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How one man survived 5 days adrift in the Caribbean

BY Gary Stephen Ross

2nd Aug 2023 Life

How one man survived 5 days adrift in the Caribbean
When his boat struck a reef and sank into the Caribbean, Don Cavers jumped onto a life raft and watched as the ocean carried him away
At first glance, it seemed like a good deal: a 12-metre Ericson 38-200 sailboat for US $45,000. Named Starlight II, the boat was moored at the Puerto Velero marina near Barranquilla on the Colombian coast. Don Cavers, then 76, bought it in early 2021, intending to fly from his home in British Columbia (BC), Canada, and test it out.
The pandemic made that impossible, so he didn’t actually see the boat until he arrived in Colombia near the end of that year. It was more weathered and rusted than he’d imagined, but his life of adventure, sailing and farming had made him a jack of all trades, able to fix almost anything.
Cavers and his stepson, Omar Gaitan-Burns, planned to sail Starlight 1,200 kilometres to Puerto Rico. There, Cavers would meet up with other family members. They’d all sail around the British Virgin Islands for a couple of weeks before the others returned home and he carried on to Miami, Florida. If he chose not to keep the boat, he thought he could probably sell it in the United States for more than he’d paid.

Trouble brewing in the Caribbean

Cavers and Gaitan-Burns set sail from Colombia in late November. Things went smoothly until, two days later, halfway to Puerto Rico, Starlight’s electrical system failed: no light, no GPS, no auto-navigation, no way to charge devices. Cavers was unperturbed but Gaitan-Burns, alarmed, his phone almost out of juice, sent emergency emails to Cavers’s daughter, Annelise Grube-Cavers, in BC, saying they had no power and needed help.
She contacted the Colombian coast guard and gave them Starlight’s coordinates. A vessel soon found the boat and accompanied it back to the marina for repairs.
At the marina, it took Cavers a week to find and install a new alternator (which turns mechanical energy into electricity). Gaitan-Burns had to head off to a wedding, so this time Cavers set sail on his own. Heading north at nightfall, into wind and heavy waves, he made steady progress. The next day, changing course to the east, he noticed that the boat was moving sluggishly through the heavy, rolling, four-metre seas.
Donning his headlamp and checking below, he saw why: Salt water was sloshing back and forth on the floor. Each time a wave broke across the deck, water sprayed down through the closed hatches—the seals needed replacing. The maps and papers he’d laid out were a sodden mess. The bilge pump had failed, so the sea water had nowhere to drain.
This wasn’t going to be much fun. Bucket in hand, Cavers braced his lower back against the hull and began to bail. Waves pummelled the boat as it headed north on autopilot. It was like trying to stay on a bucking bronco. By the time the water was mostly bailed, he’d badly scraped his lower back and buttocks.
"Steer the boat! If it capsizes, game over"
The next day, the electrical system failed again. Bummed out and exhausted, Cavers felt a surge of adrenaline. Without auto-navigation, he had to hand-steer through the wind and cresting seas. The problem was how to keep his hands on the wheel as the boat rolled and pitched. Some 16 or 18 hours passed. When exhaustion over-took him, he hove to—set the foresail and mainsail in opposition to each other—to stall the boat. That let him doze off for a time before his head bobbed, jerking him awake. Steer the boat! If it capsizes, game over.
As the waves subsided to two metres or so, Cavers realized his mainsail was damaged. He went below deck and managed to get the autopilot working again. Everything was covered in salt, including Cavers himself. Every surface was conductive, and as he tinkered he kept getting jolted by the 12-volt battery system. It was like touching a horse fence, except you didn’t know when it was coming.
On day four aboard the disabled yacht, the weather calmer now, Cavers passed within sight of a fishing boat. He waved and hailed it on his hand-held marine radio. He had enough Spanish to make his plight known—“No power, I need a location!” Maritime law obliges every captain to help any boat or seaman in distress, but the crew ignored him—likely fishing illegally and worried about revealing their location. Half an hour later, it happened again with another boat. Angry and disheartened, he went below and fell into an exhausted sleep.
Sometime that night, Cavers was startled awake when Starlight struck a reef. He did a quick inspection as the boat rocked and rose and crashed down again. Could he break free of the reef? Using an auxiliary battery, he got the motor started. Maybe, if he timed it right, he could power off just as a wave lifted the boat. He got the bow turned into the surf, but when he put the engine in gear the boat’s rudder, hung up on the reef, tore a hole in the stern. Water flooded in.
How Don Cavers survived 5 days alone in the Caribbean
Illustration by Steven P Hughes
No choice: abandon ship. Cavers, wearing his life jacket, found his hand-held marine radio, emergency locator beacon, computer, a rain coat, flare gun and a bit of food—nacho chips and crackers. He stuffed everything into his dry bag and loaded it, along with a precious 20 litres of water, into the dinghy he’d brought along for an emergency. He also had a life raft in a clamshell case as a last resort. He set it to inflate—it was no bigger than a coffin—then tied it to the dinghy.
In the distance, he could make out a lighthouse, perhaps on a small island. Ten kilometres distant? Fifteen? Impossible to tell. He wanted to stay with the yacht and wait through the night for help, but the boat crashed about unpredictably and the anchor, loose on deck, threatened to damage the dinghy. It was too dangerous. When the dinghy line snagged on the reef, he had to transfer himself and his provisions to the life raft and cut it free. He was now at the mercy of wind and current.
In the raft, rocked by the waves, Cavers thought of what he should haved one—stored his electronics in the drybag, grabbed some canned food and put the oars in the dinghy so he could have rowed toward the lighthouse. At least he’d got hold of a bumper floating away from the wreck, which helped him get more comfortable.
Cavers was completely exhausted. His shorts and shirt were sodden and rank. His back and butt were badly abraded, but he was safe, and the night air was pleasantly warm. When he looked back to where he’d spotted the lighthouse, he could see only dark, rolling waves and the vast, starry sky.
The raft was drifting in the opposite direction.

In a tight spot

On a farm in BC, Annelise Grube-Cavers raises livestock with her partner. Her dad had promised he’d check in each morning at 9am. On his first day solo he had done so. Since then, however: nothing. She knew he had an Iridium Go, a device that enabled global voice and data, but she wasn’t sure it was working properly and he’d never been the most reliable communicator.
Now, after four days of silence, she was worried. Her dad was in good shape for his age, but he’d had a hip replacement, needed his knee replaced and was alone on an unfamiliar yacht that had previously had problems. He’d always been good at getting out of emergency situations, true, but he was also good at getting into them.
Grube-Cavers contacted an organisation called Boatwatch.org, which is run by spouses Glenn and Eddie Tuttle in Florida. The Tuttles are retired FBI agents who use their investigative skills to find overdue, missing and stolen boats. It wasn’t really an emergency, Grube-Cavers said, but her father should probably have reached Puerto Rico by then. The Tuttles instructed Grube-Cavers to call the coast guard in Puerto Rico right away.
Eddie Tuttle was unequivocal: “You have to have him declared missing,” she said. “Alert every possible authority”—meaning the US Coast Guard in Miami, Canadian embassies in the Caribbean, emergency consular services in nearby countries, anyone who could help.
Canadian coast guard
Grube-Cavers alerted various coast guards to her father's missing status
Guided by the Tuttles, Grube-Cavers became the point person for concerned family and friends. Over the following days she spent hours at her computer and on her phone, navigating the territorial complexities that arise when someone from BC—presumed to be sailing from Colombia, a sovereign nation, to Puerto Rico, a US protectorate, on a yacht registered in Canada—goes missing, perhaps in Cuban waters.
Six days after setting sail from Colombia, now adrift on the Caribbean, the weather clear and sunny, Cavers had ample time to reflect. He reminded himself that he’d been in tight spots before. He’d once suffered a compression fracture of a cervical vertebra falling off a ladder. Near-fatal amoebic dysentery as a young man travelling in Afghanistan. He’d tried to enter Cambodia just as Pol Pot took over in 1975 (a day earlier and he might not have gotten back out). Sailed up from Mexico in eerie calm and narrowly avoided hurricane-force winds. Ran into problems flying his little Murphy SR 2500 monoplane and ended up in a ditch, tangled in barbed wire, during an emergency landing.
The secret, he knew, was not to panic. One thing after another. Ration the chips and crackers. Adjust the flaps to protect against wind and water. Try to get comfortable. When he got hungry, he took a slug of water. His posterior wounds had become infected, so he kept his shorts lowered. A small bucket served sanitary purposes.
"Three days after he’d taken to the raft, he’d finally activated his emergency beacon"
In his dry bag he found a survival manual in French, and he began journaling in the white spaces: When you have absolutely nothing to do but wait, it makes for a long day. Evenings passed gradually into darkness, glazed meditation into unconsciousness, night back into morning. Cavers lost track of what day it was. Constantly playing out rescue scenarios in my mind. Not much else for it to do.
He was drifting southwest. When a bit of debris floated by, he timed its progress. It was moving, he reckoned, at maybe three knots. The life raft was drifting more slowly. At this rate, he estimated, he might cover 25 nautical miles a day. If he was more or less where he imagined, he might wash up in southern Mexico, or perhaps Honduras, in three weeks or so.
Cavers noticed that the antenna on his locator beacon was broken. Was it sending out an emergency signal? He replaced the broken antenna with the one from his hand-held radio and noticed a button that said HOLD FOR 5 SECONDS. He tried it, but the unit didn’t do anything different—or so he thought.
In fact, nine days after Starlight lost power, and three days after he’d taken to the raft, he’d finally activated his emergency beacon.

Calling for help

Cavers's device was sending a signal to a SARSAT satellite, which tagged the beacon’s country of registration before relaying the signal to a rescue network on the ground. Since Cavers had a Canadian-tagged beacon, personnel at the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Trenton, Ontario, swung into action. The JRCC deals with about 4,000 emergency alerts a year, most of them maritime incidents. They sought to establish the beacon’s location and who it belonged to, and then to alert the appropriate rescue agencies. Their task was complicated by the fact that the beacon’s registration hadn’t been changed over from the boat’s previous owner. It took them a day to track down Cavers’s family in BC and let them know they’d received the signal.
Since the signal was coming from Cuban territorial waters, Trenton relayed the location to that country’s coastguard. The Cubans were not especially helpful. They later claimed to have sent a vessel to the reported position but found nothing and considered the matter closed.
Trenton was also in touch with the US Coast Guard in Miami. When the next day brought no news, it was time to issue an AMVER (automated mutual-assistance vessel rescue) alert, which interrupts the radios of ships in the area of the beacon’s last location.
The alert buoyed Grube-Cavers’s spirits. She’d been imagining the worst. Had her father been waylaid in Colombia before even leaving? (The marina confirmed he had set sail.) Was piracy on the open seas a possibility?
Was he still alive?
A bulk carrier
In a stroke of luck, Cavers was picked up by a bulk carrier
Cavers's life raft was stabilized by a cone-shaped drogue—a sea anchor shaped like the windsock at an airfield. Because it could destabilize the raft in heavy weather, he hauled it in each evening.
On his fifth day adrift, growing weaker, he noticed minnows caught in the drogue’s mesh. Never been a big fan of sashimi, he wrote. Six tiny fish on a soggy cracker made a meal, his first bit of protein. Not sure I want to lose anymore weight, he thought. He took a sip of water and dozed off.
On the open sea, a ship’s whistle is generally a warning to a smaller vessel to get out of the way. Jolted awake, groggy, Cavers realized that a huge bulk carrier was bearing down on his raft. Having no way to evade the ship, he unzipped the raft’s flap and fired up one flare, then another, and got on his radio.
“Cargo ship! Cargo ship! This is life raft from pleasure craft Starlight. I’m adrift.”
“This is Bulk Pangaea,” someone replied. “We see you.”
“I can’t get out of your way!”
“That’s okay,” said the crewman. “We’re here to rescue you.”
"Jolted awake, groggy, Cavers realized that a huge bulk carrier was bearing down on his raft"
Overwhelmed with gratitude and relief, Cavers admired the seamanship of the Russian captain and his Filipino crew as they brought a vessel the length of two football fields to rest alongside his little orange raft. The Bulk Pangaea, registered in Panama, was returning empty to Jamaica after hauling bauxite to the US state of Louisiana. The captain, Vladimir Bakhar, had answered the alert and changed course to search the location of Cavers’s beacon. They’d found him between Cuba and Jamaica.
Mid-afternoon on December 14, Miami Coast Guard called Annalise Grube-Cavers in BC to report that a freighter had responded to the alert for Starlight. The freighter was 16 kilometres from the beacon’s last location and heading for it.
At last! Hope! But then, inevitably came the sobering questions. Was the beacon still on the boat? Had the yacht gone down, and her dad with it? Was the beacon floating free in the Caribbean?
She didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Less than two hours later, Miami called again. “Is your father named Don Cavers?”
“Yes!”
“A merchant ship has rescued himfrom a life raft. He’s okay. He’s safe.”

Post-adventure reflections

Crew members had dropped a rope ladder from the deck. Cavers didn’t realise how weak he’d become until he tried to climb it. It felt, he said later, “like climbing Mount Everest.” On board he was checked out, deemed healthy, fed a bit of chicken and gravy, and given a robe and size-10 Crocs for his size-13 feet. His infected lacerations were attended to, and then he slept.
Cavers spent three days aboard the Bulk Pangaea en route to Jamaica, then three more days in port confined to a room as a Covid-19 quarantine precaution. Before he disembarked, the crew gave him a handmade “Rebirth Certificate.” Finally out of quarantine, he passed through customs and was taken to Montego Bay. There he boarded a flight to Toronto, and then home to BC.
Don Cavers on the Bulk Pangaea
A rescued Don Cavers safely aboard the Bulk Pangaea
Grube-Cavers and her brother, Tristan, met him at the airport. After an emotional reunion—their dad was grizzled and seven kilograms lighter, but otherwise fine—his children drove him home.
Only later did it occur to Cavers how close he’d come to perishing. He was lucky. During his time adrift, the Caribbean had been calm. If he hadn’t happened to activate the emergency beacon and been picked up by the Bulk Pangaea, he could easily have become a drifting corpse.
“Ninety-nine times out of 100,” Captain Jean House of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre said in an interview, “it would have gone the other way.”
Compared to most of us, Don Cavers is a heroic adventurer. Today, grateful to be able to play with his grandkids and tend his garden, he regrets that he didn’t properly test the boat’s systems. He regrets that he didn’t have a portable, waterproof GPS with him. He regrets inconveniencing so many people. He regrets the loss of his uninsured boat.
Mostly, he regrets the worry and grief he caused his family. “It was not a hero’s journey,” he says. “It was a fool’s journey.”
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