Stranded at Sea
Blazing sun, a pitching sea, and hungry sharks—and that was just the start of their troubles.
- By Alvin Townley
- AirSpaceMag.com, April 26, 2011
Courtesy National Naval Aviation Museum
(Page 3 of 4)
With no real means of steering, the craft would sail in the direction of the wind, its eighteen-inch sides acting as satisfactory sails. Two decades in the navy had taught Dixon about navigation and he divined a method for tracking their speed and position. He used bits of floating cloth to gauge the raft’s relative speed and how the wind affected it. Then he used a small pencil and a small aerial navigator’s scale to sketch a rough map on the back of a lifejacket. Each evening, the crew dutifully and ceremoniously updated the map and charted their progress.
For the first days, the wind cooperated with their plan, blowing them south and somewhat west toward the Phoenix Islands, the Samoa Islands, and Fiji. When winds shifted and blew them northward, the crew improvised a sea anchor out of a lifejacket and the cord strung around the raft. When they deployed it, the lifejacket sank several feet below the surface and its drag reduced their rate of drift to almost zero. Dixon also took great care to keep the raft’s bow, not its beam, pointed toward the unfriendly wind.
As days wore on, food and water began to outrank navigation in their immediate concerns. Their mouths were cotton dry by the fifth day; it hurt to swallow. They each knew their systems would soon stop working without fresh water. Gene, the most religious of the three, suggested that they pray. And that night, for the first time since they ditched, it rained.
They used their lifejackets to collect the water, and Dixon drank greedily. They felt renewed with their mouths wet and the salty grime washed from their clothes and bodies. Another prayer session occurred the following night, but providence was not as kind. No rain fell for the next several days. In the interim, their hunger became almost unbearable.
They noticed a gathering crowd of fish around the boat and Gene spent much of the seventh day trying to snare one. Finally, with a quick stab of the pocketknife, he speared a fish and flipped it onto a sleeping Tony, who quickly woke and held down the catch. The men scaled their victim and divided every ounce of edible flesh among them.
On the same day, Gene used the .45 to shoot an albatross that alighted on the raft’s bow. The small morsels aroused their hunger in full, however, and hunger pangs gripped them with sharper claws than ever.
On the morning of their eighth day afloat, a school of sharks gathered around them. Gene went to work with the pocketknife. A shark closed toward the raft’s side. Gene struck swiftly, the crew heard a sound like a punch or puncture, and Gene turned pale. The men looked at each other, fearing the blade struck the boat, not the shark. Then Gene’s arm thrashed along with the speared shark and he hauled the big creature in, the knife blade still in its gills. The four-foot shark struggled for some time, but eventually succumbed. They ate the liver first, then several sardines from the shark’s stomach before attacking the rest of the creature. Soon, for the first time in eight long, hot, thirsty, hungry days, their stomachs were full. They wouldn’t be full again for two weeks.
On the fifteenth night, a slight noise attracted the chief’s attention and he discovered a tern had alighted on the raft, just above his resting head. Quietly, he slipped his arm toward the bird then grabbed for it. Raw food no longer fazed them and the tern became breakfast the next morning. Five days later, they devoured a waterlogged coconut and snared another on day twenty-eight as it floated by. They would have no other food.