A B.C man has survived an epic ordeal at sea.
After his sailboat sank in the Caribbean, 77-year old Shuswap B.C. resident Don Cavers was forced to drift in a life raft, subsisting on little food and water over an arduous 6 days.
But Cavers is strong-willed, telling Global News BC that failure never crossed his mind. “That actually never became part of my thinking. I don’t know where that comes from; the eternal optimist, I guess.”
Cavers is a veteran sailor, having logged extensive time at the helm during ambitious trips like sailing from Canada to Mexico and back. He purchased his latest sailboat in Columbia for $45,000 USD and was planning on taking a trip to Puerto Rico to link up with his son.
But nature has a tendency to ruin even the best laid plans, and Cavers soon found himself in the midst of rough seas after leaving port. With 15-foot waves during his second night at sea, water flooded the cabin where a faulty bilge-pump made things instantly precarious.
“The boat got a bit sluggish, and then I discovered I was taking on quite a bit of water,” Cavers said. “So I turned to get the water off the decks so the waves weren’t breaking over the bow.”
Cavers began bailing water manually over the next several hours, but the rough seas persisted.
“When you get into that type of situation, you have to take it one step at a time. Once I realized where I was taking on water — while still in survival mode to get the water out — I knew I wasn’t sinking.”
Surprisingly, Cavers managed to save the boat — for the time being. He was able to empty the water, but only to find out the following day that his electrical systems had suffered failures, including the autopilot system. His cellphone, iPad, and navigational books were also ruined.
With no electronics to manage the boat, Cavers was reduced to steering it manually. But without navigation books and a malfunctioning compass, he was only able to get a general bearing north towards the nearest landfall.
Cavers estimated he had roughly 150 miles to cover, but with no systems to advise him of his progress, he was completely in the dark about the progress he was, or wasn’t, making.
He even thought he’d found salvation on more than one occasion, only to be devastated when two different fishing boats passed close by but ignored his pleas. Cavers suspects they were fishing illegally and didn’t want to be discovered. He also saw a tanker and fired off flares for rescue, but the large ship simply didn’t see them.
As is the case in many survival situations, the emotional rollercoaster of triumph and failure played out with intensity. During his fifth day at sea, Cavers was able to reactivate the autopilot, which finally allowed him the chance to rest from steering the boat.
But just as things looked up, they once again took a turn for the worse. Around midnight, Cavers ran aground.
“I got an abrupt awakening when I hit a reef. You know you’re on ground when you’re sailing along and then you hear a big thump. That was probably the scariest thing of all, that 15-20 minutes where basically, I got the engine going and thought I was going to get off the reef.
“But something tore a hole in the stern, it started taking water pretty fast.”
The reef he hit was close to Cuba, approximately 1,400 kilometres from where he began. He grabbed his emergency supplies and hopped into his dinghy, hoping to be able to tether it to the sailboat and wait for rescue. Cavers also had an emergency life raft. His supplies were meager — an emergency beacon, a bag of chips, some crackers, and 20 litres of fresh water.
“I unleashed the life raft and threw it in, and it magically inflated, and I moved it around next to the dinghy,” said Cavers. “And then I abandoned ship and into the life raft.”
But strong winds wreaked havoc on the dinghy, so Cavers switched to the life raft. But even that wouldn’t hold against the wind, which eventually blew him back out to sea.
After three days aboard the life raft, the bad luck continued when Cavers realized his emergency beacon was malfunctioning. He adjusted it, believed it was working again, and set about surviving for as long as he could.
After 12 days at sea, and 6 adrift in the life boat, he heard salvation.
“I was dozing and I heard a ship’s horn,” he said. “Usually if you’re on a sailboat and you hear a ship’s horn, they’re telling you to get out of their (way).
“So I grabbed the flare gun and shot off a couple of flares, then the radio to say, ‘Hey, I can’t get out of your road.’
“And then — I get choked up every time telling this — they said, ‘Well, it’s OK. We’re here to rescue you.”
The ship pulled alongside Cavers and dropped a rope ladder. The saga was over.
The ship had been redirected by the U.S. Coast Guard, Canadian Mission Control Centre, and the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre. They had received the signal from his emergency beacon.
Cavers said he’s learned many lessons from his trip, one of the most important being the need for waterproofing your most important items.