The air temperature was a cold 42°F; the water was warmer, probably about 76°F, Kiley says. That’s another reason they opted to stay in it. Even then, “our teeth were chattering and our chests tightened. We were all having trouble breathing,” she recalls. To their horror they also discovered sharks swimming beneath them. That’s when they flipped the raft and got back in. In her book about the ordeal, The Sinking: One Woman’s True Story of Survival at Sea, Kiley recounts how, worried about hypothermia, she pulled seaweed from the ocean to warm their bodies at least a little.
The Mexican fishermen fared better because they were lucky: They drifted southwest from Mexico toward the equator and its warmer waters, not away from it. They were also resourceful, able to rig up a covering to protect them from the sun. Ironically, hot sunshine can contribute to hypothermia, which damages the skin’s capillaries, Piantadosi points out. “They don’t work as well after a burn, so the heat tends to leave faster,” he says. Cold temperature and sun exposure combine to create a dangerous situation.
A Terrible Thirst and Hunger
Experts estimate that a castaway drifting under the harsh tropical sun without any shade requires about five quarts of water each day to keep from becoming dehydrated, a formidable amount for someone in a life raft. Some life rafts come equipped with devices to convert seawater to freshwater, but the amount of drinkable water they make is limited. The temptation to drink seawater can be great, but the dangers of drinking seawater are even greater. Piantadosi explains that the kidneys are not able to process the amount of salt in seawater, and so it builds up to toxic levels. It causes diarrhea, further dehydrating the body, and can also lead to hallucinations. Two of the crew with Deborah Kiley drank salt water the third day out, and both suffered delusions, leaving the security of the raft to swim off—one announced he was going to get the car. Both were attacked by sharks.
Interestingly, though, Piantadosi explains, drinking a little seawater (a cupful only) can be a onetime aid to survival. He explains that during the process of dehydration, the blood plasma (the liquid part of blood) becomes depleted of water, forcing the heart to push the blood cells through the body without enough fluid. Not surprisingly, blood flow drops, and vital organs do not get the nutrients and oxygen they need. Drinking salt water can keep the plasma volume up and help maintain circulation, if only temporarily. “If you think you have a chance of being rescued in a day or two, you might safely keep your blood plasma level up by taking a few sips of salt water,” Piantadosi says, “but if it’s unlikely that anyone knows you’re missing yet, or where you are, you shouldn’t.” After a few days, he says, your body won’t be able to get rid of the salt, which will kill you more quickly than if you didn’t drink any liquid at all.
The first two weeks adrift, the fishermen had limited water. They caught a sea turtle and got some relief by drinking its blood. They also drank small amounts of their own urine, which they believed was safer than drinking seawater. In fact, according to Piantadosi, it is just as dangerous to drink urine as it is to drink seawater. The salt content of urine is high, and it also contains urea, the ammonia-scented end product of protein metabolism that must be excreted from the body. Fortunately for the fishermen, during the second week, it began to rain. It rained so much that the empty gas tank they had cleaned and kept open to catch rain was always full. Nothing was more critical to their survival, except perhaps their ability to maneuver the boat through storm waves to keep it from capsizing.
Food is less of an issue for castaways than is water, especially for anyone who’s carrying extra pounds. “Although healthy individuals of normal body weight can fast for about 70 days, highly obese individuals can fast up to a year, depending on the amount of fat in reserve,” says Piantadosi.
The fishermen survived on raw fish and occasional seabirds that would sometimes alight on their boat. They had enough to eat. By contrast, most shipwreck survivors not only lose excess fat but also begin to burn muscle mass if they stay adrift for any length of time.
Mind Over Matter
From the first hours Kiley found herself being tossed around in the high surf, she resolved that she would survive. And from day one, her two crewmates—who were ultimately eaten by sharks—were convinced they were going to die. Similarly, fisherman Salvador Ordóñez says that he was confident that he would live. He and his two cosurvivors read the Bible and talked about what they would do when they got back to their families. They marveled at the whales that breached alongside their boat, and they took pleasure in the beautiful sunsets. Kiley, too, speaks of an experience of beauty that helped her concentrate on the moment.
But action is also needed. “The mind,” Kiley says, “is your greatest survival tool. To survive you need to live moment to moment and focus on what you have to do next.”
Being emotionally tough may be what enabled Kiley to hang on for as long as she did, but she survived because a Russian ship spotted her raft on the fifth day. Had it been the seventh or eighth day out, she would most likely not have lived to tell her story. Determination couldn’t have kept her alive much longer. Adrift in the ocean, ironically, what she needed most to survive was water.