However this ends, I thought, I will be worthy of our nation’s highest award for class trip chaperone. Even if it is posthumous.
Night comes quickly in the tropics. First there was rain, and then there were stars. The sea was running at about 3 feet, enough to knock you off the pontoon if you dozed, enough to keep you clenching at the handles if you were in the water, and enough to make people vomit. Vomiting is problematic at the best of times, but when it starts minutes into a 13-hour ordeal and there is no drinking water, no means of telling time, no way to control the environment and no Nutella, you know it’s going to be a long night.
I had gone through ocean survival courses before. Usually they entail a pool, PowerPoint and lunch. This was a full week at Costa Rica’s Coast Guard Academy, culminating in a 2½-mile open-water swim that segued directly into spending the night in the ocean. Yes, in it — all night.
I was at the University of Costa Rica’s Caribbean campus on a Fulbright scholarship, teaching navigation and seamanship in its newly established nautical training program. Even before landing in the country, it had been my goal to see the sun rise on the Caribbean and set on the Pacific, on the same day, without flying. So when I had the chance to travel with 11 students to Quepos, on the Pacific coast, for their ocean survival training, I was in.
We were working with a life float, not a life raft. A life raft has a floor that holds out the ocean and a canopy that holds in the body heat. A life float is a rectangular pontoon with netting in the middle and handles around the perimeter. A life float provides buoyancy and little else. You can straddle the pontoon and get the crucial heat-loss parts of your body out of the water. Or you can relax in the netting, but then you’re mostly submerged. Or you can bob in the water hanging onto the handles, thinking about creatures that swim in the deep.
Our life float was a decrepit affair with blown-out netting and handles adrift. It was designed to support eight; we were 12.
It’s hot in Costa Rica. But even with sea temperatures of 84 degrees, if you stay in the water long enough, your body temperature will move inexorably closer to that of the ocean, and you will die within view of palm trees. It’s a one-way ticket.
I was not in charge of this exercise, nor was I a participant in the same sense as the students; they actually had to pass the course. We were in the hands of the Costa Rican Coast Guard. It was their show. I went along to provide moral support and assist as events might dictate.
Our float was anchored off some jagged cliffs and volcanic crags, around which the surf sucked and surged. Atop a bluff overlooking the bay, someone supposedly sat in a car monitoring us. Other than the whistles attached to our personal flotation devices, we had no way to communicate. There was no safety tender hovering around, and definitely no MOMI (mammal of maternal instinct). But it sure was scenic.
I am told that events during the Battle of the Atlantic inspired the creation of Outward Bound, a global experiential education organization. During that World War II military campaign, youth and fitness alone were no guarantee of survival in a lifeboat, raft or any other buoyant artifice in the hours after a torpedoed ship slipped beneath the waves. Some people concluded that mental fortitude also played a part in survival. This was on my mind as I contemplated the Outward Bound motto: “To Serve, To Strive and Not To Yield.”
The bioluminescence in the water was active this night. The glittering twinkles were thrilling when swirling off the fingertips, but those same shooting-star stirrings emanating from the deep gave me pause. However this ends, I thought, I will be worthy of our nation’s highest award for class trip chaperone. Even if it is posthumous.
It didn’t take long to see that my students were in the grip of exhaustion and apathy after the 2½-mile swim. They were doing nothing to improve the situation, individually or collectively. The clearest evidence of this was the total lack of communication. They lay sloshing in the swell as if in a scene from Titanic. Bemusing as it was to observe that it really is possible to sleep in the water, their lack of agency was a concern. They were not grasping the danger of their dropping body core temperatures.
Two older students seemed more alert, so I asked them whether they thought they were better off in the water or out of the water. They said that in the water felt warmer. I asked if they knew what normal body temperature was. They did. I asked if they knew the temperature of the sea. They did. It was all I could do not to explode at them: “So which number is lower?”
They agreed to try being out of the water. “I think it’s warmer,” one said. “Definitely,” the other concurred. Before long, they had an approximate rotation for getting people out of the water as the chill factor required, and back into the water to make space on the float. Some people were weaker than others and needed more time on the pontoon. Some were stronger and able to stay in the water longer. Most important, they were talking.
A real “abandon ship” moment arose when the float drew within about 10 feet of the nearest frothy crag, snapping us from our reveries. Were we dragging anchor? If so, we should bail out — to hell with the damn survival course. If we dallied until contact, the seasick students might not be able to get clear. What to do?
We stuck it out and soon drifted clear again. But I am not so sure we had been smart or even made a real decision. Was inaction masquerading as tenacity? Courage and foolhardiness have a long and tangled relationship.
As the night wore on, the Big Dipper trundled around Polaris, low in the north. Distant thunder merged with the pounding surf, and offshore lightning was a constant companion. A cluster of stars whose identity eluded me hovered on the southern horizon. I used to know all the stars from my voyaging days, but these perplexed me. Then it hit me: It was the Southern Cross, canted like a gravestone in an old churchyard.
In time, the rising moon crowded out the stars, stealing our best source of conversation, but the swell and the vomiting subsided. When a rooster crowed and a bluish hue outlined the palms upon the cliff tops, two students were shivering uncontrollably — stage one hypothermia.
I have a friend, an old shipmate, who spent four and a half days with eight people in a deflating six-person life raft after losing four other shipmates when the schooner Pride of Baltimore sank beneath them. For him, this night of endurance would have looked like child’s play. And it was: In the morning we swam ashore and dragged the floats up the stony beach. We had coffee and a hot breakfast, followed by a nap and a debriefing.
It is an easy thing to believe you are strong when you are feeling capable and the wind is at your back. But that sense of well-being may not be actual strength. It may merely be fortunate circumstances and the illusion of control, which deserts you in the face of true adversity. It is much harder to believe you are strong when you are feeling weak and not at all in control. We all made it through the night, not because some carried others but because the weakest didn’t quit when they wanted to. A night in the ocean gives you time to think about that.
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue.