A Survivor’s SOS

A couple of months ago I found myself adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. The skiff I was in capsized and tossed me into a rough ocean with no life preserver. The skiff refused to sink, so I climbed onto its hull and held on for dear life.

I was forty miles from the mainland. We had disembarked on a company-sponsored, 3-day fishing trip on an 85-foot boat out of Bilouxi, Mississipi. Once the main vessel dropped anchor, we were provided smaller skiffs to fish out of. On the morning of October 23rd, I wound up on a skiff by myself and got caught out in weather. High waves and rain fouled the skiff’s engine and then started to fill the craft with water. I tried bailing but was unsuccessful. I tried to get the motor to fire back up, but it wouldn’t engage. Next thing I knew, I was flailing in the Gulf.

It was windy and cold. The sky was gray and rainy. I clung to the hull of the skiff as best I could. The white-capping 3-5 foot swells battered me constantly, and every time I attempted to set myself in an upright position to survey my surroundings, I was swept away by waves and had to swim back to the hull.

After five hours adrift, my situation worsened considerably. I had resigned myself to a long haul, maybe clinging to the precarious hull overnight or a couple of days at most. But accidental seawater ingestion began to take its toll. I experienced diarrhea and vomiting. I started to dehydrate. The cold wind and water got worse and I became hypothermic. I kept thinking I’d see land or drift into a shipping lane, but there was nothing but waves.

I had two moments of profound discovery.

The first was my realization of the ocean’s indifference. There I was, off the grid, nary a technological umbilical for miles. For the first time in many years, I was definitively expelled from the seemingly constant comfort zone that most of rely on to exist. I was alone and practically helpless, and the ocean didn’t care. I was mundane flotsam, pointless and probably temporary. Nature was oblivious.

I was too cold and desperate to get very philosophical but, suffice it to say, I subsequently realized that I’d forgotten a few things about life while I was toiling and compromising to make a living.

The second profound moment I had was a Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman) revelation. As I lay sprawled across the hull, clinging as best I could, it occurred to me that I was worth more dead than alive. If I let go and just drifted off, abandoned my breath, and embraced the cold Gulf, my family stood to collect more insurance money than I could possibly earn or save even if I worked for the rest of my life. And this was before our economic recession or hints of a depression.

One high seas nap and my children’s college education would be covered. Our cars and house could be paid off. By leaving myself behind, my wife and kids could get ahead.

For better or worse, dumb brute instinct kicked in and I survived. About eight hours into the ordeal, an HH-65C Dolphin rescue helicopter from the Coast Guard in New Orleans fished me out of the drink. The Coasties swaddled me in blankets and told me that in another hour or so and I might have drifted into the Louisiana marshes where I could have walked out of the Gulf—if I could avoid the alligators.

At the hospital, between intravenous hydration and warming cloaks, a doctor told me that if my core temperature had dropped another degree or two, my whole body would have seized up.

Now that I’m back home, everybody reminds me how lucky I was and I guess they’re right. But as I go over the resultant $7,000.00 hospital bill and $1,200.00 ambulance invoice and prepare to do battle with my insurance company, Willy’s idea still doesn’t seem so bad. The grass is always greener, even in a graveyard.

There was a time in this country when, if you worked hard, you could probably get ahead and afford things, and be secure. Healthcare wasn’t a bankruptcy, and dying wasn’t a viable option.

It seems a shame and a disgrace that if you have health insurance, it probably doesn’t cover much. And if you can afford life insurance, the best way to come out ahead on the investment is to die prematurely.

It’s almost funny. While you’re alive the insurance companies want you treated as little as possible until you’re dying. Then they want you to live long enough to no longer afford your life insurance.

It’s been two months since I was brought back ashore and I still second-guess my survival. I’m still adrift and swimming. We all are. And there doesn’t seem to be any land in sight.

Fort Worth native E. R. Bills is an award-winning journalist and author. His latest works include Tell-Tale Texas: Investigations in Infamous History and Letters from Texas, 2021-2023. Read other articles by E.R..

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Ramsefall said on December 23rd, 2008 at 9:33am #

    E.R. Bills,

    thanks for sharing your epic tale of survival, no doubt your family gives thanks for your instinct to survive and overcoming the elements in which you were adrift.

    Second guessing your survival in the rough seas of US economic reality is a functional metaphor to which (too) many can relate, it seems that the stakes have never been higher.

    I spent 13 years as an entrepreneur in Nebraska who never managed to be able to come up with adequate funds for health insurance…an unaffordable luxury. Emergency room visits, back injuries, dental issues, all payable on the cash plan and enough to throw the monthly expenses way out of whack, year after year. After being completely fed up with the dysfunctional US system of health coverage and excess taxation on the working man, I took a bold leap in relocation to Colombia where I mustered up a stable teaching position in a Swiss school that provides for an additional $100/month an outstanding health insurance plan through the Spanish company Colsanitas.

    I just had very successful back surgery a month ago which ended up costing less than $100 for all my office visits, MRI, anesthesiologist, surgeons, hospital stay and medications. Who would have thought that it’s easier and more affordable to find a no-strings-attached insurance policy in the underdeveloped nation of Colombia than in the US? As pathetic as it is, watching the USS Aristocracy sink won’t be braking this expat’s heart.

    Best to you.

  2. DavidG. said on December 23rd, 2008 at 3:05pm #

    This article and the comment by Ramsefall certainly puts the illusion of the American Dream into some perspective.

    What I hate is when I see American officials telling folk from other lands that the whole world is queuing to get a green card and immigrate there. Quite frankly, America would be the last country in the world I would want to live in.

    Since we changed to a liberal Government in Australia, the whole place has changed significantly. I feel comfortable again.


    I hope Obama can achieve the same result!

  3. Don Hawkins said on December 23rd, 2008 at 4:23pm #

    DavidG I have to admit in my drinking day’s I drank with a few Australians and you are a tuff bunch and Bills I had a little run in with the ocean once wakes you right up and good story and your ending is the beginning, right.

  4. DavidG. said on December 23rd, 2008 at 5:14pm #

    ER and Don, I built two yachts and lived on one so I know a bit about the ocean. You can’t trust it just like you can’t trust those who are running our world exclusively for their benefit.

    We need to scrap our current political and economic system, the one that allows ‘parasites’ to exploit us without restriction.

    We can’t control the ocean but we can control them!

  5. David said on December 23rd, 2008 at 8:22pm #

    Consider your ordeal a little payback from Mother Nature for patronizing a gas guzzling, pollution spewing 85 foot head boat. Next time, fish from shore. It’s more fun and more challenging.

  6. Brian Koontz said on December 24th, 2008 at 6:24am #

    “Next time, fish from shore. It’s more fun and more challenging.”

    Corporations don’t like that. It doesn’t display their accumulated wealth the way a large fishing boat does. Think of that display as a mob boss displaying his balance sheet – it’s a way to attract additional patrons – whether they be shareholders or employees.

    We enjoy the outcome of your survival since we get to read more posts from you.

  7. The Angry Peasant said on December 24th, 2008 at 5:00pm #

    It is indeed a frightening time to be alive. Years ago, I’d read history and noticed many of the periods of history, many lasting hundreds of years, when millions of people suffered immeasurablu under the iron heel of their respective ruling classes. I’d always think to myself, “Geez, thank God I live in this day and age.” How horrific to think that we’re going through a period of hopelessness akin to those past eras now. I call this America’s Dark Age. And it only seems worse all the time. I remember when I was in the 10th grade, my history teacher telling us that our generation, Generation X, would be the first American generation to have a worse standard of living than our parents. She was right, of course. And it’s not only frightening, but depressing as hell. Thanks to the unmitigated contempt the ruling class has for the American public, and their boundless greed, we have been given nothing to look forward to but wage-slavery, immobilization, and ultimately, chronic illness. The last thirty years have been steadily leading to this time, when the government no longer bothers making it a secret what they’re doing and intend to do us. We have arrived in an Orwellian world, clouded by uncertainty, lacking humanity, spiraling downward in Evil America.

  8. Don Hawkins said on December 24th, 2008 at 6:45pm #

    we have been given nothing to look forward to. Think of this as kind of a war and the next year will be forward thinking the push is on it’s starting yes it is. The truth is becoming much easer to see. This isn’t going to be easy but boring it will not be.

  9. brady said on December 24th, 2008 at 11:54pm #

    I was born in the U.S.A.68 years ago. Grandparents from Ireland. There were nine in our family. We all were educated in the U.S.A
    Proud that my Mother and Father worked hard. We live in the land of opportunity. Anyone can make it but it takes work! People from humble beginnings like Carter, Clinton and now Obama are examples.
    Almost all Americans that I have grown with are fun loving with no hate for anyone. We are here and should be heard.

  10. Moet said on December 26th, 2008 at 7:47am #

    Hi nice article, to the writer who asked about the end being the begining, all i got to say is you amerikans must only use essentials, dont buy unnecessary stuff. It will kill the banks. Also it will have a knock on effect on prices of everything. Peace out.

  11. Ramsefall said on December 27th, 2008 at 2:23pm #


    that knock-on effect which you mention could be powerful, provided people are prepared to sacrifice their insatiable appetite for more stuff first.

    Still, with the coming hyper-inflation of the dollar in response to the Feds emergency production of new bills as a life preserver for an already drowned economy that’s quickly sinking, the only logical strategy may be to endure some very hard times ahead, or quietly expatriate yourself to another region of this beautiful planet which we call Earth. Everywhere has its problems, but some less than others, and many less than the US. Abandon heavy baggage like nationalism (if you carry it) and see what the world holds in store for you.

    Best to you.