THE YOUNG Peace Corps doctor leaned across the table and put his question bluntly. “Just how fine is the line between life and death?” he asked.

“Too fine,” I answered. “The difference is much less than most of us will ever know.”

“What made the difference in your case?”

I hesitated a moment as the memory of the past several days welled up in me. “The will to live certainly had a lot to do with it,” I finally said.

“Yes, but physical condition is perhaps most important,” he argued. “When the body gives up so does the mind.”

We argued the subject further, but what is more important is the experience which brought this discussion about. This incident has a few lessons for all of us.

It all started when a friend and I arrived with our wives in Santa Marta, Colombia, to explore the blue Caribbean waters with rod and reel. Since boats were in short supply, we bought a big dugout canoe and assigned a native shipwright the task of rebuilding it to our specifications. When the cayuca finally was completed, we hired a local lad to run it from the mouth of the Cienaga Grande up the coast to Rodadero Beach where we would meet him and later outfit our craft for fishing and navigation offshore.

But, at the last minute our plans went awry. Instead of heading out of the Cienaga Grande toward Rodadero, the lad beached the boat at the mouth of the pass to the open ocean and informed us that he wouldn’t make the journey alone. So, I volunteered to accompany him.

The June 1969 cover of Field & Stream
Along with this survival tale, the June 1969 issue covered bass, grizzlies, and the vanishing rabbit. Field & Stream

But I didn’t do so without a few qualms. My intuition said no to a sea voyage with no equipment aboard, and it was only the urgency of the moment which made me consider such action. We wanted to go fishing the following day and we had to have the boat at Rodadero to equip it. There were two hours of daylight left, and according to the lad hired to run the 40 horsepower outboard, we would make the trip up the coast in that length of time. I shook off my feelings of uneasiness, handed my passport and wallet to my friend, Homer, and the native youth and I headed out through the pass into the open sea and began our journey.

I was pleased with the performance of our new boat. She took the big waves of the pass with ease and when we opened up the motor in the smooth swells outside, the 30-foot cayuca planed off at a speed which I estimated at 16 mph or better. An hour and 50 minutes later we rounded the big rock on the south end of Rodadero Bay and headed toward the beach with its brightly lighted hotels and high-rise apartments. Closer and closer came the lights, and soon I could see Homer and our two wives standing on the beach awaiting our arrival. It was too dark for them to see us, but it would only be minutes before we would be on the beach conducting the little arrival ceremony which I knew Homer had planned.

Just then, however, the husky throb of the engine changed to a high pitched whine, as the excited boy revved it a few times before turning it off. There had been a net in the water. We had struck it, and had sheared a pin.

An Impossible Task

To properly describe our predicament at this moment I must explain that Rodadero Beach lies almost in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountains. This isolated mountain range thrusts snow-capped peaks 20,000 feet into the air a few miles inland, and generates a strong offshore breeze, which, at this season of the year, almost approaches a gale. This phenomenon makes this stretch of the Caribbean coast delightfully cool and pleasant, but it also creates a hazard for people in a predicament such as ours. Although we were less than 300 yards from the beach, the waves were 6 feet high and the strong wind was steadily blowing us out to sea. Of course, we yelled and I even thought about jumping overboard and swimming for it. But, in the end, I decided it would make more sense to stay with the boat, replace the pin, and make another approach to the beach.

I had a pair of rusty pliers which I had picked up at the last minute and two shear pins. So I signaled my companion to try to keep the bow of the canoe into the wind with a push pole, while I endeavored to change the pin. Leaning far over the transom of the boat with the darkness and waves blinding my efforts, I struggled with a stubborn cotter key. Haste was important, but so was care. If I dropped the pliers overboard, all was lost. I couldn’t fix it leaning over the transom.

So we wrestled the big engine into the canoe, and I finally tore out the rusty cotter key and removed the propeller. Then came the job of changing the pin. I have done this innumerable times and knew the tolerance was close. But, in the wind, spray, and darkness the task proved to be impossible. The boy was screaming in my ear and pointing to the disappearing lights, so I decided on an alternate course of action. I pulled a nail from the boat, inserted it in the propeller shaft, and bent it over. It would have to do. I have come home many a time with a nail, a bobby pin, or even a wooden match for a drive pin. Care was required though.

If the motor was shifted into gear at low speed, and was not accelerated too rapidly, that eight penny nail would take us back to safety. So I cautioned the youth with a solemn despacio and turned the motor back to him.

But, he was more excited than I anticipated. He started the motor in neutral, but when he shifted, he literally jammed the lever into gear and accelerated simultaneously. As a result, the propeller shaft sheared the nail and without a cotter key to hold it, the propeller spun off into the depths below. Now, we were helpless. There was no paddle, no sail. The waves were growing in size and the strong offshore wind was steadily blowing us straight out to sea.

Then I became sick. Perhaps it was all the salt water I had swallowed in my ordeal with the motor, perhaps it was the motion of our rolling boat, or perhaps it was the realization that now nothing further could be done to save our lives. Regardless, I lay in the bow with my head hanging over the gunwale and heaved everything that was in me.

All that night we drifted broadside to the big waves, which slammed into the sides of our canoe, and when too much water came aboard I roused the boy and we bailed with the motor cover. He said that the seas would calm with the rising of the sun, so the two of us huddled together in the bow to keep warm, and I prayed that we would last through the night. 

A Visitor from Beneath

Dawn came with no abating of the waves and, for the first time, I could see the 40-foot mountains of water rise from the slate-colored ocean and literally hurl themselves at us. Suddenly, the fear that had been tranquilized by the cloak of night came back to me. Most of the waves broke within a few feet of us and only gave us a wild roller-coaster ride before leaving us behind in a foam-flecked watery valley. But, every now and then a wave came extremely close and I knew that it would only be a question of time before one broke right on top of us. This realization sent a cold shiver up my spine, and it wasn’t alleviated by the realization that we also had company. The long shadowy shape that came out from under the bow of our canoe and made a slow circle around us was difficult to distinguish in the dawn light, but not difficult to identify. It was an 8-foot hammerhead shark and it stayed with us for several hours.

We were helpless. There was no paddle, no sail. The waves were growing in size and the strong offshore wind was steadily blowing us straight out to sea. Then I became sick.

But a man can get used to anything. When the sun finally broke through the line of clouds on the horizon, our attitude improved. I reasoned that if the waves hadn’t sunk us during the night, then perhaps we could last indefinitely. And as long as two inches of wood hull separated us from the circling shark, we would remain in one piece. Soon the wind would shift and perhaps drive us up on a beach. Certainly, planes and boats would be searching for us and it would only be a question of time until we were rescued.

So, I forced a smile that I couldn’t quite feel and said, “No problemas, eh.”

But, my companion didn’t agree. As he watched the dorsal fin of the shark cutting the surface of the water a few yards away, he said distinctly, “Gringo loco …muchos problemas.”

Three airplanes flew over that morning, but in the wild white-cap flecked surface of the ocean our low silhouette dugout canoe was impossible to see. The same situation applied to the several boats that put out from Santa Marta that morning to search for us. With 40-foot waves blocking the horizon they didn’t have a chance of spotting us, and their search was further complicated by the fact that the men who went aloft all got sick. Of course, I didn’t know these things at the time, but when the third airplane finally appeared on the horizon, I realized that there was the possibility that we might not be found and I began to make plans for surviving on our own.

Dreaming of Survival Gear

Naturally, I couldn’t help thinking and dreaming about the store of equipment I had back in my room at Rodadero Beach. There I had a plastic drop cloth which I could have used as a solar still and distilled enough fresh water to keep us alive indefinitely. There was a stout nylon line and a sea anchor which would have kept our bow into the wind and would have almost eliminated the danger of swamping. I dreamed of the knife which would have allowed me to carve a good propeller, or the sail which we could have rigged to blow us southward to the shore which I knew was there. My supply of stores contained flares, a signaling mirror, life preservers, complete first-aid kit-everything necessary for us to stay alive and bring rescue planes to our side. Particularly, I dreamed about all the fishing tackle that was stacked in the corner of my room, because fish were everywhere. Several other sharks joined the first one and kept us company throughout the rest of the day. Schools of bonito and other bait fish swarmed just beneath the surface and attracted schools of mackeral and dolphin which churned the water to a frenzy in their feeding sprees. With a hook and line I know I could have caught enough fish to feed us well.

But, the stark reality of our desperate situation kept coming back to me. I had nothing—not a knife, hook, match-nothing. My only tools were the pliers and a nail, so we put them to use.

With the nail I carved a propeller from a piece of the boat. It took nine hours, and my hands were bleeding before the job was done. But, it was something to do, and there was the possibility that this stick revolving in the water could alter our course if the waves ever subsided. I knew calm water was necessary because this was my second effort. My other crude propeller was smashed to bits by a wave during the first moment that it began to revolve in the water.

The wind continued to blow us parallel to the Colombia coast and I cursed it for not swinging to the north and bringing us up on the sandy beach that lay just beyond the haze on the southern horizon. Perhaps we would eventually end up in Panama, but land in that direction was a long way off, and I doubted if we’d be alive when we made it. But, we had to. I knew it was possible for a man to go five days without food and water if he conserved his strength and body moisture, and I vowed that I would do so.

The Art of Survival

It was then that I gave serious thought to my companion. This youth had apparently given up all hope, but in the process he was doing exactly the right thing. The only time he moved was when I roused him from his lethargy to help bail the boat. The rest of the time he huddled in the shade of the forward deck and appeared to doze. In the meantime, I was exposed to the sun and was utilizing my strength carving out the propeller. The boy didn’t know as much about the art of survival as I did, but his animal instincts were serving him well.

As I pondered over this situation, I wondered what our relationship would be during the fourth or fifth day. Even after 20 hours, my veneer of civilization had worn thin, and the boy had started with a good deal less than I. From a very practical standpoint, each of us represented sustenance and life for the other, and I wondered if his instinct for survival was strong enough to prompt him to kill me for nourishment. Or how about me? Which of us would weaken first? If fate decreed that only one of us would live to tell the tale, which would it be?

While I was thinking about this some dolphin flushed a school of flying fish from the blue depths and one of them landed aboard our craft. I pounced on it before it could escape, and carefully wrapped it in a wet cloth. A few days later this little morsel would take on the significance of a full-course meal, I thought.

Perhaps I grew weak, perhaps I became careless, or perhaps destiny intervened. Perhaps it really was “my time.” Suddenly one powerful torrent of water tore me away from the boat and in the next moment I found myself alone in the darkness, gasping for breath, and cursing the wave which had parted me from the boat.

The waves continued to pound us unmercifully throughout the day, and I decided that we were lucky to be in a heavy dugout canoe. A conventional boat would have been destroyed many hours ago. Yes, our craft was strong, but it was still a helpless thing at the mercy of the seas. How much longer could it last? As the sun began to set, the big “terror” waves began to get more frequent and for the first time since dawn, I began to worry about capsizing.

As the shadow of darkness spared us the sight of white-capped waves on the horizon, the boy and I saw lights flickering in the distance.

“¿Que es esto?” I asked.

“Barranquilla,” the youth said.

Was it possible, I thought. Could we have drifted 60 miles since our accident? It seemed impossible, but Barranquilla was the only city this size on the entire Caribbean coast. It had to be.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but those lights winking in the distance indicated that we were approaching the mouth of the big Magdalena River. Here, a mighty river battled the ocean for supremacy and created a maelstrom of violence that only the experienced pilots navigated in broad daylight. We didn’t know what we were getting into.

From sundown until 10 p.m. we shivered from the unrelenting wind and spray and flinched with each blow from the heavy waves. Finally, one struck us at the wrong angle and filled our cayuca half full of water. Sensing disaster, both the boy and I lurched for the motor cover and began to bail desperately. But the boy kept looking back over his shoulder as we worked, and was able to shout a cry of warning before the worst wave of all lifted our canoe, turned it slowly, and slammed it back into the ocean upside down.

Death’s Door

I found myself under the boat and had to fight downward before I bobbed to the surface beside our capsized craft. Immediately a churning, hissing wave struck me, filled my mouth with water, and drove my head beneath the surface. Gagging for breath, I fought my way back to the slick black surface that was the bottom of our overturned cayuca, and clung there. The boy, who had been nearer to the bow when we capsized, had his legs wrapped around the bowsprit and was fairly secure. My position was more precarious. For the next two hours I clung to the side of the slick boat and tried to dodge the big waves that churned by me at 30-second intervals.

Perhaps I grew weak, perhaps I became careless, or perhaps destiny intervened. Perhaps it really was “my time.” Suddenly one powerful torrent of water tore me away from the boat and in the next moment I found myself alone in the darkness, gasping for breath, and cursing the wave which had parted me from the boat. I tore off my shoes, I remember, and for many minutes thereafter I struggled to stay on the surface.

Finally, I became so tired that I could hardly lift my arms. So I asked myself, Why continue to fight the inevitable? How long could you have lasted clinging to an overturned canoe, but without it what chance do you have? I was tired. God, I was tired. My body was a limp thing that the waves tossed around at will, and even a stubborn will to live was succumbing to the inevitable. Stop fighting, I told myself. You’re so tired. Relax. Close your eyes and slide downward into the depths where all is peace and quiet.

I was very close to death at this point, closer than I had ever been. My mind was arguing with my body, but like the doctor later said, the body usually wins in such cases.

Then I heard the cry, “Gringo, Gringo.” It was from far away and in the spray-filled darkness, I could see nothing, couldn’t even tell what direction it was coming from. But, it was something. As this cry penetrated my being, I struggled out of my lethargy and thought about life and all of the exciting things I had yet to do. I can’t die, I told myself. I can’t die now. I slowly lifted one arm, followed it with another, and fought my way through the heavy seas toward the sound of the boy’s voice. Finally, I saw the low black silhouette of the canoe, reached its side, and clung there with renewed strength.

Back at Rodadero Beach my wife suddenly awoke from a drugged sleep and glanced at her watch. It was midnight. She walked to the balcony and looked out at the sea as she had been doing continuously since my absence. But now there was a difference. The wind had died down to a whisper and Rodadero Bay was as quiet as a millpond. “Maybe,” she thought wildly, “there’s still hope.”

Midnight on that particular night proved to be charged with magic because it was precisely at the stroke of 12:00 when my feet touched the sand and I staggered through the surf to fall face down on the beach at Bocas de Ceniza.

The rest of the actual story is an anti-climax. We hiked 10 miles across a swamp to the nearest farmhouse, talked the man into ferrying us across the river in his dugout canoe, and I finally got to a telephone at 7 a.m. to call off the search that was getting into full swing.

Survival Lessons Learned

I learned a few things during this little adventure, which will stand me in good stead in future wilderness outings and perhaps may prove helpful to you, also. Let me summarize a few of them. 

  1. Always be prepared for an emergency in the field. I almost lost my life because I wasn’t, and I can assure you that it will never happen again. Today, I carry a small compass, a pocketknife, and a book of matches everywhere I go-even to the office. And, when I go out in the bush I take a complete survival kit. I admit I’m more gun-shy than most, but the advice is still good-include a compass, matches, knife, length of nylon cord, small first aid kit, etc., on all wilderness outings. 
  2. Keep in shape. As I told that Peace Corps doctor, the will to live is extremely important, but if I hadn’t had the strength to swim that last 100 yards, I wouldn’t be here today. The fact that I quit smoking six months previously might have been a factor, too.
  3. Keep fighting to survive. You must do this, because when you’re tired, death represents a chance to rest, and when you’re freezing, it is warmth. In a situation like this, the toughest thing you have to do is maintain your instinct to live.
  4. Lack of food and water is not really the hardship that we imagine. I, frankly, just shut the lack of it out of my mind and concentrated on survival, using what tools were available to keep my attention off impending death. I believe I could have gone for another two days without extreme discomfort.

You can find the complete F&S Classics series hereOr read more F&S+ stories.

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