A Sea of Trouble
Don Francisco had promised his television audience a once-in-a-lifetime story of love and adventure during this July 1991 taping of his show, Noche de gigantes. Two years earlier, a pair of Miami sailors, Bill and Simonne Butler, had been rescued off the coast of Costa Rica, having survived 66 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean in an inflatable rubber life raft. Now the Univision variety-show host had invited the Butlers to appear on his popular Spanish-language program.
Out they stepped into the enveloping applause and glaring klieg lights, an ordinary-looking middle-age couple, he dapper in a beige suit, she smiling in a print dress and navy jacket. Both were barely recognizable as the gaunt, tearful survivors who faced international TV cameras hours after their rescue in August 1989. A neatly clipped moustache had replaced the white beard Bill Butler grew as a castaway; his wife Simonne's wavy light brown hair had grown back to her shoulders after she had snipped off matted handfuls on the raft.
The Butlers, who both speak Spanish, told Don Francisco how they'd made it a third of the way from the Panama Canal to Hawaii on the first leg of an around-the-world voyage aboard their 38-foot cutter. And how on a breezy and cloudy moonless night, a school of pilot whales had converged on the boat in an inexplicable fury, gashing the hull and sinking Siboney within 30 minutes. The Butlers described how they had salvaged all the supplies they could before cutting loose their life raft and embarking on a voyage that would test and terrify and ultimately transform them.
It would make them stars, too, at least for several months. While recuperating in a Costa Rican hospital, they had spoken with broadcast and print reporters from around the world, and had greeted families on Today and Good Morning America. Back on U.S. soil, they were sought as news and talk-show guests; they'd even flown to Chicago in October 1989 to tape a segment of The Oprah Winfrey Show alongside other survivors of sea disasters. Bill Butler had assembled a thick scrapbook filled with newspaper and magazine stories written in English, French, Spanish, and Italian, as well as videotapes of the TV appearances.
Between conversations with the Butlers, Don Francisco and his cohost, musical director Valentin Trujillo, interspersed lighter diversions: impressionist Julio Zabala turned wittily detailed imitations of singers Juan Luis Guerra, Rafael, and Julio Iglesias; and Serapio, a Salvadoran folk singer, or dicharachero, bustled out in short, ragged pants roped to his waist, kissed his guitar, and sang clever ditties about men, women, infidelity, and serendipity. Then Don Francisco and Trujillo came back to the Butlers, and the tale picked up where it had left off.
They recounted their prayers at dusk before the long terrors of night began, nights when sharks attacked for hours and storms battered them with violent waves and rain. How they caught fish and ate them raw when their food supplies ran out. How dozens of freighters A some of which were as large as a football field and passed within a few hundred yards of their raft A churned by without seeing them. How their supplications to Nuestra Se*ora de Los Angeles, the patron saint of those in danger at sea, were finally answered on August 19, when a Costa Rican Coast Guard patrol boat spotted their raft thirteen miles offshore. By the time they were picked up, the Pacific currents had carried them 1150 miles from the point where Siboney sank, back toward Central America. They had never given up hope, they told Don Francisco, though several times they had been convinced death was imminent. Both cried as they told of the rescue and of their newfound religious faith. Once Simonne carefully reached out a hand to wipe tears from her husband's cheek. He pulled his head back slightly, as a reluctant child might do at the approach of a mother's washcloth.
Near the end of the Butlers' story, Trujillo looked over at his boss from his piano bench and said thoughtfully, "You know, Don Francisco, I believe she's willing to share the luck of her husband out on the sea again."
"You think so?" the Don asked.
Simonne laughed and shook her head no; she'd had enough adventure.
What she didn't say was that she and Bill Butler had separated a month earlier, that she had returned to their Kendall home one Sunday after Mass, to find her husband in the garage, surrounded by boxes. She asked him why he was cleaning the garage. He told her he was moving out. A year later Bill Butler remarried.
Two months after their rescue, the Butlers signed a contract with the William Morris Agency in New York. From his first few hours back on dry land, when walking still felt like treading water, Bill Butler had felt compelled to write about the experience he and Simonne had shared. The management firm wanted to publish a book as soon as possible, the agents wanted the Butlers to work with a ghostwriter. The couple interviewed several. "Most of the interviews were light and superficial," Bill says now. "Yet we felt our story was so intense, with so much detail that only we had lived." And indeed, when he'd read samples based on experiences he and Simonne had described to potential writers, Bill decided they'd write the book alone. "Writing it myself may be amateurish, but that way it has more of a true ring to it," he explains. "I want to put the reader in the raft and live it."
In late 1989 the couple began work on their manuscript. At first the idea was to seam together the story from segments each would write separately. As it turned out, however, Bill wrote nearly all of the book; suffering from posttraumatic depression, Simonne wasn't able to contribute nearly as much as they had planned. Instead, her contributions take the form of occasional short vignettes interspersed throughout the narrative.
Closeted in the back of their house with his computer, Bill completed a first draft in June 1990 and a revision later that summer. Work was interrupted only by appearances on broadcast programs and at forums organized by sailing clubs, church groups, and the like. Other than those efforts, Bill says, he did little else but work on the book for more than two years. He estimates he made at least 25 full revisions in that time.
"One thing I have had to come to terms with is that my experience can never be accurately portrayed," writes naval architect Steven Callahan in Adrift, his account of surviving 76 days alone on a raft after his sailboat sank in the Atlantic Ocean in 1983. "The truth of my story is like one of Plato's forms, the perfect model after which the imperfect representation in reality is fashioned. After my return, many people wrote about my story. Some tied Christian dogma to it, others romantic adventure, others Hollywood hype. This was fine by me. Even my own rendition is but an imperfect representation of what I experienced. In many ways that is a good thing. If I could convey the true horror I felt at the time, no one would want to read this story."
In fashioning his representation of reality, Bill Butler, a seasoned sailor, drew upon Siboney's daily log, which he and Simonne had maintained throughout their ordeal. But they also discovered they had not forgotten very much, having lived each second fully exposed to the elemental forces of nature, their lives pared down to the most basic elements. "I did a lot of crying when I was writing the book," Butler admits.
The story is told pretty much chronologically, beginning with the Butlers' last-minute preparations to leave Miami on their around-the-world journey. After a relatively uneventful transit through the Panama Canal, Bill writes, Siboney (named for a love song popular in Cuba) made for Hawaii, about 4000 miles to the northwest.
On the night of June 14, 1989, a pod of pilot whales converged on Siboney. At first they appeared docile, but their behavior soon became more aggressive, and finally they attacked the boat: "Back on deck, I find the whales are now bigger, some half as long as Siboney. They breathe louder and act irritated. They rush at each other in an apparent struggle of titans for position. The boat trembles, and a sandpaperlike scratching sound echoes all along the starboard side." At 4:00 a.m. on June 15, the whales gashed a hole in the hull, and Siboney sank.
Butler theorizes that the whales mistakenly felt Siboney was another whale that was about to attack their pod. Other sailors have had their vessels sunk by whales: Lyn and Dougal Robertson's Lucette went down southwest of Panama in 1972 after an attack by killer whales (coincidentally, the Lucette sank on June 15, the same day as Siboney), and they were rescued 38 days later; and Maurice and Maralyn Bailey survived 118 days adrift on the Pacific after their boat was sunk by a sperm whale on March 4, 1973.
Aboard their inflatable life raft, which they christened Last Chance, Bill and Simonne Butler watched Siboney disappear underwater and numbly began to contemplate their fate. What, they wondered, had they done to bring on such a disaster? They catalogued their sins, promising themselves and God that they would begin a new life if they were given another chance. Among the articles they had managed to salvage were a state-of the-art water desalinator A which perhaps was the most important factor in their survival A a fishing rod, various foodstuffs and beverages, clothes and cushions, as well as their passports and credit cards, a still camera and a camcorder (the camcorder was subsequently dumped overboard; the camera and its film were ruined by water), and a .38 caliber revolver. They also had three flares, and a battery-operated device called an Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon (EPIRB), which transmits signals on two radio frequencies to help aircraft and satellites trace a vessel's location. The problem was that in order to be effective, an EPIRB must be transmitting within a satellite's or aircraft's line of sight. This proved to be worthless in the Butlers' case. They were literally in the middle of nowhere: 3000 miles east of the Hawaiian islands, 1100 miles west of Mexico, nowhere near regular shipping lanes.
As they drifted, Simonne, a devout Catholic since childhood, prayed unceasingly on the rosary she had managed to keep with her; she took a private vow of celibacy, to which Bill alludes in the book. Bill himself, who was not a deeply religious man before the sinking of Siboney and who was somewhat dismayed with his wife's lack of intimacy, nonetheless found solace in the psalms Simonne read each evening, and soon began to pray along with her.
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.
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.
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.
At age 55, Simonne feels it's time she went back to the Old World. Her sons Crist centsbal and Alexander are both grown, and she wants to move closer to her ailing mother in France. She hints at a new career but refuses to elaborate, saying only that it's tied to the Catholic religion. After Bill left her, she says, she renewed the vow of celibacy she had made on the raft. "I'm not happy in Miami any more," she says, settling slowly into a plush chair in her Miami Lakes apartment. The metal statuette of Nuestra Se*ora de Los Angeles stands on a display case below a framed picture of Jesus; a copy of the Conde Nast Traveler sits on the coffee table.
Simonne moved to Miami Lakes after Hurricane Andrew tore apart the large house in Kendall she had shared with Bill for more than a decade. The raft in which they'd lived for 66 days was lost in the August storm. "When the hurricane came," she says grimly, "for me it was a sign I have to go."
About her divorce from Bill, she is both bitter and sanguine. "After what happened [with the shipwreck]," she confides, "I thought he would stay with me for the rest of my life. Bill was my idol, and God doesn't like idols; he breaks them down in everyone's life. I've learned so much since I've been alone. I've learned how to take care of myself. I think Jesus wanted it that way. He wanted to make me free. I know I have something to do in this life," she concludes.
"What did I learn from the voyage?" writes Steven Callahan in Adrift. "My beliefs about the indifference of the sea, about the relative nature of good and evil and of all human values, about the equality of all God's creatures, and about my own insignificance were only reinforced."
Bill Butler speaks of a moment-by-moment communication with God, which persists to this day, even though he never gave religion much thought before the shipwreck. As a lifelong sailor, he had felt capable of handling any crisis on the sea A or on land, for that matter. "I'm convinced, looking back at the whole thing, that it was meant to be," Bill says. "The good Lord was trying to teach us to see the true light." For him, the light dawned when he realized he couldn't save himself, that in the end he survived solely through the mercy of God.
"I feel so strange, like I don't fit in any more," muses Simonne Butler. "People talk to me about trivial things that have no meaning whatsoever to me. I talked to Steven Callahan on the phone after we got back, and I told him that. He said, 'You'll find your peace.'" Like her former husband, Simonne has a distinctly faraway gaze A it's as if they're both still scanning a wide and empty horizon. "I'm still not there," she says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.