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Rowing for their lives in a 9-foot dinghy

Mike Ayres knew as soon as he started to row that it was a race against time, one he might well lose unless he just kept rowing. And so he did.

Lady Rosalie - a 41-foot Hatteras - had more than 2 inches of glass at the keel, but she was no match for the semisubmerged object she struck en route to Bimini.

Ayres, 46, rowed across the Straits of Florida through 15-foot seas for roughly 48 hours while first mate Dillon Moore, 19, bailed in a desperate attempt to keep their 9-foot dinghy from sinking or drifting into the Atlantic on the Gulf Stream in a strengthening south wind. “I figured, boy, I better raise the bar and not stop rowing until we’re either dead or we’re safe,” says Ayres, a snowbird from Onondaga, Mich., who lives aboard in the Florida Keys during the winter.

The pair had left Islamorada about 5 p.m. Nov. 12, a Saturday, on Ayres’ 41-foot Hatteras, Lady Rosalie. Headed for Bimini to pick up a dive tank compressor, Ayres thought the roughly 160-mile round trip would be another good sea trial for the restored 48-year-old double-cabin motoryacht. “She was perfect,” says Ayres, who with fiancée Liz Murphy Brown are entertainers — she a vocalist, he a guitar player — who have toured together and had been involved in building and managing a bed-and-breakfast inn on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

They took delivery of Lady Rosalie on Oct. 6 in Lantana, Fla. The classic Hatteras had been refit during the last few years — the 215-hp Detroit Diesels rebuilt, the galley refurbished, new shafts installed, one transmission replaced and the other rebuilt, a new generator and exhaust system installed. After the purchase, Ayres, who grew up boating on the Great Lakes and had owned an old Matthews and done some restoration work on a classic Chris-Craft, put in nearly a month of 12-hour days to complete the restoration, rewiring the boat, rebuilding the port engine, synchronizing the diesels, replacing gaskets and through-hull fittings and installing new water pumps. “It was in impeccable condition,” he says. “It was really, really well-kept-up all these years.”
The hull below the waterline was solid fiberglass, more than 2 inches thick at the keel, with no soft spots, Ayres says — virtually bulletproof. Having completed the work and made one sea trial to Bimini and back a week or two earlier, “I was just looking for any excuse to go anywhere,” he says. So he decided to go to Bimini again.

A loud thump
Ayres and Moore, a big, strong 300-pound mountain of a man from Miami Gardens, Fla., motored out of Islamorada in smooth 7- to 8-foot swells. Moore, though short on boating experience, is long on muscle, and Ayres needed him to help load the compressor. Four or five hours into the trip, Lady Rosalie encountered a debris field — “junk in the water,” Ayres says, including half sheets of plywood. He reduced speed to 7 knots, and both men kept watch as they picked their way through it. Ayres thinks it was junk that had dropped off a freighter in the shipping channel.
A little later, Moore was below when he heard a loud thump. He reported it to Ayres, who suspected it was just the hull pounding in the waves. “I never heard or felt anything at the helm,” he says. He told the mate not to worry. “That’s what happens when you’re at sea.”
In retrospect, he wishes he’d listened. A half-hour later, Lady Rosalie began steering sluggishly. Ayres sent Moore below to check the bilge. When he opened the hatch, Ayres heard a frightened cry, “Damn, we’re sinking!”
Ayres hustled down to check the bilge himself. “Holy mackerel, we are sinking,” he confirmed.
The mate was wide-eyed as he confided to Ayres that he couldn’t swim. He was afraid he might die. Ayres assured him — and stressed again and again — that they would get home safely, although he knew it was a crapshoot. Ayres doesn’t know what they hit — a ship container, maybe — but the hole, possibly 6 inches in diameter, was along the keel under the bow and inaccessible from inside beneath the freshwater tank.
Lady Rosalie was 12 miles off Gun Cay, according to the GPS, although neither man could see any lights on the Bahamian island about 10 miles south of Bimini. They started bailing with two 5-gallon buckets, but the two bilge pumps and generator raw water intake, which Ayres was using as a pump, gave out, along with the GPS, the VHF and the engines as the batteries disappeared beneath the rising water.
Ayres pulled one of the batteries out of the water, rewired it to the ignition of the port engine and got it running again, hoping to limp to the beach on Gun Cay and ground the boat. He also rewired the bilge pumps to their batteries, but Ayres says the wires would short in five to 10 minutes and the battery’s positive pole would start to disintegrate. Desperately peering into the bilge, he was treated to a light show — an underwater St. Elmo’s fire — as wires and batteries sparked beneath the water, illuminating a colony of 1-1/2-inch jellyfish that suggested the hole was pretty big.
For the short time the port engine ran again, he heard gushing and gurgling as the bilge filled more quickly, and as fast as he replaced wires — three or four times — they sparked and vaporized. “I’m sitting in the bilge watching the water rise around me at a fast, steady rate — 3 to 4 inches every couple of minutes,” he says. “I see that this isn’t going to work. It’s a hopeless battle. We’re not going to stay on this boat.”
He started barking orders to Moore, who loaded supplies into the dinghy, a polyethylene Water Tender 9.4 tri-hull with built-in oar locks, the kind you can buy at West Marine for about $550. Moore tossed in a fishing rod and tackle box, oars, 16 to 18 Olin 12-gauge aerial signals and a bag of hand flares, five foam-filled Type II near-shore life vests, the VHF and a battery (which Ayres could not get to work again), two gallons of fresh water, some cut wire, a bucket of tools, Chips Ahoy cookies — his favorite — and tubes of Pringles potato chips, which turned limp and soggy almost before the dinghy hit the water.

Rowing for Florida
Though still a teenager, Moore had settled into a stoic attitude of deliberate and focused efficiency. “He’s not panicking,” Ayres says. “He’s doing his job. He’s dealing with this as a man would.”
Lady Rosalie, now settled into the water and riding with her beam to the waves, began rolling gunwale to gunwale as she drifted south in a northeast wind and waves that had been building all night and pushing the Hatteras against the northward flow of the Gulf Stream. They launched the dinghy, but Ayres, an experienced oarsman, made no headway toward Gun Cay, rowing into wind and waves breaking over the bow. He turned around and rowed south, the prevailing wind and seas pushing the dinghy toward the shipping channel and Miami. “We were going back to Florida now, not to the Bahamas,” Ayres says. “I don’t know if we’re going to make it all the way or not. It was horrific to have to leave the big boat and get into that wet dinghy.”
With seas building, Ayres found it easier to row backward — the square stern leading, bow riding up and over big following seas from the north. When he tried to row bow forward, waves broke over the stern, threatening to capsize their little boat. It was carrying more than 500 pounds despite a rated capacity of 439.
Ayres settled into a non-stop rhythm of short 3-foot strokes, which, with the tail wind and following seas, he figured would take them 20 miles to the ship channel in about a day. “Once there, we could sit around and pop some flares and someone would pick us up,” he says. “I rowed like a madman.”
His biggest concern: Forecasters predicted that the wind would clock around to the south, and when this happened the combination of wind, waves and the Gulf Stream would push them out into the Atlantic and up the Eastern Seaboard. “My job was to row as fast and furiously as I could, and that’s what I did,” Ayres says. Moore’s job was to bail, sit low in the boat as ballast, and when Ayres barked, “Lean forward,” to lean into the wave so the dinghy wouldn’t flip in the following seas.
The first night was the worst. It was cold — in the 50s — and made worse by a 30-knot wind as a cold front moved through. “Our teeth are chattering. I’m getting foggy. I can’t think well anymore,” Ayres says. He cut open three life vests and stuffed the foam panels into their shirts and pants to fight hypothermia. Later he shaped the foam into padding for the oar grips to protect his hands.
Nights, especially, were scary as they heard waves breaking around them and worried that the seas might swamp and capsize them. “My worst fear was rogue waves,” Ayres says. “I said prayers about that. They can pound you so fast and so deep in breaking water that you can’t recover.”
And he knew they wouldn’t last long in the water. They would be overcome by hypothermia. The constant immersion in salt water had so softened their skin that even a slight bump would tear off pieces of flesh and leave a bleeding sore. He didn’t want to hit the water bleeding. Ayres worried about sharks.
Moore worried that they’d never find land. “He kept asking me, ‘Do you think we’re going the right way?’ ” Ayres says. He kept reassuring Moore that he “absolutely, positively” knew they were going the right way. Navigating by the stars, he kept the Seven Sisters constellation off his left foot all the way to Miami, and he flicked the port oar a little harder with each stroke to keep from going too far south.

Mike Ayres

Unseen in the shipping lane
The 114-pound dinghy made the ship channel late Sunday night in 15-foot waves. “We were sitting in the middle of the shipping lane,” Ayres says. Several ships passed. One approached, and he popped a couple of aerial flares. “Nothing happens,” he says. “It motors on by. I was amazed. They don’t see us.”
He shot at another ship at nearly “point-blank range,” ricocheting an aerial flare off the wheelhouse, he says. No response. He tried to set off a couple of hand flares, but almost all of them were duds. “The Olin 12-gauges were the only ones that worked,” he says. “I will never carry any other flare except the Olin 12-gauge.”
The ships motored by so closely that the castaways could smell their diesel exhaust. Ayres says he should have been able to see faces in the wheelhouse. He saw none. Altogether they ignited more than 20 flares in the channel, thinking they surely would be saved. He says the freighters’ failure to respond deeply discouraged them.
It was at least another 30 miles to Miami. “We’re still drifting south,” Ayres says. “I’d dug out a small knife. I was ready to use that knife to scribble messages in the hull to everybody — my mother, sisters, Liz. That would have been my epitaph when I finished.” He didn’t do it because it would have been a tacit admission that he had given up.
On Monday night, Ayres began to run out of steam. To get a few minutes of rest, he fashioned a sea anchor from one of the 5-gallon buckets, and when he needed a break he pointed the dinghy into the waves, threw the bucket out behind on two 30- to 40-foot lengths of rope and just sat for a while. Every eighth or 10th wave would break over the boat, soaking them. “I probably swallowed a couple of gallons of seawater,” Ayres says.
In the hospital after they made landfall, the doctors diagnosed saltwater abrasions in his esophagus. They prevented him from eating anything solid for several days.
That night, Ayres and Moore saw the lights of the Miami skyline. Again, they thought they were saved, but their elation was short-lived. As Ayres rowed feverishly for the lights, the wind clocked south and began to push them north with the Gulf Stream — past South Beach, past Hallandale, past Fort Lauderdale. “We’re watching city by city go by,” Ayres says. “We’re being pushed out as quickly as we row in. … I’m so tired I can hardly lift my arms, but I’m still rowing. I’m pushing the limits of my physicality, so I’m teaching the boy to row now. He’s going to have to row us in.”

Moore takes the oars
Ayres says they picked out targets on the beach and tried to row toward them, but the wind and waves and Gulf Stream kept pushing them north and away from land. Ayres figures they must have picked 40 or 50 targets and missed them all. Yet after three or four hours of rowing, Moore had muscled the dinghy inside the Gulf Stream. Just before sunrise, Boca Raton’s skyline came into view. “It’s now or never,” Ayres says. “If we start hauling ass from here, we’ll wind up by Jacksonville.”
Ayres coached Moore as he rowed: “More to the left, more to the right. I gave him words of encouragement,” he says. “His last strokes were the ones that brought us to the beach.” Running the surf, the dinghy capsized for the first time since the men abandoned Lady Rosalie, but Ayres and Moore quickly recovered and brought the boat to the beach about 6:20 a.m. “It was wonderful,” Ayres says.
Meanwhile, at a motel in Islamorada, Brown was frantic with worry. She had opted out of going to Bimini at the last minute, a decision that proved to be very fortunate. Ayres doubts that the three of them could have made it across the straits in that dinghy. “I made a million phone calls to him and text messages,” she says. “I knew there was no way he would have arrived in Bimini and not called me.”
The Bahamian Coast Guard checked the docks and talked to someone who had seen the pair earlier, but it turned out that was on their first trip across. The U.S. Coast Guard, having gotten no mayday or EPIRB signal and going on information of the pair’s sighting from the Bahamian Coast Guard, suggested that the men had gone out fishing and forgotten to call. Intuitively, Brown knew otherwise. “I was sure he did not make it to Bimini,” she says.
At 7 o’clock Monday morning, Brown took a call from Ayres. “He said, ‘I’m alive, the boat is sunk, and we’re getting married,’ ” Brown recalls. “I didn’t care about that stupid boat. I was just glad he was alive.”
Ayres was hospitalized for three days for treatment of hypothermia; dehydration; sores on his buttocks, hands and feet; and for the saltwater abrasions on his esophagus. His first night back at the motel, he was rowing in his sleep. “Both hands lifting off the bed and stroking,” Brown says. She had to lie over his torso to wake him up and settle him down. Moore was treated at the hospital and released.
Ayres says his mate came through the ordeal with flying colors. “He conquered his demons and learned to row,” he says. “You’ve got to save yourself. He’s going to take that away from this.”
Ayres thought from the outset that they had maybe a 50-50 chance of survival. He says his prayers were answered. “It’s wonderful to be able to go back to my family, my friends, the people I love,” he says. “The greatest gift for me was to save that boy. What he does with that gift is up to him.”
Ayres says he also learned a few lessons. He’ll always carry a life raft big enough to accommodate everyone who is on the boat. “You don’t leave anybody behind,” Ayres says. “If I’d had one more crewmember, I’d have been screwed.”
He will carry personal locator beacons attached to every life jacket and a box on deck that will have all of his emergency supplies in it — water, flares, radio, high-protein dry food, basic tools and a hand line for fishing.
The insurance policy for Lady Rosalie was sitting unsigned on the desk of his Michigan attorney when she sank, so Ayres and Brown plan to return to Michigan to work and raise money to buy a boat in which they can cruise the Caribbean and do some serious treasure-hunting. Less than a week after getting out of the hospital, Ayres was searching the Web for a boat — steel-hulled this time, maybe a small oil field crew boat.
“I hope I never have a boat sink under me again,” he says. “But if it happens, I’ll be ready.”

Ayres and his fiancee, Liz Murphy Brown, plan to buy another boat and cruise the Caribbean.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.