April 29, 2010, began as a day full of promise as I set sail at 0830 from Marina Real on the Sea of Cortez in San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico. Heading out on My Traveling Star, my Bayliner Buccaneer 22, I enjoyed perfect weather and a fair wind. It was the best day of sailing I had enjoyed in the year or so I had owned her.
That afternoon I anchored at Caleta Chencho, near Playa Miramar and Punta Colorada. The swells were about 5-8 feet, so I let out a little more rode than I usually would, just to be safe, then furled the sail, secured the rigging and cooked dinner. After that I listened to some music, did some reading and enjoyed a picture-perfect sunset. I went to bed at about 2100 thinking I was the luckiest man in the world. Little did I know how soon that luck would change.
About two hours after drifting off to sleep, I awoke to the sound and feel of the keel hitting something hard. Springing up on deck I immediately saw that the distinctive outline of La Ahogada, or Drowned Rock, was now a lot farther away than it had been when I went to bed.
My heart sank as I heard the sound of waves hitting the rocky shoreline, now only a few yards away. At one point I actually slapped my face to try to wake up, but this was no dream. It was really happening.
I tried to start the outboard motor, but it wouldn’t run. A big wave hit the bow, sending the boat straight up in the air and forcing me to accept it was too late to save My Traveling Star and that I needed to abandon her if I was to survive. I went below to gather valuables, came back up on deck and dove overboard.
I’d been in the water only a few minutes before I began to second-guess my decision. “Andrew, stay with the boat,” said a voice in my head, if for no other reason than a search party could spot the boat far more easily than a person in the water. Helped by the waves, I swam back to the boat, put my hand up to pull myself aboard and a lifejacket seemed to drop right into my hand. A gift! I put it on.
The boat was now wedged between a 30-foot cliff face to starboard and a huge boulder to port. Parts of the boat and its gear were floating all around me. I grabbed hold of the gunwale on the starboard quarter and tried to wedge myself up out of the cold water, but every time a wave hit the boat the hull squeezed me against the cliff face, making me yell with the pain. Every wave that hit the boat shifted the hull, which slowly rotated to starboard as the waves got bigger and struck with more force. After a few more hits I decided I couldn’t stay any longer—if I did, I might not get out at all.
I waited for the next wave to pass and then jumped, only to have the wave push me right into the rocks. I tried to protect my head with my arms, and my hands and feet hit the rocks first. I pushed off as the next wave hit me right in the face. Next thing I knew, I was under water and there was something wrapped painfully around my left ankle: a lifeline from the boat. It cut deeply into my leg as I struggled desperately to get free. Just when I thought all was lost, the cable came off and my life jacket popped me to the surface.
One battle had been won, but my survival was still far from assured. I had to get out of the water. Not only was I cold and bleeding, I thought I had torn my Achilles tendon. The pain was incredible.
As if that wasn’t enough, I also remembered that a number of hammerhead sharks had recently been spotted in the area, so my fear of dying by drowning now morphed into a fear of being eaten.
With these kinds of none-too-pleasant thoughts running through my head, I drifted and swam, trying to stay off the rocks and hoping to find a place to get ashore without being slammed into the cliff. Some time later I saw the glow of the moon as it started to rise over the horizon. This raised my spirits as well. I began to think I might live after all.
I was now swimming on my back, trying to look over my left shoulder. Oddly enough, as I did so I found myself thinking about where I was going to get my next boat. Suddenly I saw an electric light at the end of a rock protruding from the cliff wall. I swam closer and saw the light was coming from a small building. I could also see what appeared to be a beach in the moonlight, although as I swam closer, it revealed itself as a near-vertical slope about six feet high, completely covered with rocks and boulders. By this time I was not just tired and injured, I was fighting hypothermia as well. I knew I had to get out of the water as quickly as possible, no matter the cost.
As a first step, I tried to line myself up with the waves to make the best approach. After that, I stopped resisting the waves, covered my head with my arms, pulled my knees up and let the next wave slam me right into the rocky beach. The one after that pushed me higher still, allowing me to pull myself up, rock by rock until I was out of the water.
Once on dry land, I walked into the building and the first thing I saw was clothing hanging on a coat stand. I took off my wet clothes and assessed my wounds. My hands, feet and shins were bleeding severely. Both sides of my body had deep scrapes and lacerations. My left ankle looked and felt the worst, but at least the Achilles tendon had not severed. I put on the dry clothes and sat down on a narrow wooden bench by a wall trying to stay out of the wind. I looked to my left and I saw a five gallon plastic bottle of water with a cup on top. I drank and counted my blessings.
The never-ending night wore on and on. I turned the light out and sat there for what felt like four or five hours, trying to sleep. Finally, I heard someone coming. A light went on, and I heard the sound of water running through a hose.
I opened the closest door and I saw a man with his back to me. I took a couple of steps towards him and said, “Señor?” He turned around quickly with a knife in his right hand. I immediately put my hands up in front of me and said, “ALTO, ALTO, ALTO!” I pointed to my bloody hands and ankle, then to my life jacket hanging on the hat rack.
“How did you get here?” he asked.
“I swam,” I said.
He just looked at me, then turned and walked down to the water and looked around some more. Eventually he came back with my Coleman cooler, which must have followed me in the waves down the shoreline. Now he understood what I was trying to say—my barca de vela had hit the rocks.
He opened his cell phone and called his boss. Then he handed me his phone. I heard an English-speaking voice said, “Are you OK?”
“I’m alive, that’s all I know for sure.”
As it turned out, the voice at the other end of the line was that of the director of the Institute of Monterey, which was where I had washed up. He kindly offered to take me to the Red Cross facility in Guaymas, where my wounds were treated and dressed.
About six months after my Buccaneer hit the rocks, I bought La Vaquita, a 1983 Gulf Cruiser 27, and personally transported her to San Carlos. I sail in the Sea of Cortez about 60 days a year and enjoy sailing as much as ever. I appreciate every day a little more, knowing how easy it is to lose everything, including our lives, in a simple twist of fate. s
Andrew Ivy started sailing at 14. He has been a competitive swimmer since age 7 and a scuba diver for 40 years
What I did right:
When I found it difficult to swim the crawl stroke with my life jacket on, I switched to the backstroke, which allowed me to see and breathe more effectively. I’m sure that stroke helped save my life.
Talking to myself throughout the ordeal helped me to survive by enabling me to make good decisions and calm my fears.
What I did wrong:
The sea was very active that day and through the night. I did not put out enough rode for the amount of sea movement I experienced. I also should have deployed a second anchor.
I was expecting the wind to come from the south, and when it switched into the northwest it pushed me onto a lee shore. I should have checked the forecasts more vigilantly.
I was slapping my face, trying to wake up from what I was hoping was a bad, bad dream. It didn’t work. Every time I tried to wake myself up, I found that I was already awake and the reality of the situation was much worse than any nightmare.
When I abandoned the boat after it first hit the rocks, I did not have my life jacket on. I was lucky that one dropped into my hand after I remembered to not abandon ship.
Illustration by Tadami Takahashi