British Columbia man survives six days at sea after boat sinks in Caribbean

A British Columbia man who survived six harrowing days on a life raft, with little food and water after his sailboat sank, says he never really thought about dying.

“I was more concerned about the people involved (for me),” said Don Cavers, 77, a Shuswap resident who was found adrift in the Caribbean.

“It was never part of my thinking. I don’t know where it came from; the eternal optimist, I guess.

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A boating enthusiast for 30 years, who has sailed to and from Mexico in the past, Cavers had bought a second-hand sailboat in Colombia for US$45,000 and was planning a leisurely trip to Puerto Rico to meet his son. .

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Enter Mother Nature, who trashed Cavers’ plan by stirring up rough seas.

After leaving port, Cavers encountered 15-foot (4.5-meter) waves on her second night. Water quickly flooded the cabin, three inches above the floor, with Caver blaming leaks on top and a faulty bilge pump.

“The boat got a little slow and then I found I was taking on quite a bit of water,” Cavers told Global News. “So I turned around to drain the water off the decks so the waves wouldn’t crash over the bow.”


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With the boat on autopilot, he then began bailing out, which took several hours in rough seas.

“Looking at (the water in the cabin) you freak out,” he said.

“When you find yourself in this type of situation, you have to take it one step at a time. Once I realized where I was getting water – while still in survival mode to drain the water – I knew I wasn’t sinking.

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Don Cavers’ sailboat.


Submitted


Cavers says that despite being roughed up during the hand scooping, he managed to get the water out of the boat. Only to discover the next day that the electrical system had been compromised.

“So I lost autopilot, I lost everything,” he said.

Everything included his satellite phone, cell phone, iPad and navigation books.

The cavers noted that any paper he had turned into papier-mâché due to the water, which then clogged the bilge pump.


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For the next 36 hours, Cavers steered his boat by hand, heading roughly north, northwest via a wobbly compass, and about 150 miles from the nearest point of land.

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Cavers said the seas eventually calmed down, but without electronics he had no idea where he really was, how fast he was or how far he had traveled.

He also mentioned that he twice passed two fishing boats with large nets, one within 200 feet, but both turned their backs on him. He believes they were fishing illegally, so they ignored him.

Cavers said he also saw a tanker and fired flares, but they didn’t see it.


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On the morning of his fifth day at sea, and the third without electronics, Cavers said he had brought the autopilot function back online, allowing him to get some sleep.

But around midnight, his difficult journey turned into an emergency.

“I had a rude awakening when I hit a reef. You know you’re on the ground when you’re sailing, then you hear a loud bang,” Cavers said.

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“That was probably the scariest thing of all, those 15-20 minutes where I basically started the engine and thought I was going to leave the reef.

“But something tore a hole in the stern, it started taking on water quite quickly.”

Speleologists estimated the reef to be a kilometer long, as well as an island a few miles away.


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The reef Cavers hit was near Cuba, nearly 1,400 kilometers from where he began his journey. It’s about the same distance as Vancouver to Swift Current, Saskatchewan along the Trans-Canada Highway.

Cavers says he grabbed a few items including an emergency beacon, a bag of crisps, a box of crackers, a 20-litre jug of fresh water and jumped into the boat’s nine-foot dinghy, leaving the sailboat behind him. When he jumped into the canoe, water covered the deck of the boat.

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“I dropped the life raft and launched it, and it magically inflated, and I moved it alongside the dinghy,” Cavers said. “And then I abandoned ship and into the life raft.”

His plan was to tie up the dinghy and life raft alongside the boat, but the winds and waves prevented him from doing so, throwing him back against the breakers.

The Don Cavers life raft spent six days adrift in the Caribbean.


Submitted


Cavers said he didn’t trust the dinghy and moved into the seven-foot life raft.

Again, nature played a part, with the winds blowing it back out to sea, where it floated for six days.

Three days on the life raft, Cavers discovered that his distress beacon was not sending signals correctly. He adjusted it and, on his 12th day at sea, finally heard a sound he will never forget.

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“I was dozing off and I heard a ship’s horn honk,” he said. “Usually if you’re on a sailboat and you hear a ship’s horn honk, they tell you to step aside.

“So I grabbed the flare gun and fired a few flares and then the radio to go, ‘Hey, I can’t get out of your way.

“And then – I choke every time I say this – they said, ‘Well, that’s fine. We are here to save you.

The 225-meter vessel stopped right next to Cavers and dropped a rope ladder.

A merchant ship had been redirected by the US Coast Guard, the Canadian Mission Control Center and the Joint Rescue Coordination Center, all because its distress beacon was working.

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Cavers said he learned many lessons from his near-death journey, one being to make sure all of his electronics are placed in waterproof containers. He says that would have made for a much faster rescue.


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