ANCHOR'S AWAY! - The tide took his boat; then it tried to take his life

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Alberto V. Da Silva
  • Tech. Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong
I couldn't feel my arms anymore; they hung uselessly at my side. My legs had gone numb and were barely responding. My eyesight had become a small shadowy tunnel full of fireworks that were growing dimmer by the second. I sank under water again. My heart beat so loudly it made my ears hurt. Desperate for a breath of air, I inhaled sea water. It burned -- burned worse than any rot gut whisky a person could conjure up. So was this it? Was this the way I was going to die?

On a beautiful Sunday in February, a good day turned bad very quickly off the coastal waters of Panama City, Fla., just a hop, skip and a jump from my duty station at the 325th Fighter Wing, Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.

That day, the temperature was perfect, winds calm and tide low. Ideal conditions for boating and for one of my wife's favorite hobbies ... scouring the beach for seashells to use in our art projects.

We went to the far end of Crooked Island where, if you swam across, you would be on the east tip of Tyndall beach. Everyone had an awesome time. Our little girl, Naomi, and our dogs ran and played all day. My wife, Pam, and I found a large bounty of perfect shells and sand dollars.

As it got later and the wind grew cooler and stronger, we piled back in the boat. We were in shallow water, where normally I would push the boat out into deeper water and take off. But this time I decided to make things more interesting. I untied the anchor from the cleat, stood on the bow of the boat, and threw the anchor out while hanging onto the end of the rope to which it was attached. Then I used the anchor and rope to pull the boat out to water deeper where I cranked the engine.

Unconventional but effective!

We passed the tip of Tyndall beach when Pam asked to make a quick stop to see if we could find any "cool" shells on this side. No one was ready for the great day to end, so, of course, we stopped. We got into the shallow water near the beach and dropped anchor. Then Pam, Naomi, our dogs and I got out of the boat and did some more exploring.

We went for a short walk around the tip, but far enough to where we lost sight of the boat.

On the way back, I noticed the boat looked much farther from where we had originally left it. As we drew closer, panic set in. We got a clear view of the boat and realized it had drifted about a half-mile into the middle of the bay. There sat the anchor ... still on the sand where I left it with the entire rope still attached to it.

Then it hit me. When I was "playing" with the anchor, I hadn't refastened the rope to the cleat. There was nothing tying the anchor to the boat.

We were stranded.

And we hadn't taken anything off the boat for this "short" excursion -- including our cell phones.

It would be completely dark in less than an hour. Something had to be done.

With everyone's adrenaline pumping, I decided to go after the boat.

I'm a good swimmer. Under favorable conditions, I can stay an entire day in the water. The boat wasn't too far. And with the wind and current all pulling me in the same direction as the boat, I reasoned it would be easy for me to catch up to it.

I walked as far as I could off the sand bar. Then, without a life vest, which was still in the boat, I dove into the water and began my swim toward the boat.

On a nice, steady pace, I began to make great distance from the shore. Behind me my wife, daughter and dogs began to get smaller and smaller.

About 15 minutes in, I noticed something I had never felt before. My hands were numb, and I could not move my fingers. I couldn't feel my toes either. While I had considered my swimming ability, I hadn't calculated the effect the colder water this time of year would have on my body.

I stopped and looked at the boat. I didn't seem any closer to it than when I started. I peered back toward shore. To no surprise, I was really far from the beach. My years of training in the military and Jiu-Jitsu, combined with my experience in swimming and doing high-risk sports, had taught me not to panic.

That said, I knew I was in BIG trouble.

Immediately, I weighed my options. The boat was the closest thing to me, but there was no way I could reach it with the tide constantly moving it. The opposite shore was at least another mile -- even if I floated I'd freeze before getting there.

Going back to my original starting point proved to be my only viable option.

I turned back, saw the tiny figures of my family members on the shore and started swimming toward them.

Now I was working against the wind and the incoming tide, so I had to swim at a 45-degree angle toward shore. Of course, this meant my trip back just got a tad bit longer and tougher.

After a few minutes of swimming, my condition deteriorated quickly.

I no longer had feeling in either of my arms up past the elbow. My legs were moving via my hips and gluteus muscles only. I couldn't take a full breath no matter how hard I tried.

Nevertheless, I made progress. When I got to within 200 yards of the shore, I felt a ray of hope. If I could swim another 120 yards, I'd reach a sandbar and be able to stand. I felt confident I could make it.

That confidence disappeared when I suddenly lost control of my arms.

I sank under water.

I forced myself not to panic. I began to swim with my arms pinned at my sides and my legs kicking like a dolphin. Within a few kicks I gulped air and began moving forward.

I could hear Pam screaming, "You can do it! You can do it!"

I knew I was in a race against the clock. My body was quickly shutting down like a stopwatch winding down to its last tick.

I sank a second time, sucking in water instead of air. The pain was unbearable.

I thought about my wife, my daughter, my family, my dogs, my school, my teammates. I thought about not watching my little girl grow up, get married. I couldn't go down like this. I had to fight. I had to see my wife and child one last time.

I pushed with every bit of strength I could muster. It wasn't cohesive, it wasn't pretty, but I moved. I hurt and felt like I was tugging concrete, but I moved.

It seemed like an eternity before I broke the surface of the water. I could see Pam standing at the edge of the sand bar. I hungrily gasped for bits of air.

No more than 30 yards from being able to walk out, it may as well have been 10 miles. I had nothing left. I thrashed wildly but had no control over my limbs. With one last scream for help, I went under for the last time.

This time when I inhaled the water, it didn't burn so much. It just tasted weird. I felt my entire body cramp, and it began to shake. I desperately needed air.

Were these my last moments on Earth?

As I started to lose consciousness, I felt something touch me. I could hear a faint screaming. Suddenly, there was a hand under each of my armpits, and I could hear grunts and groans coming from behind me. I tried to use my limp limbs to help, but, in agony, I passed out.

A few minutes later I came to in about 3 inches of water. Ironically, for the first time, panic really set in. I got on my hands and knees, crying and screaming incoherently. I didn't want to be in any water at that point -- not even 3 inches.

With assistance I managed to get my body on dry sand. I looked up and noticed the sky was beginning to turn dark blue. Then everything went black again.

I awoke two minutes later, able to think more clearly at this point. I saw my wife. My beautiful Pam had risked her own life and plunged into the frigid waters to pull me out. She had left our toddler on the shore with our dogs. There had been no time to think. She had acted out of desperation.

As I slowly regained feeling in my limbs, I was able to move and eventually stand on my own two feet. It felt like I weighed two tons.

With the world spinning around me, I must have looked a fright. My breathing was shallow. Grunting and drooling, I couldn't form words.

When I attempted to speak, my body gave way again. I felt this fire in my stomach, all my joints began to hurt, my heart squeezed, and it felt like something exploded in my head.

I fell over and couldn't move. My eyes were open, but I was unresponsive.

I began to expel anything inside my body that wasn't attached to something. I laid there, losing all control.

I felt shame.

Fifteen minutes later my heart rate finally started to slow. In agony from my cramped limbs, I got up from my sandy bed and walked into the water to rinse off. After walking around for another 15 minutes or so, almost all my cramps were gone. ... Progress!

We walked more than 5 miles in the soft sand and finally reached the NCO beach boardwalk. Fortunately, we had turned on the "find my phone" feature on our cell phones, which helped us to pinpoint the exact location of our boat.

A friend helped me locate the vessel, untouched and unharmed.

In reflection I risked my life and the lives of my wife and child by making some poor decisions. Thankfully, Pam and Naomi weren't hurt, and I made a full recovery. But I'll never forget that good day gone bad.