Debbie Kiley

Lost at Sea

The November/December 2001 Adventure’s “Land of the Lost” explores the art and science of survival. Online, a sailor offers her gripping tale of a sinking yacht, deaths by shark bite, and, finally, rescue.

image: Sailor Debbie Kiley
Sailor Debbie Kiley

In 1982, at 24 and with a Whitbread Round the World regatta under her belt, sailor Debbie Kiley boarded a 58-foot (18-meter) sailing yacht in Maine for a routine delivery to Florida.

After a stopover in Annapolis, Maryland, the weather quickly worsened—60-knot winds whipping up 40-foot (12-meter) waves. In the course of the next three days the crew lost their boat, survived 18 hours of treading water, lost two crew members to sharks and another to injuries sustained in the sinking, and suffered hallucinations from severe dehydration and hypothermia (as detailed in Kiley’s book, Untamed Seas).

Here Kiley recounts how she and one other crew member survived—and how the others did not.


There were five of us in all: John Lippoth, the skipper, and his girlfriend, Meg Mooney; Mark Adams; Brad Cavanaugh; and me. Brad, the person I knew best on the boat, was a very competent sailor. Mark was a competent sailor, but a bit of a wild man and a drinker, which proved to be a problem. John had done a lot of sailing, but he was also a big drinker, and his girlfriend was only a fair-weather sailor.


When we left the harbor the weather report was clear, but after the second day it began to deteriorate. We kept getting faxes that the weather was fine, but by the evening of the second day we had 35-foot (11-meter) seas with winds gusting to 60 knots. Before the boat sank, the seas were up to 45 feet (14 meters) and the winds were a sustained 70 knots, gusting to 90.

It was a frightening situation, because John, Mark, and Meg were down below drinking while Brad and I were on watch. We were on the helm for close to 11 hours—a long, long time in those conditions.

After some time the other three were finally sober enough to stand their watch. When Meg came up she was immediately thrown across the cockpit and hurt her back. It really freaked John out, so he called the Coast Guard. They said we needed to wait to see how the storm would shake out, and they would get some weather information to us.

Every hour on the hour we talked to the Coast Guard and finally they decided they were going to send two ships out to help us until a cutter could get to us. With that in mind we let our guard down a bit and let John and Mark take the watch.

The next thing I remember was Brad dragging me out of my berth, shouting, “C’mon. We’re going. We’ve got to go now!” I thought the Coast Guard was there. When I jumped out of my bunk I hit knee-high water, and it was rising.

As I swam through the main salon of the boat I noticed water cascading down from the window, and Mark was on a settee with water dumping on him. As it turned out, Mark and John had lashed the steering wheel, gone below, and gone back to sleep. I got up on deck and there was nothing but these huge, tumultuous, crazy seas—no ships in sight.

Mark untied the life raft, and it immediately blew away. We had an inflatable Zodiac boat on deck, and Brad managed to untie it, but when it popped off the last cleat, the rope sliced into his arm.

We all managed to make it to the Zodiac, but Meg got caught in the rigging on her way there. She had lacerations—almost to the bone—on her legs and her body. As the yacht sank we tried to overturn the Zodiac and get in it, but every time we did that a wave would come and blow it back over, scattering us everywhere.


For 18 hours we treaded water and held on to the Zodiac. Every so often a big wave or a big gust of wind would blow the raft over.

Meanwhile, Meg couldn’t breathe or tread water very well, so we rigged a system—almost like a human net—so Meg could crawl on top to rest. We alternated throughout the night. It helped to preserve body heat. Even though the water in the Gulf Stream was 76 degrees (24 degrees Celsius), the air temperature was only 40 degrees (5 degrees Celsius).

By the next morning John was having heart pains. The weather had slightly improved, and we made an attempt to right the Zodiac. We got blown over a few more times but finally got it upright.

John got in first, then we lifted Meg in. We were amazed at Meg’s wounds—they were horrible. Brad got in. Mark and I were still hanging on to the sides, and he kept telling me to quick kicking him. I wasn’t.

I looked under the water only to see sharks everywhere. Once we got into the Zodiac, sharks surfaced around us. Why they didn’t attack before, I don’t know. From that moment on they stayed with us.

We saw a couple of ships pass, but they couldn’t see us.


By the third day things were bad, and the crew was starting to fall apart. Meg was dying of blood poisoning; Mark was belligerent. Delusions were setting in because of dehydration and hypothermia.

On the night of the third day, Mark and John drank saltwater, so by the fourth day they were raging nuts. John thought he saw land. We were more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) offshore.

Then, John jumped into the water and swam out a few yards. We heard a loud scream and he disappeared.

By this time Meg had red streaks running up past her groin. She lay down and was almost catatonic.

Mark got really mad and said he was going to go over the side to warm up. Just about the time he went into the water, Brad caught a little fish. We were engrossed in trying to eat the fish when Mark disappeared.

We felt a thud against the Zodiac, and then there was a frenzy under the boat.


So Mark’s overboard and the sharks are eating him underneath the raft. Meg’s dying, it’s the middle of the night, and it’s the first night that the stars are out. It was just very haunting. That is the only time in my life I felt like I was just walking down that fine line of sanity.

Meg died the fourth night. She went into a very weird state. She spoke in what I suppose I’d call tongues—a very clear and concise language. It was bizarre. And then she just died.

I don’t really know what happened to Brad and I at this point, but it was almost as if our brains told us that we couldn’t take it mentally anymore, and we shut down.

The next thing I knew we woke up, the sun had risen, and Meg’s body was in rigor mortis, awash on the bottom of the boat. We buried her at sea.

We had all this slush in the bottom of the boat from rotten seaweed, urine, and the pus from Meg’s wounds. We turned the boat over and washed it out. Then Brad couldn’t get back in the boat because he was too weak. It took 30 minutes to get him back in.


I kept thinking that the sharks were going to come back, so I urged Brad to hurry up. He was so angry with me. I was trying to apologize, and he had a far-off look on his face like he was never going to talk to me again. Then he said, “Look. There’s a ship.” My first thought was, Don’t get excited. We had seen ships before. But this time it was apparent that they had seen us.

The swells were huge. The freighter made two passes, and finally, when they got close enough, they threw out two long lines.

I jumped overboard but missed the line. Then they threw a life ring with another line. Brad jumped over and grabbed the life ring.

Brad was through the life ring and he was holding me, but every time we got close to the boat we would get sucked under this huge freighter. We would wash up underneath, and the barnacles would take the hide off of our bodies. Then we’d come back up for air and get sucked under again.

Our biggest thought was that we had survived for four days in a raft and now we’re going to die. Finally we managed to get on board the freighter, which turned out to be Russian, and they dropped us off with the Coast Guard.

I still speak about it all the time. I had my misgivings about the trip all along. Every day I am reminded of it. It doesn’t haunt me like it did, but it reminds me how incredibly lucky I am to be here.

—Deborah Scaling Kiley (as told to Kate Cheney)


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