80-year-old survives 18 hours in the water
Strength of mind and body helped the spearfisherman endure after he was separated from his boat
Ignacio Siberio knows he shouldn’t have survived to tell this story: How his boat drifted away from him, leaving the 80-year-old spearfisherman alone in the water for 18 hours in 5- to 7-foot seas on a chilly night off the Florida Keys.
Siberio, a practicing Miami attorney, had gone out alone in his 23-foot Grady-White to a favorite dive site off lower Key Largo. A strong offshore wind was whipping up the seas. “If I was going by the rules, I shouldn’t have gone out that day,” he says. “If something happens to the boat or to you, you get blown into the Gulf Stream, and that’s the end of everything.”
The stream’s conveyor-belt current can carry boat and skipper hundreds of miles.
Siberio was free-diving to 60 to 70 feet, spearfishing for grouper and snapper on the ledge that falls off the ocean reef. He had been diving for several hours on a cool December day last year wearing just the top of his wet suit. He was cold, and his ears weren’t decompressing right. He decided to make one last dive; he was down for a little more than a minute. “When I came up, the boat was nowhere,” Siberio recalls.
When he dives, Siberio trails 350 feet of line behind his boat, and attaches a white buoy at 300 feet and a red one at the end. That’s to alert him to when the current starts to carry him away. If he sees the white buoy overhead, he knows to surface and get back to the boat. When he surfaced this time, the red buoy already was 300 feet away. His Grady-White had dragged anchor and was blowing out to sea.
“As soon as I saw the boat going out I realized it was my one chance to return safely to land,” he says. “I started to swim. I was swimming, swimming, swimming. I was swimming after the boat for two hours.”
Exhausted, he finally stopped and only then fully realized his plight. “When I was swimming, I had hope,” he says. “When I had to stop and saw the boat going away, that impression was devastating.”
His first thought was that he had just lost thousands of dollars. “That lasted about two seconds,” he says. “Then the reality dawned. I was doomed.”
It was about 4 p.m., Dec. 11, and he had seen almost no other boats out that day that he could wave down. His wife, Gloria, wouldn’t worry about him until after dark. Spearfishing is Siberio’s passion, and he does it just about every weekend. It’s not unusual for him to return to their canal-front cottage on Key Largo late after a day on the water. He often stops to chat with friends over a drink and regale them with the day’s fish stories before he goes home.
“Then came the first hard thought,” he says. “[Ignacio], you are going to wind up in the middle of the Gulf Stream and go north and disappear. Nobody will know what happened to you.
“My body was so cold, so brutally cold and so brutally exhausted. I said to myself, ‘I am going to die.’” He began to imagine himself in a kind of twilight. “You are alive, but you are dead,” he says. “[Death] is waiting for you, and there is nothing you can do to reverse that end.”
Bobbing in 5- to 7-foot seas, Siberio saw a white speck in the distance as he crested on a wave. “I thought my mind was starting to play tricks on me,” he says. “I didn’t try to move or anything. I saw no purpose in it.”
Again, he saw that white point, about 300 feet away. He swam for it and found five conical white buoys, 12 to 18 inches long, fixed to a line. Siberio isn’t sure what that line was. He thinks it was attached to some sort of fishing gear.
Siberio figures he was in 200 to 300 feet of water at this point. “I grabbed onto the buoys, but they didn’t give me much relief,” he says. “If they weren’t anchored to the bottom, they were nothing to me.” The wind would blow him and the buoys out to sea, where he would be lost as darkness fell.
Siberio isn’t a religious man. “But you know,” he says, “there was a miracle.” The line was fixed to something, possibly deep-water lobster traps. The buoys weren’t drifting, and each carried the number 731 on it.
July 31 — 7/31 — is Siberio’s birthday. “It’s amazing,” he says. “The only thing missing there was my name.” Tethered now to a stationary buoy, his hope revived. Siberio still faced a long night in the water when the temperature was forecast to dip to the mid-50s. He was still at death’s door, but there were things he could do now to try to save himself. Siberio says his long experience with the sea and his analytical lawyer’s mind helped him survive the ordeal.
Never too old
A Cuban-American, Siberio has been free-diving since he was a teen in Havana. He used to hang out in the water under a bridge where swimmers would jump in for fun. With goggles on, he could see change falling out of their pockets, and he’d retrieve it — for both sport and profit. Later, he took up spearfishing and competed nationally and internationally, winning several national spearfishing titles.
A 1947 graduate of the University of Havana’s law school, Siberio emigrated to Miami in 1960. He worked as a gardener for a while, owned a jewelry store, then in 1974 — at age 50 — he went back to college to take an 18-month course that prepared Cuban-trained lawyers to pass the Florida bar exam. He still practices law from his Little Havana office three days a week, but every Thursday and Friday he and Gloria retreat to their cottage in the Keys so Siberio can go spearfishing. “I don’t live feeling like I’m 80 years old,” he says. “When I was 20, I didn’t want to live more than 50 years because after that, what’s the use? When I reached 60, I realized I was talking too cheap. I took a new approach.”
Siberio still loves the challenge of preparing and arguing cases, and he still loves to dive and spearfish. He tries to get friends to go out with him on his weekly forays, but if they’re not available he goes alone. “I swim by discipline,” he says. “I enjoy it.”
Once Siberio realized he wasn’t drifting anymore, he began the mental calculations to find a way back to shore. He knew he couldn’t swim against an offshore wind and waves, but he also knew the wind probably would clock around sometime during the night. It usually did. That would make for easier swimming — but he wouldn’t be able to start until first light. He couldn’t swim in the dark and keep a reliable westerly course toward land.
“That means I have to stay here all night long,” he says. “It will be a solid 14 to 15 hours in the water.” How can he hang on to the buoys and survive the cold and 7-foot seas?
The night was moonless. “The darkness was so complete, I couldn’t see the waves rolling against me,” he says. “I didn’t see them until they hit me.” Every fourth or fifth wave broke over him. “It was like a hammer — thousands of gallons hitting you in the face,” ripping at his mask.
And the chill began to take its toll. The cold was unbearable on his back and chest. “I examined my body,” he says. It had become rigid. He didn’t think he could endure more than two to three hours more, so he devised a strategy for trying to survive the cold. First, he relaxed his body muscle by muscle until he became like a rag doll. “It’s not easy because the cold is dominating you,” he says. “You have to concentrate. You have to concentrate to release the tension. This was very beneficial because I spent a lot of time attending to that. … To my surprise, I was able to get along in that state. I saw the minutes going by.”
Next, he laid out a plan for occupying his mind. “If I keep searching for solutions and take actions, I will diminish the negative thoughts that will be assaulting me every minute,” he says. Thoughts like, Can I make it? Can I hold on? How long can I resist the cold and seas?
“I need to have my mind totally busy and off my predicament,” he says. For five hours, Siberio prepared and argued in detail three cases of real estate litigation. “I started to examine each case evidence by evidence — dates, names, everything — and organized and presented my argument to the judge. The trick is the detail. I was so focused on detail that nothing else could penetrate.”
For five hours after that, he reviewed his life, asking himself where he had made good choices and where he had made bad ones. He had had to choose whether to study law or engineering while in Cuba. He chose law because he couldn’t afford engineering school, and he didn’t want to ask his family for help. He’s satisfied with that decision. Coming to the United States was right for him, too, but instead of coming to Miami — where Spanish is spoken — he decided he should have settled in a small Midwestern town. Then he would have had to learn English right away.
Returning to law school so he could prep for the Florida bar and practice law in the United States was another good move.
Siberio always has been tenacious and independent, perhaps to a fault. “I’ve been financially independent since age 11,” he says. He’s always been a worker.
When he turned 50, he sold his boat and his jewelry business, married, and decided to go back to law school through the accelerated program at the University of Miami that trained Cuban-schooled attorneys to practice in Florida. Speaking virtually no English, Siberio scored dead last among 1,000 applicants on the entrance exam. Only 100 were admitted to the program that year.
Determined to resume his law practice, Siberio turned up at the dean’s office every day for three months to argue his case — in Spanish: “If anyone drops out of the program before classes start, consider me to fill their slot because I really, really want to do this.”
Finally, the dean came in one morning and said to Siberio — standing at the door, as usual — “Siberio, today is your day.” A student had dropped out. The dean thought Siberio would wash out in the first quarter without better mastery of English, but he gave him a chance.
“He said, ‘I have been teaching 40 years, and no one has shown me this determination that you have shown me,’ ” he says. Siberio learned English while he studied. He completed the 18-month course and was one of just 15 who passed the bar.
“I can make myself passionate in pursuing whatever I decide to do,” he says.
That proved true of his struggle to survive. The last
2-1/2 hours were a seesaw battle. “My body was nothing,” he says. “I was afraid I might lose my grip and get separated from the buoy, and that would be the end.”
His survival had come down to a stark choice, and he focused all his mental energy on that choice: to live or not to live. “I have the power to bring sadness to my friends and my family,” he says. “It is also in my power to bring these same people happiness. I have it in my hands. It is you. You have to do it.”
His mantra became, “You have to bring happiness.” He repeated it over and over. Still, a thought kept flashing through his mind: This is the end. His body was rebelling. He felt as if he had been doing chin-ups until his muscles twitched and he couldn’t hang on anymore. “I was like a crazy guy,” he says. “When it seems like you can’t hang on anymore, you say 15 minutes more, 10 minutes more. At one point, I opened my eyes and it surprised me. I saw waves!”
Dawn was approaching. “A revived Siberio appears again,” he says. “I was at the end of my rope, but this brings to me more strength to continue. I start to develop new ideas to keep my mind working and not allow negative thoughts. … Hope. Hope.”
He thought about what he would do when day broke. He doubted the Coast Guard would find him because they would be looking for his boat in the Gulf Stream. “I will try to swim to land, but where is land?” he asks.
Cutting the ties
He needed to swim due west to Tavernier, but the wind had clocked north as expected and would be pushing him south, where the Keys bent away from him. Drifting south, he would have to swim farther and into a turning tide. Siberio decided to swim 25 degrees north of west into quartering seas. He fixed in his mind on how the waves should look relative to him when he lifted his face out of the water as he swam. He would set out at 5:30 a.m. so he would have plenty of daylight and reach land before the tide ebbed.
“But I’m feeling a certain comfort or hope hanging onto those buoys,” he says. He cut them loose and took them with him so rescuers could see him better, and for buoyancy in case he tired and had to stop.
“The moment when I took the knife in my hand and the rope in the other, believe me, I hesitated. I hesitated a lot,” he says. “When I cut the line, I cut any hope except what I’m going to do. I knew it was highly, highly questionable. … I rolled the dice. After so much torment, I was going again to play with my life.”
The one question he wouldn’t ask: “Can you do it? I don’t even think about it. It is like a sickness,” he says.
Swimming to shore seemed like the only option that might save him. Siberio had shucked his oversized swim fins early on. Swimming with mask and snorkel, he would swim 50 strokes, then look up out of the water to orient himself to the waves. Below, he watched for fish, distinguishing one from the other to occupy his mind. “The most important part was the mind,” he says. “Keeping it occupied. All the time, all the time.”
Schools of fish swam along with him, giving him confidence that he was, in fact, making progress. “I knew I was exhausted,” he says. He knew that at any time his body could give out and that could be the end, but remarkably the exhaustion and pain did not consume his thinking. He focused on the fish.
“You don’t think about when you are going to arrive,” he says. “I am just doing what I have to do. If you start thinking about the end, you have to ask, ‘Am I going to make it?’ ” The forbidden question.
The mental discipline paid off.
Siberio’s nephew, Carlos Lopez, a software engineer and longtime spearfishing buddy, had been scouring the reefs for Siberio until 2 a.m. the night before. Lopez and Roberto Garcia, another spearfisherman, thought their friend might be clinging to a lobster buoy somewhere between Pickles and Davis reefs, his favorite spearfishing grounds. They ran from trap to trap, peering at the seas with searchlights, until Lopez’s boat ran aground at low tide and Garcia towed him in.
“We knew he was out there somewhere,” Lopez says. “We’ve known each other for such a long time. We know where he goes. He knows where we go.” Each keeps the GPS coordinates of the others’ best dive spots logged on his own chart plotter.
Back in Tavernier, 15 of Siberio’s friends and family had gathered to comfort Gloria and wait for word about him. Lopez and Garcia joined them, staying until 4 a.m. in hopes that Siberio might be swimming for shore and turn up on the beach.
The next morning around 9 o’clock, the Coast Guard, which also had been searching long into the night, reported that a C-130 crew had spotted Siberio’s Grady-White 23 miles east of Elliott Key — 40 miles from where he had gone diving. A half-hour later, a rescue swimmer dropped from a helicopter reported no one aboard.
Lopez advised the Coast Guard to check Siberio’s log for his latest entry. “I’ve never met a man who keeps a log like he does,” Lopez says. “Every time he sets anchor, he records the latitude and longitude [and his catch]. … The book is invaluable.”
The swimmer found the log and reported the latest entry, giving Lopez and Garcia the information they needed to resume their search. Together this time, they zigzagged from trap to trap again as they headed toward Siberio’s last recorded location.
Around 10:30 a.m., just four miles from shore, Lopez spotted the back of a wetsuit and several buoys bobbing in the swells 100 feet off their beam. “I yelled, ‘There he is! There he is!’ ” Lopez says. “We got very excited and turned around, and he started swimming toward the boat.”
When they pulled him aboard, “He took off his mask and just sat on the bow of the boat holding onto the rail,” says Lopez. “He didn’t say a word for about 10 minutes. I touched him. He was warm; he wasn’t cold. He wasn’t shivering. He was fine, in perfect shape.”
Siberio believes he saw Lopez and Garcia first. “I shouted, but they didn’t hear me,” he says. “Then I raised my hand. They saw my hand.”
Though exhausted, he says he suffered no long-term ill effects. “I didn’t even get a cough,” he says.
The Coast Guard was able to recover Siberio’s boat.
The first thing Siberio asked for when he got home was a shot of scotch, which is the way he always caps a day on the water. A Coast Guardsman who was there to interview Siberio advised against it because the alcohol could trigger hypothermia. But Siberio insisted, swigging his whiskey.
“There’s not much you can tell an 80-year-old man,” Lopez says, especially one who has just survived 18 hours in the water. “He is very persistent, very set in his ways. When you are on his boat, you have to do things his way, that’s it. But he has taught us a lot. He thinks of ways of improving this, trying that. He’s full of tricks.”
And he doesn’t give up. Lopez says Siberio has told him he keeps litigating cases and going out in his boat and free-diving because, “The moment I stop, that’s the end of me.”
Lopez thinks it is that persistence, that discipline of mind and his devotion to routine that saved Siberio. “He knows exactly what he has to do,” Lopez says. “That’s what saved him. Incredible, incredible.”
Siberio doesn’t deny that he has his ways of doing things, but after recounting how he nearly died, he says he still is learning how to do things better, both in his law practice and on the water. Whenever he goes diving, he runs through a mental checklist before he leaves the dock. He has modified that checklist since his ordeal.
Siberio now carries two sea anchors that will steady the boat in heavy seas. He plans to deploy them whenever it’s windy so if the anchor drags they will slow the boat’s movement. With sea anchors out, he says, “I could have easily overtaken the boat by swimming.”
He also recognizes now that he cut a corner when he went out that day. Siberio scows, or becues, his anchor, attaching the end of the rode to the anchor crown, and lashing it to the shank with a single wrap of thin line. That way, if the anchor snags, he can give the rode a hard pull, break the string, and trip the anchor from another angle. Before going out in heavy seas, he ordinarily wraps the string around the shank four or five times so it won’t break in the pitching conditions. He didn’t do that on this day. He believes the thin line broke, causing the anchor to break free.
His shave with death won’t stop Siberio from going out alone to spearfish. He loves the water too much — and the solitude. “You’re out there by yourself. This is exactly what attracts me,” he says.