Michael Diaz – In the Emptiness of Darkness We are Never Truly Alone; My Story of Survival,  17 Hours Adrift at Sea and a World Full of Good Samaritans

It was midnight. The clouds were moving in covering the moonlight that reflected off the ebony water. In the distance I could see the tiny rows of lights outlining the office buildings of Stamford, which were getting smaller and smaller reminding me I was drifting further east of the shoreline that seemed so close a little while back.

I couldn’t imagine feeling any smaller and alone, like a tiny cork floating in an ocean of darkness. It was now Sunday October 6th. I started out the previous morning, Saturday, a pristine unusual summer-like day with temps in the 80’s and water at 67°. A great day to launch my kayak into Cold Spring Harbor and chase the bounty of fall fish before the season closed and cold weather moved in.

I loaded up my kayak with fishing and safety gear, put on my life vest and began paddling to Oyster Bay and the Long Island Sound, like I have done over the past 12 years. The day was delicious. In between landing monster porgies, I would pause to watch the colorful spinnakers balloon full of air then collapse in a blink as the sailboats made their next leg in the regattas against the backdrop of navy-blue water and gold coast mansions.

It was too perfect a day to call short, so as the afternoon passed I headed to the Sound to meet up with the stripers who were looking for late day snacks. I spent the rest of the afternoon drifting on the current off a sandbar near Caumsett Park. As the day came to a close, I packed up my gear and spoke with my roommate by phone letting him know I was on my way back to my launch spot, Lloyd Harbor Beach, but since the tide was running out and the wind picking up from the South, it would likely take about two hours to reach the beach and I would check in by phone when I landed ashore. It was about 5pm at this point.

And then things went terribly wrong. With the tide and wind against me, the waves came over my Tarpon 140 kayak rapidly. Not a big deal for a kayak as excess water simply drains out the scupper holes in the bottom of the cockpit area. Only my kayak had a flaw, the center hull hatch has a Tupperware type lid. Newer kayaks have more reliable gasket lined water tight screw on hatch lids, and my 12 year-old Tupperware type lid was no longer water tight. No big deal, I keep a large sponge on hand to remove water that collects in the hull. Only the waves were so large and quick that I couldn’t bail out the kayak faster than the water was entering.

Again, no big deal, I have dealt with this before, I will just paddle to shore, drain the kayak, paddle along the shoreline and repeat as needed.

Fate would not make it so easy.

As I sit on top and the kayak hull fills with water, it becomes less stable. I could feel this as I paddled the 200 yards to the beach at Caumsett. As the sun was starting to set, the laws of physics caught up with me and about 100 yards from the beach, the kayak capsized, throwing me into the water and the kayak upside down. Using the experience from my 12 years of practicing the maneuver, I righted the kayak, grabbed the far side handle and pulled myself aboard, and readied to continue the short paddle to shore. However, this was not to pass as the kayak immediately flipped, and once again I was in the water. The kayak had taken on too much water to be seaworthy.

I leashed the kayak to my life vest and began to swim us to the beach. It was the last light of sunset, but the beach was a stone’s throw. At least under ideal conditions. The tide and wind had other plans for me as they endured to push me further from shore and mock my spirited efforts at swimming.

It was now dark, and understanding the effects of tide and wind, I conceded that I now required help to get out of this predicament. I grabbed my dry box to get my phone and make a humbling call to the Coast Guard. The kayak had batteries in a waterproof box to shine my anchor deck lights, so I would be visible to any would be rescuers. Only, I hadn’t properly closed the phone dry box and it was full of sea water. I was now alone drifting in the box with my kayak next to me. At least it had lights.

Over the next 4 hours, a few boats raced home, but in the dark with their engines full speed, they could not hear the sirens of my emergency whistle nor see me in between swales. I was drifting nearer to Connecticut and away from Long Island.

By 10 pm, the water had knocked out the lights and so the kayak was of no use to me. I let go saying goodbye to my friend for the past 12 years as we slowly drifted to our own separate fates. It was just me, my life vest and darkness. And my wits. Stay calm and keep my wits.

As a parent of an Eagle Scout, I learned a lot about scouting. For example, the first survival lesson is STOP. Stop, Think, Observe, Plan. Several times that night, I experienced a peaceful calm. In the dark of the night, if you can clear your head, stop swimming and let yourself float, the warm water can be a very tranquil place. The waves are quiet and have a harmonic rhythm that gently rocks you in a subtle and surreal way, as if to cup you in their hands saying “You are safe…for the time being”. Okay, we stopped. Next plan.

Stamford was close. Much closer than the bluffs of Lloyd Neck. Reachable close. I began to swim to her shores, using the buildings as if they were a lighthouse marking shore. It would take time. I was a distance runner, so I was experienced in the notion of one step at a time, and in this case, stroke.

Over the next 2 hours I got close to shore. Real close. Close enough to start thinking about walking over to the Stamford train station, which I knew was near the water, and using the cash on hand to hire a cab to take me home, anonymously. But, that was not to be. That tide was running east and for the same reason it pulled me away from Caumsett, it would not let me close the final gap to the Connecticut shore, and for several hours, even though I kept swimming to shore, I was pulled parallel, eventually passing Norwalk.

Through the nights as the tide shifted, I was pulled back to Smithtown Bay, equally teased by anchored boats that were just out of reach. Through the night I alternated between drifting and swimming.

By dawn, the waters had returned me to Norwalk, with a hard easterly (outgoing) tide. After coming within 50 yards of some islands off Norwalk, I changed tactics, conserving energy by trading water and looking to signal passing boats.

The predicted storm that had made the tides stronger than usual had arrived bring drenching rain and over my head waves. It also meant that passing boats would be few and far between and the few that did venture out would be running full engines with the wheelhouses closed. The high waves on top of limited visibility compounded the dire circumstances of a visual rescue. One cabin cruise making the trip from Norwalk to Port Jefferson passed within 100 feet of me as did a police rescue boat who was out actively searching for me, underscoring my urgent need for another plan.

That is exactly the moment it appeared. The Green Ledge Lighthouse, I would later learn, is about a mile south of the mouth of the Rowayton River and marks the underwater reef that is part of the islands I had so closely passed earlier in the morning. All I knew was in the distance I could see a lighthouse that appeared to be off shore, and if it was off shore, perhaps it wasn’t in that current that kept pulling me back to the middle of the Sound. Absent of any better plan, I put my head down and began the final 90 minutes of my order.

For the next hour and a half, I would swim, swallow water as waves crashed over me, and look up to realign to that mark. Little by little I was inching closer, and the bigger it got, the closer it would seem. It was slow going. I grabbed my Army baseball cap that was miraculously still with me and used the bill as a flipper in my right hand to help move through the water.

As I neared the lighthouse, I would become more aware of the tide, wondering if it would play another cruel trick and sweep me by my target. I adjusted my angle of attack East to account for the tide.

The more I thought I was going to make it, the more I was aware this might be my one and only chance. No looking back or making alternative plans. This has to work.

I was so close, I angle the tide correctly and now I had to figure out how to get the lighthouse’s ladder without getting knocked out by the surf crashing onto the boulders on which the lighthouse stood.

11:34 am. The time reading on my watch as my left hand emerged from the water to grab the first rung of the ladder. It was over.

I climbed up the ladder onto a catwalk, jelly legs and all, and proceeded to blow my emergency whistle, waving my bright yellow left vest which now could be seen by two men fishing the nearby reefs. A few hand signals and they picked up their radio and five minutes later the rescue boats that had passed me by a little earlier arrived to take me ashore.

In the weeks that followed, I learned about the hundreds of strangers in addition to the first responders, family and friends that made up the search party. Scuba divers, jet skiers, fishermen, boaters, the staff at Caumsett, etc. It was a lousy day, surely not one to go out on the water. All they needed to know was that a kayaker was missing, and they stopped the comfort of what they were doing to risk their own safety to look for me. A stranger.

No matter how dark and lonely it may seem, no matter how dire things may appear, you are never alone. The world is full of good Samaritans who drop what they are doing to help total strangers in need.

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