A maintenance crew expecting to find a broken lock on the buoy instead finds the desperate man
It was just a routine buoy maintenance operation for Russell Inman until he saw a weary man step out of the hatch of a big Navy buoy.
“He steps out and starts shouting, ‘Help me. I’m alive. I need food. I need water,’ ” says Inman, 24, mate on the 96-foot workboat Richard L. Becker out of Fort
Lauderdale, Fla. The Becker, a TowBoatU.S. salvage vessel, had been dispatched on a two-day maintenance mission to the enormous 35-foot-diameter U.S. Navy-
maintained buoy in the so-called Tongue of the Ocean, 40 miles off the Bahamas’ south Andros Island.
Inman, of Plantation, Fla., says he and his captain, Peter Caswell, were in the wheelhouse as the Becker approached the buoy the night of Feb. 10. Inman spotted the shadowy outline of what appeared to be a boat tied to the buoy. They shined a spotlight on the buoy, illuminating an eerie scene. “It was sur-real,” says Inman. They saw a capsized dinghy and fish carcasses hanging from the buoy’s railings.
“Lot of fish there. Look very fresh,” they to said to each other.
The Becker hung 80 to 100 feet off the buoy while the captain and mate watched and waited. Nothing happened. Both had an awful feeling they might find a body inside. “We figured with all the commotion, somebody would have come out,” he says. The captain blew five blasts of the ship’s horn, and still they waited. Ninety seconds later, an overjoyed Doyle Alexander Russell staggered out of the buoy hatch.
“I was lost for three weeks now. Three weeks lost. I was missing from the Bahamas three weeks. I’m lost,” Russell cries frantically to his rescuers in a videotape that another crewmember shot of the encounter.
The 34-year-old Bahamian — a husband, and father of six — had been cast away on the buoy for 14 days, surviving on rainwater puddled up on the buoy’s deck, and fish caught with an improvised hook and line.
“He was very, very skinny,” says Inman. “He said he was weak and really close to passing out,” … and giving up.
Inman says Russell was sure he had been saved through divine intervention. “He said he had prayed to God and told God he was going to kill himself, and God said [in a dream], ‘Wait,’ ” Inman says. “That’s when we showed up.”
A maintenance team from a different boat had visited the buoy three weeks earlier and found the lock on the hatch so badly rusted they couldn’t open it. They cut the chain on the hatch with bolt cutters and secured it with rope until they came back with a new lock, Inman says.
The Becker’s arrival to replace the rusted lock was a lifesaver for Russell.
A conch fisherman, Russell drifted for three days in a 17-foot outboard dinghy after he became separated from his larger vessel, the Lady Maxi, and ran out of fuel. He told his rescuers he became lost while motoring over to another fishing vessel to buy a pack of cigarettes. Russell said he paid an exorbitant $8 for eight or nine cigarettes, but he soon found that he would pay a lot more than that to satisfy his craving. The Lady Maxi had become just a speck on the horizon, and as he made for it in his dinghy he lost sight of it. The seas kicked up, so he turned back to ask the crew of the other boat if they would run him over to the mother ship. Three miles distant from what he hoped would be a helping hand, Russell’s 50-hp outboard began to sputter and stall.
He was carrying neither a radio nor compass. “That’s what cost me,” he told Inman. “If I had a radio set I could locate my boat, you understand me? So I keep runnin’, runnin’, runnin’.”
Nine times the engine stalled, and nine times he restarted it — until he realized he wasn’t making any headway. “So I run up in front [to the bow of the dinghy], and I take off my shirt, and I tear it. I hook it on the long knife.” He waved his shirt in desperation to catch their attention, but the crew of the fishing vessel evidently didn’t see it and moved on.
Russell kept looking for Lady Maxi, though his engine continued to sputter and stall, its 15-gallon tank eventually running dry and leaving him to drift for three days. Finally sighting the buoy, Russell jury-rigged a sail with a piece of plywood, and sailed to it. But the wind died, so he donned dive fins, hung his legs over the stern, and pushed the dinghy to the buoy by kicking. Untying the rope on the hatch, Russell found refuge inside the buoy and primitive fishing gear outside. He braided strands of the 1/2-inch rope into fish line and attached the line to a hook he found caught in one of the buoy’s fenders. “He had great survival skills,” Inman says.
Bait fish and baby shark schooled around the buoy. Jigging the bare hook, he caught a fish, then used that fish for bait to catch more fish — jacks, triple tails and blue runners. He ate his fill, hung the excess catch out to dry and scooped rainwater from the deck to drink.
Russell said a pod of whales visited him daily, but he saw just two boats off on the horizon during the two weeks he was stranded. The Tongue of the Ocean, a deep Atlantic channel on the edge of the Bahama Bank, is very lightly trafficked, Inman says. Fifteen years ago, a work crew found three bodies on nearby Green Key. Had the Becker not come to replace the lock and finish other maintenance, Russell might not have been found alive.
“Did he get lucky,” Inman says.
Russell had been harvesting conch for the Nassau-based Lady Maxi on the Sandy Bores in the southwestern part of Tongue of the Ocean, between Andros and Great Exuma. Russell said he had been praying overtime, and was sure he hadn’t been led to the buoy only to die.
“I said my God ain’t gonna leave me like this,” he told his rescuers.
“He was overjoyed to see us,” Inman says. “He was calling us his angels and his heroes.”
And he told them that since his cigarette habit had almost got him killed, he had decided to quit smoking. “I don’t want to see a cigarette around me ever again,” he says.
Russell was picked up by the Bahamian coast guard and transported to shore while the salvage vessel stood by.