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Couple's Boat Sunk by Whales : Pacific 'Unfriendly,' Man Says After 66 Days on Raft

August 22, 1989|BARRY BEARAK | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — The sailboat was on automatic pilot, and the two Butlers were asleep down below. They were awakened by a thump, then another. William went topside, and that's when he first saw the whales in the moonlight. Dozens of them, he remembers. Maybe even hundreds. Whales as far as he could see.

At first, only a few nudged the boat, the 38-foot Siboney. He and his wife, Simone, stared into the blackness of the equatorial Pacific. They could hear the whooshing noises, the great animals' blowing. Some looked as big as the hull. What are we in the midst of? the Butlers asked each other.

Then, one of the whales hit the boat hard on the port side. There was a crunch, and it sounded awful. William could hear water gushing. He raced below. Find the leak! Fix it!

He began turning things over, pulling up the floorboards. But, in just a few minutes, there was water up to his waist.

Cut the rope and inflate the life raft, he shouted. As the ocean surged into the Siboney, he radioed three futile Maydays. He tossed what he could into the inflatable raft--some canned goods, some bottled water, some fishing gear. For heaven's sake, he threw in the video recorder.

And then the Butlers were adrift in the vastness, off on what would become a 66-day odyssey in the warm seas west of Central America. They were found only last Saturday by a Costa Rican coast guard boat on a routine fisheries patrol 13 miles from land.

Monday, the Miami couple--sun-baked and exhausted--remained hospitalized in the coastal city of Golfito. Each had lost more than 50 pounds. Simone's legs still felt like "cotton." William's back was covered with sores. His right hand was torn open, where he had been jabbed by the fish he grabbed for food.

They told their story. "Oh, that Pacific can be very unfriendly," William said by telephone. "I don't like the habitat especially. And the distances, they're just too long. From now on, I'll be staying in the Atlantic."

It had been his lifelong dream to sail around the world. Simone, 52, was his reluctant companion. "He had wanted this since he was a boy, but I wasn't so much for it," she said. "My heart wasn't in it."

Wanted to Circle Globe

William Butler, 60, retired engineer, is a champion sailor. He had taken his sailboat from Miami to Maine, Miami to Bermuda, Miami to Venezuela. This time, he meant to circle the globe.

He had rigged the Siboney with the finest of electronic gear. He and his wife of seven years set out on April 14, and they crossed through the Panama Canal on May 23. Their next stop was to be Hawaii.

The sea was serene, 1,200 nautical miles west-southwest of Panama. Dawn was but a few hours away when the sailboat and the whales crossed a momentous path. "I couldn't tell if there were 200 or 500 or what," William said. "Some were bigger than others, and the bigger ones were breathing hard."

Huddled on Raft

In about 15 minutes, the Siboney was under. The Butlers huddled in the small raft, which was only about 6 feet long, just a bit shorter than William. At least, it had a canopy. The sun would be on them soon like yellow oil.

They took stock of what they had. It wasn't so bad. In the frenzy, they had managed to escape with nine cans of food, two cans of crackers, a half jar of peanut butter, two 5-gallon jugs of water, five bottles of Evian.

What's more, they had a water desalinator to keep up the supply. They had a compass and a flashlight and three flares. They had a knife and some line and a hook for fishing. They had two blankets to fight the cold nights.

They had a Sony Walkman, which picked up a few stations and gave them clues to where they were drifting. Sometimes they heard Los Angeles, sometimes Texas, then Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama.

"If God had given us a list and said this is what to take, we couldn't have done better," Simone said, calm now, the memories getting comfortable. "We prayed a lot. We weren't very good Catholics before, but we're better now."

Food Lasted 4 Weeks

They rationed their food into the most meager portions, but it lasted only four weeks and two days. In the meantime, they saw dozens of ships in the distance. None signaled them back. The raft was just a dot in the immensity.

Hunger set in. They had been dragging the fishing line, but nothing bit the hook. Then, one afternoon, William simply reached out and snagged a huge turtle with his hands.

They ate some of the meat and saved the rest as bait. Mostly, William caught what he called triggerfish. He had ditched the video recorder but kept its plastic cover. He fileted on it.

The fish nourished him. He ate maybe two pounds a day. Simone was not so appetitive. She hates fish. The flesh was too chewy.

"My husband would say: Do you want to die? Do you want to ever see your children again?" she recalled. "Then he would cut small pieces and tell me to imagine they were chicken."

Sharks Closed In

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