Photography by Daniel Harding Jr.
A Speck in the Sea
In the dead of night on July 24, 2013, a Long Island lobster fisherman was thrown off the stern of the Anna Mary and into a fight for his life.
Warm. I register that as I go under. I gulp seawater, then shoot back up to the surface. I am freaking out. Red-hot adrenaline is coursing through me, and I am flailing, gagging on seawater, thrashing my arms as I reach for the receding Anna Mary. I am trying to run to my boat—to fly toward it—shrieking “Anthony! Anthony!” then screaming “Fuuuuuuuuuuck!” at the top of my lungs.
No way I can be heard. I scream because the scream just pours out of me, but the Anna Mary is steaming away, its motor drowning out any sound that might be heard by human ears, especially the ears of two guys who are dead asleep and snoring in the nose of the boat. The Anna Mary becomes smaller and smaller as it runs away from me, and I am still fighting to run toward it, to keep my head above the swells, but now all I can see are the lights on top of the boat; they’re getting smaller, too. Dimmer. This isn’t happening. How can this be happening?
There is nothing to hold onto, nothing floating past me, nothing to grab, not a piece of driftwood or a piece of garbage, not a lost rope or a dead fish. Nothing. The wearable flotation device that is a safety requirement aboard every commercial fishing boat is no good if you’re not wearing it. We never wear ours. I am aware that my arms and legs are thrashing around stupidly and to no purpose, that I am alone and violently beating the ocean in the middle of the night. My whole being is certain that I am going to drown. I am going to tread water uselessly till I become so exhausted I drown. My God, I wonder, what will that feel like?
The despair is overwhelming. It has taken over my body, tensed it to the max, made my stomach muscles as rigid as iron.
I’m 45 years old. I’ve been frightened before. This is nothing like that. This is panic that paralyzes my lungs and makes my heart feel like it’s going to come shooting out of my body. Fight or flight: You kidding? Fight the ocean? Flight to where?
The Anna Mary is just about out of sight heading south. I note its position in relation to the full moon and note also that the waves are breaking from the southwest. I’m not sure I consciously register this, but these are reference points. Directions. My mind automatically takes them in.
Then the Anna Mary is gone, and there isn’t the sound of anything anywhere. You forget that you hear waves only when they ride up on the shore; in the middle of the ocean, you hear nothing. The silence is deafening—scary.
I am dressed in a T-shirt, board shorts, and big, heavy fishermen’s boots over cheap white athletic socks. No protection. The soles of these boots are made to grip the floor of the deck when the surface gets slick with fish slime. There is nothing to grip here. I am on my back, doing the backstroke to keep my head up above the water. My boots are full of water, heavy.
I kick both boots off. They float on the surface of the water, and I grab them, one in each hand. I hold them close to my chest and rest my chin on the bottom of the boots. They are something to hold onto, something from the world I lost how long ago? Three seconds? Five minutes? Doesn’t matter; right now, that world is gone. My brain is working overtime, moving with the speed of light. They float, it tells me. The boots float.
And something kicks into my brain. Air bubble, my brain registers. I take hold of one boot, empty it of water, creating the air bubble, then push the boot back down into the water. Whoa. It is buoyant—very buoyant. I shove it upside down under my arm. Now the other boot, another air bubble formed, under the other arm. The boots are pontoons, my own personal flotation devices. Suddenly, I am not dying—not right now, not this second.
It changes everything.
I breathe. My lungs stop feeling like they’re balloons about to burst. My heart calms down a notch or two. So does the shaking in my legs and arms. As those thundering manifestations of terror subside, the smaller afflictions take over: My eyes feel like they’re on fire from the salt; the inside of my mouth tastes of brine that I keep trying to spit out; my ears are ringing with panic. But at least I’m not flailing, I’m floating. The adrenaline is still rushing, but it’s bringing a clarity that feels real.
What do you actually know, my brain asks me. Here is what I know: I fell off the boat sometime around 3:00 a.m. That means I’m about 40 miles offshore, but nowhere near my own gear—the first string of lobster traps the Anna Mary was heading for on her course due south from Montauk, New York. We would not have gotten to those traps for another hour, hour and a half. But it also means I’m probably not so terribly far from my friend Pete Spong’s gear. And since sunrise at this time of year is typically at about 5:30 a.m., I know daylight will break in two or two and a half hours.
My assets are the boot pontoons, a three-inch Buck knife clipped to the inside of my shorts pocket, my fairly fit body, my brain. But none of these give me any power over the waves or the currents, over the winds or the weather, over time or tide. I can’t do anything about anything that is happening to me or that may happen. It’s an unnatural feeling.
People think fishermen are at home in the ocean. Not me. I’m at home on the ocean—on my boat on the ocean. The Anna Mary is an environment I have the power to manage. I know every inch of that vessel; I’m familiar with every gauge telling me where I am and how fast I’m moving and what the oil pressure is. And I can affect all of it.
Not here. This is unknown to me, and I have never liked the unknown. The world below the ocean is not my world. When our rope gets caught in the propeller, Anthony is the one who goes down to cut it away; he is actually comfortable in the water. I am not. It feels unnatural that now I’m the one swimming, I’m the one more than likely to die out here, and I don’t know how I will die or how long it will take or how I will respond while it is happening. For a second I think how easy it would be to just let go and find out.
“Fuck that!” I shriek aloud to my brain. “Fuck that! Fuck you! Focus! Focus on daylight!” Two and a half hours at most, maybe two hours to the very first touch of dawn. By daylight, Anthony and Mike will know I am gone, and a search will start. And this much I know with absolute certainty: Once Anthony knows I am gone, he will do whatever it takes to find me; of that, I am 1,000 percent certain. He is my childhood friend, my business partner, my fellow fisherman, and I know he will come looking for me like I know the Earth orbits the sun. It’s basic. But I have to be ready when it happens. I have to stay alive so that when daylight comes, I can see my way to being found.
I am floating in the middle of the ocean and nobody in the world even knows I am missing. Nobody is looking for me. You can’t get more alone than that. You can’t be more lost. I begin to see how easy it would be to just let myself give in, just sink to the bottom and let the lobsters have me—their final revenge. The thought is almost seductive, like a mermaid waiting to take me down. I push that thought away too—no weakness!—and I think: I’ve got too many people who love me. There’s no way I’m dying like this.
My brain keeps going back over what happened on the Anna Mary—the if-onlys and I-should-have-dones that would have kept me from going overboard. I relive that split second of not-quite-hesitation when I knew that hooking the handle to move the cooler was a bad idea. I had yanked that flimsy plastic handle a thousand times before and each time had sensed that it wasn’t a smart thing to do, but I had always just let the thought evaporate. The split-second thought had been there this time again—yanking this flimsy thing really is a dumb idea—and I went right past it. Like when you pull out of your lane to pass a slow driver and find yourself aiming at an oncoming car. Can you make it? Will you beat the guy coming at you? Is there room to fall back? Or you’re walking home one night turning the corner onto a dark and empty street and your brain forks between “forget this; go back” and “it’s fine, been here a million times, what could happen?” And in a split second, you decide. My split second had come and gone, and I took the wrong fork, and now I am looking death in the face and making bargains even I don’t trust with a God I’m not sure I believe in.
Wait till daylight, I keep telling myself. Stay alive till then, that’s my mantra. I keep saying it over and over. Live till daylight.
He’s Not Here
When Johnny and Anthony first bought the Anna Mary, they spent a year virtually reconstructing it. Originally built as a day-trip boat, the vessel had no stowage belowdecks and no beds, and the two set about customizing it for offshore lobster fishing. They framed out a new deck, new tanks, and a new wheelhouse, and they replaced the old hydraulic and plumbing systems. They raised the height of the ceiling belowdecks and crammed two bunks right in the nose of the boat, plus a galley big enough to hold a hot plate, and a storage locker for their miles of rope, survival gear, spare parts, and other pieces of equipment.
But they hadn’t built a head—the nautical term for a toilet—providing themselves instead with a five-gallon plastic bucket that sits on the deck until needed and gets emptied over the side after use. On the morning of July 24, 2013, that head was the intended destination of deckhand Mike Migliaccio. Somewhere between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m., Mike hauled himself out of his bunk in the forepeak and made his way up the narrow stairway to the wheelhouse and out onto the deck. Still groggy with sleep, Mike only vaguely registered that Johnny wasn’t in the wheelhouse—was not seated or sprawled in the captain’s chair nor curled up on the bench behind the chair, which is where he sometimes caught a nap. Mike isn’t sure if he consciously thought to himself that Johnny must therefore be out on deck, but he is quite clear that when he had been on deck for a minute—maybe less—he realized that Johnny was not on the deck. Mike looked up: Johnny was not up in the mast, either.
This was all wrong. “Johnny is the guy who watches out for everybody else,” says Migliaccio, an ex-Marine, Vietnam vet, a guy who by his own admission is incapable of punching a time clock. “I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t there.”
“Anthony!” Mike yelled at the top of his lungs and raced down to the hold to rouse him.
Anthony came up out of a deep sleep to see Mike’s terrified face, his mouth moving, saying something about Johnny.
“Johnny?” Anthony asked. “Where is he?”
“He’s not here,” Mike answered. Then he said it again: “He’s not here.”
Anthony was bolt upright now, and the two of them searched again, as if Johnny not being there had been a mirage or a joke or a false alarm or a bizarre game of hide-and-seek.
The Anna Mary is not a big boat. If you’re not in the bunkroom, and you’re not in the wheelhouse, and you’re not on deck, you’re gone.
Terror flooded into Anthony’s body and weighed him down. For a moment, he felt paralyzed. Memories of faces, names, voices ricocheted around the inside of his brain. One of his first memories was of the hushed talk of adults when he was a little, little kid about the Windblown, a tilefish boat that broke up off Block Island and went down with all hands.
“Where are we? I have to write it down. We have to turn around.”
He did both, jotting down his compass coordinates in his logbook and reversing the Anna Mary’s direction back along the same compass course that had brought it here—north now, due north back the way they had come. Then he clicked on the radio.
Channel 16 VHF is the very high frequency channel used for maritime and shipping purposes and for international distress calls. Anthony’s call was logged in at 6:22 that morning. His voice was thick, trembling. He sounded catatonic.
“U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Coast Guard. Anna Mary standing by Channel 16. Over.”
“Anna Mary, this is Coast Guard on 16. Go ahead.”
But the captain—Anthony—was hesitant. He could not find the words, didn’t know how to string together what had happened. “Anna Mary. I just woke up,” he told Petty Officer Sean Davis, part of a five-person watch that had just come on duty. Davis had just taken his first sip of hot coffee. Anthony paused, uncertain how to put it. “I lost a crew member overboard.” Davis locked the coffee in his mouth and stood up. Another blank space from Anthony. “Uhhhh, I’m missing my crew member, John Aldridge.” He paused again. Stumbled, sighed. “I don’t know what to say. I’m in shock.”
Davis felt a knot in his gut and took a deep breath. “Roger, captain,” Davis responded calmly to Anthony. “What’s your position right now?”
Breakfast was over. Davis and everyone else in the command center went to work.
To the West End Buoy
Approximately 10:00 a.m.
All night, I had been clinging to this idea of finding a buoy. Now I had totally exhausted myself trying to get to one, only to realize that the buoy I am after is out of my reach. What now? What do I do? The battle starts up in my head, and it is almost as exhausting as the swim. Do I keep fighting to get to this unreachable goal? Or do I find another way? What other way? What freaking other way is there? And what about the energy wasted—just wasted—trying to get to this unreachable buoy. The very idea of the waste—of energy, time, everything—freaks me out. You screwed up, I tell myself. How are you going to get out of it? Or is this just going to be the end of your life?
I throw it out of my head. I just do.
There it is. There is a buoy.
What I glimpse first is a flutter of orange. Orange is the color of the flag on Pete’s west end gear. Then I ride the crest of another swell, look again lower down, and see the red polyball. Red buoy, orange flag: That confirms it. This is Pete Spong’s west end buoy. But it is very, very far away. I have no real idea of the distance, but I tell myself it is 300 or 400 yards away. What is that? How far is that? On land it is three or four football fields. That’s a walk around the block on dry land. That’s what? Like a quarter of a mile? Half a mile? Not even. It is nothing. Think about getting there, I tell myself. Think about that instead of about dying.
But getting there is hard work. And it is painfully slow. Ride up on the crest, see the buoy, down into the trough, see nothing but ocean. Swim, swim, rest. Swim, swim, rest. Switch hands, then swim again. Keep going. Endure.
Then I think of another use for the socks. I realize I need more pull with the hand I am using to scoop the water backwards in my one-armed half-crawl half-sidestroke. I grab a sock off my foot and put the wet fabric over my hand like a mitten. This gives me webbing so I can catch more water when I pull.
At the next crest I look up and there’s Pete. Himself. His boat, the Brooke C, is up ahead. I can see him in the distance going along the line of his gear. He’s on the deck railing, looking down, looking at the water, maybe checking his gear, maybe looking for me. I stop swimming and start screaming, yelling, waving my gloved hand in the air. Nothing. He can’t see me, he can’t hear me. The waves are obscuring his sight lines as well as mine, even though he is not far from me, not far at all. I am up and down, up and down, eyes focused, when I can see anything at all, on getting to the west end buoy. And in a matter of seconds, he is gone. I freak out. Nothing, nothing, nothing good is happening.
Then I say to myself, all right, try to stay positive. Keep going. You have to keep going.
I swim. Think about getting there, I tell myself. I feel a twinge of pain in my leg—a spasm. The first hint of a charley horse.
I put the pain away, stash it right next to the doubts about survival down in the garbage bin of my brain. I know how to do that—how to put away pain or discomfort. All fishermen do. We have to know. You stand in smelly fish slime amid tangled miles of rope on a rocking-and-rolling boat for 15 hours at a stretch, wearing big, sweaty rubber gloves and hauling metal traps up from the ocean floor, emptying them, measuring and banding the catch, then resetting the traps with bait and lowering them again. That’s the work of the job; there’s no alternative, so you don’t even think about pain or discomfort.
Now my job is to be in the water, swimming with one arm and switching from flutter kick to frog kick and back again, and there is Pete’s west end buoy up ahead, and that is all that counts. Only the need to get to the west end buoy counts. Which means that both physically and mentally, I have to stay inside that need to keep swimming; neither my body nor my brain can be anywhere else. This is the job; there is no other job, so I keep going.
But the buoy is still far away, and it is still slow going. I come up on a crest and there’s the Anna Mary. She is close. How did I miss her this close? She is traveling north on the same trackline we came south along, and there is Mike up on the roof, looking for me. Again I scream and wave, and again I am neither heard nor seen. Yet oddly, it brings my mood up a bit to see my boat, and I can see the dot of that helicopter overhead as well. There is definitely a search on; they are working a pattern searching for me. Stay positive, I tell myself again and again. Stay positive. They’re looking for me.
The certainty that they are searching for me makes my swim ever more urgent. Searching isn’t finding; it’s only looking. If I am to be rescued, I need to be visible, and to be visible, I need to get to the buoy. I keep going. Swim, swim, rest. Swim, swim, rest. I am getting closer. Closer. Maybe two hours after I started, I arrive.
I get a hand on the bright red buoy, then grasp the rope tethering it to the ocean floor. I can stop propelling myself. For the first time since I fell into the water—was it six hours ago or more?—I am holding onto something fixed. For the first time, something other than my own effort is keeping me steady.
The way it works in the MH-60 rescue helicopter is the SAROPS search pattern from the command center—New Haven in this case—gets punched into the onboard navigational computer, which then translates the pattern into a flight plan for the guidance system to follow on autopilot. The idea, says Lieutenant Ray Jamros, the pilot of MH-6002, which had launched from Air Station Cape Cod at 6:30 that morning, is to “minimize the flying work and maximize the searching.” Since a little after 7:00 a.m., when the helicopter had arrived at the designated starting point for the first search pattern, four pairs of eyes had been trained on the ocean looking for John Aldridge.
Jamros, along with copilot Michael Deal, flight mechanic Ethan Hill, and rescue swimmer Bob Hovey, had seen a lot of “stuff” in the water that day— turtles, sharks, buoys, all sorts of debris—but nothing resembling a human being, dead or alive. That was the case through four search patterns over a period of more than seven hours in the air. Eight hours is the maximum flight time for the MH-60, so the crew was now at the point at which any “landing” would have to be their last. Copilot Deal calculated that the copter was 20 minutes away from “bingo fuel”—military slang for just enough fuel for a safe return to base—and he was on the radio to the New Haven command center asking for a new search pattern.
But the team at New Haven was in a funk. SAROPS had crashed, Rodocker had rebooted and started over, and it would be a couple of hours before the system could come up with a new pattern. That didn’t mean that the search stopped—not the Coast Guard’s search by boat and plane, nor that of the volunteer fleet—but it did mean that a new search pattern incorporating all the latest data was still being processed and was not forthcoming any time soon. Command Duty Officer Mark Averill, conferring with Jonathan Theel just outside the communications suite about plans for extending the search overnight, told Sean Davis to tell the helicopter crew to just “go on home and refuel” and we would start up the search again once
SAROPS had a pattern and there was a new crew on a fresh copter. Deal could hear the frustration and weariness in Davis’s voice.
“We’re approaching fatigue status,” Deal argued. “If we go back to base, we’re done, but right now we’ve still got a half hour of fuel, so give us a quick trackline search we can run.” He added: “We have absolutely perfect conditions for searching.”
It made sense to the Coasties. CDO Averill walked over to the SAROPS monitor, looked over Rodocker’s shoulder at the area on the screen where the particles were densest, found the midpoint, noted the latitude and longitude, and in effect drew a straight line with his finger from the helicopter’s position east to the boundary of the drift, then four-pointed that line to north and south. The finger drawing produced a basic trackline search for the MH-6002. It would fly south-southeast through the heart of the search area for ten miles, head north for ten miles, then veer north-northwest, boxing off the search and pointing the helicopter toward home on Cape Cod. There’s your pattern, Averill was saying; fly those positions, check the water within that box for 30 minutes, then fly on home.
“Check the buoys, too, if you see any,” Averill suggested. “People like to grab onto things if they can.” The crew of MH-6002 had been thinking the same thing all day: Boy, if I were out here, I’d sure look for something to grab onto.
At 2:46 p.m., they started flying Averill’s line, and it was just a few minutes before 3:00 p.m. when Jamros saw a red ball, saw the pole of the highflyer above it, and saw what looked to him like an arm waving.
“I see him! I got him!” Jamros shouted. “Mark mark mark!”
Excerpted from A Speck in the Sea: A Story of Survival and Rescue by John Aldridge and Anthony Sosinski. Copyright © 2017. Available from Weinstein Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.