscle that moves the flippers."

I follow Sim's finger and find dark pink meat, not unlike the dark meat of raw turkey. I slice off a piece and hand it to Sim.

"Ladies first." She takes the piece with hesitant fingers, looks it over with a skeptical expression, shrugs, and puts the piece into her mouth. I wait for her reaction. Her face explodes in delight: "Delicious," she says, turtle blood on her lips.

"Really? Let me try." I bite down. It has the texture of rabbit. Mmmm! I can't believe it. It's so good. It has a sweet and not a fishy taste at all.

We slice more pieces and eat without restraint. The meat is tender and tasty. Our hunger is such that we cannot stop. We slice and eat until we can no more. We rest, than eat more. I keep the last few pieces for bait. One of the two empty cans becomes the bait can. The other can is still the pee-pee pot.

We consider keeping the shell, but it's so heavy, and we know in this heat it will soon stink. How do we dispose of the shell and blood without arousing the shark population? I look into a clear, ripple-free sea for sharks. There are none around. Strange.

We will dump the shell and the blood and then row downwind as fast as we can. I look again for sharks, then ease the shell over the side to windward without a splash. It sinks like a rock. I slowly pour the blood and pieces of turtle from the bucket so as not to splash the raft. I give the bucket a quick wash and signal Sim to start rowing.

We row steadily for fifteen minutes. We are exhausted but content. I look back to make sure no monster of the deep follows our trial. Our undersea world teems with life. All is clear. We put away the oars and drift on. We feel a sense of pride and achievement. We made it. We have taken a major step in our pursuit for survival.

Our stomachs fill for the first time in three weeks. Besides I have bait. We relax after all the excitement to enjoy the beauty of the day. The day is so clear, the sea so calm. It's so great to be alive.

The hot sun bores in on us. It even feels like the Fourth of July. We open the canopy. The sun and breeze will remove the dampness from our covers and clothing. Sim sponges drops of turtle blood from the arches and canopy. With our appetite satiated, we nap.

We awaken to a rare Pacific sunset, a perfect end to a spectacular day. The turtle has nourished not only our bodies but has lifted our spirits. With bait, we can fish. I can hardly wait to begin.

From Our Last Chance by William A. Butler and Simonne S. Butler. Copyright 1992. Reprinted by permission of the authors. Our Last Chance is available for $22.50 in hardcover, $14.50 in paperpack at several area bookstores and marine supply stores. For information call Exmart Press at 667-7121.

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