Lost at Sea

Lost at Sea

A family relies on faith and prayer to bring loved ones home in this heroic tale of survival.

Keisa and Rex Willimon

KEISA: Not a cloud in the sky, sunlight kissing Charleston, South Carolina’s downtown market. This was the perfect way to spend the Saturday before Labor Day, shopping with my mother, sister-in-law Paula and our three girls, while the guys were off deep-sea fishing.

It was all my husband, Rex, had talked about for weeks, from the moment he got the new boat—a 38-foot cabin cruiser. He’d had it out only a few times before. I checked the time on my cell, a little after 10 a.m. They’re probably baiting their hooks about now. It felt great to get away.

We were spending the weekend at my brother Rodney’s and his wife Paula’s place in Charleston, a four-hour drive from our home. “I hope the fish are biting,” I said to Mom. “Rex promised to take me out to dinner tonight.”

Mom shook her head. “You know how those boys are,” she said. “Dad said not to expect them before dark.”

REX: I eased off the throttle, bringing the boat to rest over a man-made reef. “Here’s the spot,” I called out to my crew, three guys and three boys. The sun was already blistering hot. I snagged a Dr Pepper from the cooler.

“Okay, let’s…” The words never got out of my mouth. An ear-piercing alarm screamed. My eyes flew to the gauges. Check. I threw open the doors to the engines. Saltwater filled half the compartment and was rising fast. I grabbed the radio mic. “Mayday! Mayday!” I gave our compass reading. “Heading 108. Twenty-one miles off the coast. Express Cruiser taking on water.” Dead silence.

Before I could try the radio again my 15-year-old son, Tyler, yelled from below deck. “Dad! Water’s pouring in the hold!”

I looked to the stern. The diving platform was already underwater. “Everyone get in your life jackets and get to the front of the boat,” I ordered. I pulled on my preserver and counted heads. Tyler. Rodney and his 14-year-old son, Kaleb. Another brother-in-law Jody and his little guy, Xander. He was only five! Finally my father-in-law, Roger, the kids’ grandpa. There was no choice but to abandon ship. We needed some way to stay together. I searched the boat…there was plenty of rope, emergency flares lying under the windshield. We had the bait—squid, shiners—in a back compartment, our rods and the…

“Grab the cooler,” I yelled. It was a big one filled with brats, chicken salad and soda. We’d be able to hold onto it and stay afloat. “Get the rope from the bumpers and tie up together. Hurry!” Cool water lapped at my feet. We’d have a few hours at least before hypothermia set in.

The guys scrambled, tying the rope around their waists and then to each other. They pushed off from the boat with the cooler. I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket. Typed in a text to Keisa: “Mayday. Heading 108. 21 miles.” Hit send. No service, the screen flashed back. Grabbed the radio mic again and turned to see a massive wave crashing over the stern. It slammed me against the windshield and swept our flares out to sea. Now how were we going to get help?

I swam over to the rest of the group. Only the bow remained above the surface. Oil and gasoline pooled around us. It burned our skin. “We’ve got to get out of here,” I said, my eyes watering from the fumes.

We kicked about 50 feet away. Searing pain shot through my leg. Tyler screamed. I reached into the water and pulled something slimy from his leg. “Jellyfish!” I said. They were everywhere. Xander was sobbing. “Am I going to die?” he wailed.

“No,” Roger answered firmly. “God is watching over us. We just need to pray.”

KEISA: I was looking at dresses when my cell went off. “God Bless the Broken Road,” Rex’s ringtone. I pulled it out of my purse, but there was no message. “That’s odd,” I said. “Rex just tried to call me.” I checked the time. 11 a.m.

“Don’t worry about it,” Paula said. “I’m sure they’re having a ball out there.”

REX: The waves pushed us farther out to sea. We strained to keep them from flipping the cooler. I looked back. I could barely see the boat. “We’re going to end up in the middle of the ocean with this current,” I said to Rodney. I tied a length of rope around my waist and then to the cooler. “Everyone kick,” I said. “I’m going to tow us back to the boat.”

I turned and reached my arm into the water, pulling with all my strength. A wave swept over me, pushing me backward. I can’t give up , I thought. The guys are depending on me. I paddled harder, stretching as far as I could with each stroke. But it was like I was swimming in place. My chest and leg muscles ached, my heart pounded. Ever so slowly the boat drew closer. I pulled up about 50 feet away. In the distance I saw a tanker. This could be it!

“Look over there,” I said, pointing to the ship. “Rodney, swim with me to our boat. If we can get up high enough maybe they’ll see us.”

We untied ourselves from the cooler, swam to the bow and climbed to the top. Hanging on with my right arm, I waved my left arm frantically. But it was no use. No one saw us. We lowered ourselves back into the water. I cut the anchor loose so I could tie the rope to the cooler to keep us from drifting away. Something hit my leg…hard. “Sharks!” Rodney said. “They smell the bait.”

KEISA: The dishes had long been cleared away. Spaghetti—not the nice dinner Rex had promised me. It wasn’t like him to blow off a date. They should have been back by now. It was 10 p.m., more than two hours after dark. My mind kept going back to that call. What if there’d been a problem?

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