(Adapted from the new book, Extreme Survival: Lessons from Those Who Have Triumphed Against All Odds, by NY Times Bestselling Author Michael J. Tougias)

The five shipwreck survivors clinging to the eleven-foot inflatable Zodiac were in the trough of a thirty-foot swell and looked up into the green walls of water. That’s when they saw the sharks.

Brad Cavanaugh, age 21, could clearly see three sharks, and one was larger than the Zodiac. “It was bad enough seeing how large that shark was, but even worse was that the shark could clearly see us,” he said.

This shark knew there was life inside the life raft, and it wasn’t about to leave. From the moment the sailboat he was on, named Trashman, sank, Brad made up his mind he was going to live. He thought of his mother and how his death would crush her, so he said to himself, I’m going to take this as far as I can. And because this is now my world, my reality, I’m going to embrace it. I’m going to fight to the end.

His reality was bleak, surviving was near impossible, and the world that he tried to embrace included four others—with very different thoughts—and he had to be cognizant of them in any decisions he made.

The Trashman had been sailing approximately 60 miles off North Carolina when a violent storm with 100 mile per hour winds and 40-foot seas sank the vessel at 1:30 p.m. on October 24, 1982. Brad, Deb, Mark, John, and Meg had just two minutes to leave the vessel before it dragged them to the ocean’s depths. There were no survival suits onboard and no time to even put on life jackets: the crew had to escape with the clothes on their backs.

As their boat sank, Mark tried to free the life raft from its canister while Brad untied the rubber Zodiac from the Trashman’s cabin top. When the life raft popped from its canister and inflated it was taken by the wind and disappeared into the chaotic void of crashing seas. The Zodiac, however, came free of the Trashman as the sailboat was going down, but the wind sent the inflatable dinghy tumbling away.

Brad knew that if he didn’t corral the Zodiac he and the rest of the crew were doomed, so he swam after it, kicking off his boots as he went. Somehow, he caught up with the tiny vessel and held onto its lifeline in the raging sea until the others could reach him. The group tried to hold onto to the outside of the Zodiac by clutching the lifeline, but the hurricane-force winds, coupled with breaking seas, sent the vessel tumbling. Some of the crew who were able to hang on were flipped with the dinghy while others lost their grip and had to swim after it.

They soon learned it was easier to keep the Zodiac from getting caught by the wind if they kept it upside down and held on to its outer edges. The wind and waves lashed the crew and they all ingested some seawater, but at least the dinghy stayed in place.

About an hour into the ordeal, Brad was faced with the first of many crucial decisions that he had to convince the group to adopt. The air temperature was approximately 54 degrees Fahrenheit, but the survivors were not too cold as they continually treaded water and held the Zodiac snug to the ocean’s surface to keep it from blowing away. John, the captain of the Trashman, thought they should turn the dinghy right side up and get inside it. Brad was certain that if they righted the vessel the wind and waves would flip the dinghy and toss everyone into the ocean where they may not be able to retrieve the vessel. He shouted at John that the time was not right to get in the vessel, but John was adamant. Fortunately, Brad and Deb had another idea, an option no one had considered yet – get under the Zodiac. This would protect them from the blasting wind, and by holding onto the lifeline, they wouldn’t risk having the dinghy blown away.

Four hours went by with the group huddled under the raft (Meg mostly stayed on the outside of the vessel because she was claustrophobic). They had all been expending energy handling the Trashman before it sank, and now they were burning even more calories and strength treading water. All of the crew started shivering from their time in the water. Hypothermia was setting in, and a couple of the survivors’ teeth were chattering so loudly the others could hear the clicking. Again, Brad and Deb came up with an idea to improve their situation. Using a wire salvaged from the overturned dinghy, Brad stretched it from one side to the other. He then put his legs over the wire, so that the wire supported his legs beneath the knee while his head and shoulders lay on the spray cover that extended over the dinghy’s bow. Mark, Deb, and John crammed next to and on top of Brad, keeping part of their bodies out of the water and sharing body heat. Meg, who had serious leg lacerations, still stayed on the outside of the overturned Zodiac.

In the morning, as the wind eased and the seas didn’t break as often, the group was able to turn the raft right-side up. Some were reluctant to get inside because the air felt so much colder than the water. But they changed their minds when Mark and Deb, who were outside the raft, looked down into the water and saw not one shark, but many!

All five castaways pulled themselves into the raft, which had floor space of only three feet wide by four feet long. There was not enough room to stretch out cramped legs, and each time one moved or bumped against another it caused pain because they all suffered from various abrasions that were now inflamed.

As the Zodiac rode a wave crest, Brad could see fins circling their vessel. In the trough, when he looked up into the wave, was when he saw the especially large shark looking back at him. The little vessel was still in jeopardy of being capsized by the enormous swells and Brad made it his job to be the “balancer” of the life raft. He would shift his body as needed, mostly by using his legs and butt. Yet still he was afraid the raft would flip and send them into the shark-infested water. His mind was churning, trying to think of some way to make sure the group stayed inside the Zodiac.

It was becoming clear to Brad that only he and Deb were thinking in terms of improving their situation. The others were showing signs of defeat. Talk of water and thirst were beginning to dominate discussions, which Brad tried to shut out. He later explained to me, “I couldn’t go there. Put that one away. There was nothing I could do about the lack of water.” Brad consciously tried to direct his thoughts away from what was out of his control, and instead be alert for an opportunity or an idea that he could consider and take action on. The very act of doing something occasionally helped keep him from dwelling on all the many depravations and pain. In essence, he was clinging to the one thing he could control and that was his reaction to what was happening to him.

Brad and Meg decided they would make a sea anchor to trail behind the raft to add stability. They used the same piece of wire they previously hung their legs on and attached it to a small piece of wood that they pried off a storage space in the bow. Once it was rigged, Brad hurled it behind the raft.

Almost immediately the raft was jerked backward. The big shark had grabbed the board! Brad saw the shark take the board and just two seconds later release it. Mark quickly pulled the board in, and now the giant shark swam directly at the raft. Raising the board, Mark prepared to strike it.

“No!” Brad shouted, and he yanked the board from Mark’s grasp. “Don’t rile it up! It might attack the raft!” Instead, the shark slowly slid beneath the Zodiac, its head on one side and its fin on the other. A shiver went through Brad as he could feel the beast rub against the floor of the raft.

Goddamn, what else could go wrong, thought Brad. This is so bad, so utterly horrifyingly absurd, it’s almost comical. His idea to create a sea anchor was foiled by the shark. And later another idea to remove the thin aluminum sheet that covered the raft’s floor failed as well, in fact it resulted in Brad cracking his teeth trying to free the sheets. But the most critical fact, however, was that Brad was still trying to better their situation.

The hallucinations occurred on the third day. Brad believes they were caused from the combination of exhaustion, dehydration, and hypothermia. Mark and John exacerbated their mental deterioration by sipping small amounts of sea water.

John soon became convinced they were just a few
hundred yards off the coast of Falmouth, Massachusetts, and
he began talking about getting his car. Although Brad had hallucinations, at this particular moment he was lucid, and he and Deb told John they were far out in the ocean, nowhere near the coast.

Suddenly, John acted on his plan, sliding over the side of the Zodiac. Brad and Meg shouted for him to get back in the dinghy but John simply said, “I’m getting the car,” and swam off.

Torn over whether to try and retrieve John, Brad soon realized it was a lost cause as John found the energy to stroke far from the raft. Then there was an awful scream.

Not long afterward, Mark started talking about going to the store because he needed cigarettes. “No,” said Brad. “You’re not going to the store. You’re in a life raft and you’re safe.” That calmed Mark down for a while and Brad closed his eyes trying to conserve what little energy he had left.

Then Mark went over the side, saying “I’m going to 7-Eleven to buy cigarettes.” The sharks yanked him under before he could even scream.

The sharks, now in a frenzy, set their sights on the raft, battering it from all sides. If one of the creatures bit down on the inflated rubber, it would be all over. Brad, Deb, and Meg huddled together in fear and to share body heat. At this point there was little more Brad and Deb could do to help Meg or their situation. Earlier they had scooped seaweed from the ocean and covered themselves with it for insulation, but the cold was penetrating to their cores. Even Brad started thinking they had just hours to live rather than days.

As Brad lay in the raft and felt the sharks bumping it, he told himself over and over: Don’t give up. We’ve seen a couple ships in the distance, our luck is bound to change.

Luck, really more like a miracle, is what Meg needed, but it never came and she died in the raft that night – likely from exhaustion and infection that set into her wounds suffered while the sailboat was sinking. In the morning, Brad and Deb said a prayer over Meg’s lifeless body and then released her to the sea.

Brad talked with Deb about trying to catch fish. Earlier he had caught a very small fish with his bare hands, but it was nothing but skin and bones. He wasn’t sure he could catch a larger fish, but he had to say something positive, to shut the door on the thought of his death.

Not long after this discussion, the luck that Brad and Deb so desperately needed came in the form of a Russian ship, which eventually saved them. Let me rephrase that: the ship’s crew plucked them from the water, but what saved them was the power of little steps.

These two castaways made it largely because they kept focusing on the few things they could initiate, rather than let the despair they felt push them toward resignation. The fact that Brad and Deb kept thinking, experimenting, and attempting improvements — no matter how small — gave them a glimmer of achievement, and even a fleeting bit of control. ■

The message for all of us is to take those little steps that might seem insignificant when you feel helpless and string a few actions together. Before you know it, you have advanced toward your objective.

Michael Tougias is the author Overboard, Fatal Forecast, A Storm Too Soon, and many other books about the sea. Extreme Survival is his 30th book. He speaks to boating groups across the country. To learn more, visit michaeltougias.com.

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