“WE HAVE TO JUMP IN!”
Two siblings abandon ship in the Caribbean Sea.
WATER CAME FROM EVERY DIRECTION. It fell from above in fat, cold drops and crashed over the sides of the boat. It drenched Dan Suski as he fought to keep his balance in the stern of the Reel Irie, a mid-sized recreational fishing boat that ran charters in the southern Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Saint Lucia. But he wasn’t about to let water distract him from his prize. Dan, 30, knew he’d hooked something big when his fishing line began unreeling. But it took a good 40 minutes before he saw his catch: a 180-kilogram marlin, with eyes the size of cricket balls.
It was just past noon on April 21, 2013. The sky was dark, the air heavy and cool, the waves three and a half metres high. While Dan and the first mate, Tim Cooper, fought the fish in the boat’s stern, Kate Suski, Dan’s 39-year-old sister, sat in the helm. She was trying to film the tug of war with the marlin, but the Reel Irie heaved, making it hard for her to get a steady shot. No one noticed the water that ran past her feet and towards the bow.
The captain, Griffith Joseph, steered the boat west, towards land. A longtime charter fisherman based in Saint Lucia’s Rodney Bay Marina, he was unconcerned about the tumultuous seas. But he hadn’t protested an hour ago when the Suskis asked to head from the Atlantic side of the island to what they hoped would be a calmer environment on the Caribbean side.
Dan was still reeling in the marlin when he heard the bang. It came from behind him, loud and with a hint of sizzle. For a second he wondered if they’d hit something, but the sea floor was more than 900 metres beneath them. In the helm, Kate turned to Joseph, but the captain shook his head as if to say, “Don’t worry about it.” He left the wheel and opened the door to the cabin. Kate looked over his shoulder and stared.
The sea had invaded the cabin. And when Joseph opened the hatch to the engine compartment, they could see the space was almost completely flooded.
Still in the stern, Dan didn’t have to look back to know something was wrong. First, there had been that bang. Plus, Joseph was down below. Though Cooper was at the helm, the Reel Irie was travelling in a wide arc, out of control. As the boat changed directions, the propeller cut through the line to the marlin, setting it free.
Suddenly, Joseph surfaced and began handing out life jackets: “We have to jump in.”
IT WAS A typically grey April day in Seattle when Kate received a text from
Dan: “Wanna go deep-sea fishing on Sunday?” She instantly brightened. Her brother was preparing to housesit for a friend on Saint Lucia, where she’d join him in less than seven days.
Kate had seen Dan only sporadically since he moved to San Francisco in 2012. For six years prior to that, they both lived in Seattle, where she worked as an architect and he had an online marketing business. They had been inseparable.
She dashed off a reply to her brother: “Can’t wait.”
“KATE, JUMP. NOW!” While her brother bobbed in the water off the Reel Irie’s stern, Kate was trying to convince herself that maybe a pocket of air would keep the sinking craft afloat until help arrived. The urgency in Dan’s voice shattered her fantasy.
The water was warm, but she shuddered as it surrounded her.
The archipelago of which Saint Lucia is a part acts as a barrier against the strong trade winds that blow from the north-east and south-east. When those winds find a gap through which to push – say between Saint Lucia and its northern neighbour, Martinique – they speed up. And as the winds go, so go the currents, which get more unpredictable as they approach land. It can be challenging to navigate the eastern coast of Saint Lucia in tempestuous weather. Without a boat, survival is a dicey proposition.
That’s assuming the Suskis and the Reel Irie crew were off the island’s eastern coast. Under the stormy skies, using the sun to orient themselves was out of the question. If they’d already made it into the channel between Saint Lucia and Martinique, the fast-moving currents could wash them out into open sea. Travelling in a straight line from there, the next closest beach was in Nicaragua – more than 2400 kilometres away.
Before abandoning ship, Joseph had called a friend in Rodney Bay to relay the boat’s coordinates. He assured the Suskis they would be rescued in less than 45 minutes.
Treading water with the help of their life jackets, tossed up and down on the rolling seas, they watched the Reel Irie slip under the surface, stern first.
CAPTAIN BRUCE HACKSHAW was at his home near Rodney Bay when his phone rang. The man on the line, a friend who was at the marina, spoke quickly: “Something must be wrong. People are jumping in their boats and
TREADING WATER, TOSSED UP AND DOWN ON THE ROLLING SEAS, THEY WATCHED THE REEL IRIE SLIP UNDER THE SURFACE
taking off with a lot of speed.” Hackshaw called his brother and business partner, Andrew, who made some inquiries and learned of the Reel Irie’s predicament. Within minutes, Hackshaw was boarding one of his recreational fishing boats.
Like the other fishermen who had joined in the search, Hackshaw had very little information: the Reel Irie’s last- known location was roughly 20 kilometres off the east coast of the island. It was about 1pm, less than an hour since the boat went down, but in those seas the survivors could have drifted almost two kilometres, and they’d likely drift even further.
Hackshaw figured there were five hours of daylight left, and he knew that if the search didn’t succeed before sundown, the castaways’ chances of lasting the night dropped significantly. The Caribbean had begun its annual warming, but they could still succumb to hypothermia. A ship could fail to spot them and run them over. Or tiger sharks could pick them off.
THE BOATS WERE TAKING too long. By Dan’s estimate, it had been almost two hours since the Reel Irie sank. He was getting anxious.
They had to start moving. He was a strong swimmer; so was Kate. If they were going to stay alive, they’d have to make it to shore themselves. Dan’s survival calculus didn’t allow for variables like help from others.
Joseph disagreed, insisting they remain close to the coordinates he’d given out, but Dan was resolute. Earlier in the afternoon, at the top of a swell, he’d caught a glimpse of what he thought was the island, and the foursome began moving in that direction.
Battered by waves and unable to see the horizon, the swimmers had a hard time determining their progress. But then, kilometres ahead, they spotted a helicopter hovering above the water. It must be looking for us, Dan thought, and he pushed the others to move faster. Joseph and Cooper struggled to keep up; each time Dan looked back, they’d fallen further behind, until they disappeared altogether. The siblings were alone.
And just as suddenly as the helicopter had appeared, it was gone. Panic tightened Kate’s chest. “How do we know we’re going the right way?” she asked. “Can you feel the wind?” Dan replied. She nodded. “Remember what direction it’s coming from. We’ll let that be our guide.”
SWIMMING BLINDLY FOR HER LIFE, KATE CHOSE TO TRUST HER BROTHER WHEN HE SAID HE KNEW THE WAY
KATE RECALLED HEARING him say that on one of the sailing trips they’d taken to distract themselves from the pain of their mother’s death in 2009.
They drove up to the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest for a sleep-aboard sailing excursion. Dan went to sailing camp as a kid and Kate had a little experience, but this would be an intense trip. Once out on the water, Kate was reactive, adjusting the sail when she felt the boat pull to one side or the other. Dan, however, could sense subtle changes in the air and turn the sail at just the right time. “Feel the wind, Kate,” he’d say.
Now, swimming blindly for her life, she chose to trust her brother when he said he knew the way.
NIGHT WAS FALLING, and the weather was getting worse. Hackshaw headed back to the marina without any proof that the Reel Irie’s crew or passengers had survived. He made plans to resume his efforts the next morning, but by then the search area would have expanded dramatically.
The Suskis guessed that the setting sun meant the search would be suspended. Dan focused on what hopefully lay ahead of them – land. Kate couldn’t help but think about what might be below. Earlier in the day she’d felt something large move past her foot.
Finally, as calmly as she could, she asked her brother, “Do you think there are sharks here?” “Not in this part of the Caribbean,” Dan replied, not entirely convinced. He could tell she was scared and wanted his answer to be definitive.
Kate was buoyed by Dan’s strength, but she kept going because she knew she had to – for her brother. If she gave in to the terror and the exhaustion, he’d want to pull her along. And that would only slow him down. Eventually he’d have to let her go, and the guilt and the grief would overwhelm him. If he was going to survive, she had to as well.
With a layer of clouds to blot out the moon, they swam on in almost complete darkness. And then, up ahead, a beacon cut through the night.
THE LIGHTS WEREN’T GETTING any closer. Arm over arm, Dan swam, but they still seemed so far away. Hope began to drain from him. Not only had he been wrong, his mistake was going to cost his sister her life.
It was Kate’s turn to lie; she could tell they were trapped in a current that was sweeping them alongside the lights but wouldn’t let them get close. “We’re totally making progress,” she said. She wanted to believe the lie, too. After more than 12 hours in the water, her shoulders and ankles felt like they might rip from her body. The edges of her life jacket were digging bloody abrasions into her neck and shoulders, the pounding from the salt water had cracked her lips and swollen her tongue.
Suddenly the water’s surface began to glow, as if lit from below. As Dan and Kate pushed forwards, the eerie, green light enveloped them, bathing their faces. “Phosphorescence!” Kate shouted, almost giddily. They’d happened upon a huge swath of bioluminescent plankton, and once again she was back on the sailboat with Dan in the months after their mother’s death. At night they’d take the dinghy out to enjoy the water in peace, and along the way the motor would churn up the tiny, glimmering sea life. Seeing it now, they were revived by the memory of those healing moments.
Heartened, she and Dan turned their attention back to the light they’d been swimming towards and started paddling again, almost willing themselves home. Eventually, they escaped the current that had held them, and the light did start getting closer. As they made their way, Dan and Kate began to hear scarily loud waves. They saw the foamy edges of the water first and then the cliff face the waves were hitting. “We made it! We can climb this,” Dan yelled. “Maybe you can,” Kate answered, picturing herself hurtling against those rocks.
They had to look for an easier way to get on shore. “We’ll swim until we can’t anymore,” she told Dan. “And if we haven’t found anything better, we’ll climb.”
Then the cliffs fell away, and just enough moonlight poked through the clouds for the siblings to see a small strip of land tucked between rocky outcrops. Dan and Kate rode a wave onto shore and huddled under sea grass to keep warm and rest.
They guessed it was shortly after 2am, nearly 14 hours after the Reel Irie sank. They had swum almost 20 kilometres.
DAN LAY IN HIS BED at Tapion Hospital, in Saint Lucia’s capital, Castries.
As his sister recovered in a separate ward, he was processing the news he’d received earlier that day.
After gathering strength on the beach for two hours, Dan and Kate began hiking west. The forest eventually gave way to a dirt road. There, near the village of La Bourne, they ran into a farmer, who called the police.
Before setting out on their hike, though, Dan had hung his orange life jacket on a tree to mark where they’d come ashore. He relayed that information to the authorities, who passed it on to the fishermen still searching for Joseph and Cooper.
Once Hackshaw spotted the life jacket, he recalibrated his search. At noon – 24 hours after the Reel Irie went under – he found the captain and first mate alive, a few kilometres from shore.
The Reel Irie was never recovered. No one is sure why it sank.
CHEATING DEATH AT SEA was only the first step of survival for Dan and Kate Suski. They returned to Saint Lucia in November 2013 to thank those who had helped them and to find closure. It was elusive.
For more than a year after her 14- hour swim in the Caribbean, Kate lived in fear. She came home from work, shut herself in her house and watched TV. Dan struggled, too, gripped by intense anxiety that made otherwise manageable situations impossible. It wasn’t until almost two years had passed that the anxiety gripping the siblings began to fade. In late 2014, Kate made a big move: she left Seattle for a nearly nine-month trip around the world.
Dan joined her in Indonesia, where they once again chartered a boat and decided to finally confront the fears that stalked them.
Though they had been on the water since Saint Lucia, this time they were going to dive into it. Kate sat on the edge of the boat, bracing for the shock she’d felt when she slipped off the Reel Irie. With a sudden burst of confidence, she fell back into the water and disappeared.
Dan waited a second, and then he slipped under, too.
The Suskis in Saint Lucia in 2013, with the farmer who found them near the village of La Bourne