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Facing Disaster Head On

Illustration by Richard ClarkWhen it comes to dealing with emergencies at sea, clear thinking and calm nerves often mean the difference between life and death. Seasoned boater Michael Ayres proved that point during an ill-fated trip in November—and saved two lives in the process.

The 46-year-old Michigan native and a first-time deckhand, Steffon Moore, 19, had left the Florida Keys heading for the Bahamas aboard Ayres’ 41-foot Lady Rosalee when, just after nightfall, they struck debris in heavy seas about 12 miles from Bimini. The cruiser began taking on water, and the pair bailed furiously for six hours until the situation worsened. “The boat started to sink really quickly,” Ayres told the Palm Beach Post.

The two rushed to the dinghy with fishing gear, flares, two gallons of water, and some chocolate chip cookies and crackers and began rowing for their lives in the heavy seas as the 41-footer sank. Ayres says he knew the situation was dire but also knew he had to remain calm for Moore, who had never been on the water before. “I didn’t want him to be fearful,” he said. “I wanted him to think we were going to make it home.”

The pair focused on rowing in one direction for three days, believing they were pointed for Miami. At night, they tried anything to stave off hypothermia—including covering themselves in styrofoam—but eventually began to suffer its effects. “We started seeing things on the water that weren’t there,” Ayres said.

Ayres fired a flare every time he thought he saw a boat; he went through all 16 but to no avail. Out of food and flares, the pair pushed on. On the morning of their fourth day, they washed ashore in Boca Raton in, according to doctors, “amazingly good condition.”

Ayres said the trial changed his outlook. He immediately proposed to his long-time girlfriend. “My priorities have shifted,” he said. “I want to focus on people more.”