Lost at Sea

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

- Posted on Aug 2, 2011

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?

Mom, Paula and I lingered at the table. I had my cell phone open, pretending to play a game while I looked up the number for the Coast Guard.

I went to a bedroom to make the call. “Coast Guard,” a voice on the other end answered. “Lt. Rhodes speaking.”

“My husband was out deep-sea fishing with my brothers and dad. They’re overdue,” I said. “I’m worried they might have engine trouble or something.”

“Let me check the log,” he said calmly. “Let’s see…Mayday call about ten this morning. Says there was interference. We didn’t get any details. We sent out a chopper and didn’t see anything. We’ll get back out there and I’ll stay in touch.”

I tried to tell myself that they’d be all right, stranded somewhere on the boat. At least they had enough food in that cooler to feed an army. I didn’t say anything to the others yet.

REX: The sharks were out there somewhere, waiting. But I had a more pressing concern. I couldn’t stop shivering. I could feel Tyler next to me shaking as well. Hypothermia coming on. It was all I could do to hold on to the cooler, my body exhausted. I opened the cooler lid and pulled out a Dr Pepper, took a sip and handed the bottle to Tyler. “We’ve got to stay hydrated,” I said.

We’d been out here for 12 hours. “The Coast Guard’s looking for us by now,” I said to reassure the guys. “The girls would have called when we didn’t come in.” But would there be enough time? Would I ever hold Keisa again? God, tell me this isn’t how it’s going to end, I prayed.

I hooked my legs around Tyler’s and Roger’s to try and keep us warm. I could hear Xander crying again. It was a miracle the little guy was even still alive. I felt so helpless.

Someone was singing. Roger. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” I couldn’t help but join in. “I once was lost…” The others did too, Xander loudest of all. I looked up to the heavens. The sky was awash with stars, brighter than I’d ever seen. Lord, we’ve done all we can, I prayed. The rest is up to you. My body still quivering from the cold, our fate as bleak as ever, I sang along, “Twas grace that brought us safe thus far…and grace will lead us home.”

KEISA: My cell phone rang. I lunged for it. What time was it anyway? The clock read 3:30 a.m. “Hello.”

“Mrs. Willimon, Lt. Rhodes here. I’m sorry to report we haven’t seen any sign of your family. We’ve got two choppers in the air and a C-130 transport plane, plus a cutter in the water, but…it’s a big ocean. I was hoping you might have a photo of the boat that you could e-mail us.”

“I think so,” I said. I remembered Rex posting some pictures on Facebook.

I went to Paula’s bedroom, woke her up and explained the situation. “I need to get on your computer.” I sent Lt. Rhodes a picture of the boat. Mom and Paula sat down at the table, their faces etched with worry.

“All we can do is put it in God’s hands,” Mom said. “We need people praying.”

Mom got on the phone to our pastor back home. Paula called Jody’s wife, Crystal, in North Carolina, who hadn’t made the trip, then her minister. I woke up Rex’s mother and my sister Alisa in North Carolina. “I’ll ask for prayers on Facebook,” Alisa said.

I clicked over to the Bible on my cell phone. What was that verse I’d read in my morning devotional? James 1:6. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.

I could only imagine what the guys were going through out there, tossed by the waves, clinging to survival. But I wasn’t going to let my faith waver. God knew where they were in that big ocean. He was our only hope.

The three of us bent our heads. “Dear God,” Mom prayed, “send your angels to bring them home safely.”

REX: The sun was just peeking out over the horizon. There was a noise in the distance. Whup-whup-whup. “They’re coming!” I shouted. We waved and yelled until I thought my arms would fall off.

But the helicopter flew past us. My heart sank. How could they have not seen us? Then it stopped…and turned back, hovering directly above us. The wind from the rotor blades sprayed saltwater over us. All I could feel was the joy of being alive. I popped the cooler, grabbed a Dr Pepper, opened it and handed it to Roger. “Pass it around,” I said. “This is a moment to celebrate.”

“Look, a frogman,” Xander hollered. We watched as a rope lowered a man in a wetsuit down to the water. He swam over to us. “Everybody okay?” he said. “We’re gonna get you out of here.”

He escorted Xander and Jody to the hoist first. It lifted them skyward. Then Kaleb and Tyler and finally Roger. “That’s all this bird can hold,” the rescue swimmer told Rodney and me. “But we’ve got another one on the way.” I thought about all the ways I’d tried to get help. The radio call that hadn’t gone through, my cell phone out of service, flares washed away. But God had never failed us. He’d heard our Mayday call loud and clear.

KEISA: I held Rex tight in the emergency room, tears flooding my cheeks. I didn’t think I’d ever let him go. “The boat sank?” I murmured again, in wonder. What a miracle they’d all survived! Rex started to speak, but I covered his lips with my finger. “Shhh,” I said. “Not yet. You need to rest. You can tell me all about it when you take me out to dinner.”   

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