Great Survival Stories: Shipwreck, Sharks, and Deborah Kiley

Deborah Kiley’s gruesome, five-day ordeal in 1982 began as a routine sailing trip in the Atlantic. Soon, she would be forced to feed her friend to sharks and watch helplessly as two others leaped to their deaths.

Deborah Kiley watched helplessly as sharks ate two of her friends.

 

Kiley was a confident sailor. By the age of 23, she already had years of experience crewing yachts. She earned her big break sailing in the 70,000km Whitbread Round the World Race (now The Ocean Race). In 1981, Kiley became the first American woman to complete the event. Her sailing future appeared prosperous.

The following year, she was hired to crew an 18m yacht called Trashman, during its transfer from Maine to new owners in Florida.

When the crew — Kiley, Captain John Lippoth, his girlfriend Meg Mooney, and sailors Brad Cavanagh and Mark Adams — set off from Maine for their six-day, 2,000km trip, conditions were perfect.

“The weather was beautiful, the boat was fun to steer,” recalled Kiley years later.

On their second day, they began to run into trouble.

A storm, and a drunken captain

A violent storm hit Trashman with 110kph winds and 10m waves. A heavily intoxicated Lippoth lay asleep at the wheel when the voices of her terrified crewmates woke Kelly up. Cold water gushed into the cabin. In a matter of moments, their situation turned desperate.

The yacht, now off the coast of North Carolina, was sinking quickly. The crew’s only option was to throw themselves into the ocean.

Adams managed to inflate a small rubber dinghy. As the crew clambered into their life raft, Adam felt a nudge on his leg. They were completely surrounded by great white sharks.

“The minute we got in, there were fins everywhere in the water. I don’t mean like two or three, I mean 10, 20. They were everywhere,” said Kiley.

They realized that Mooney had gashed her leg severely during the capsize. The smell of blood drew sharks to the helpless crew. One shark clutched the dinghy’s bowline in its mouth, pulling the terrified crew along. When that didn’t tip them into the ocean, the sharks started nudging the boat.

Kiley resolved to stay focused. She covered her body in seaweed for warmth. To stay in control, she recited prayers.

Mooney was in agonizing pain. Her leg quickly became infected, and blood poisoning set in. By day three, everyone was severely dehydrated.

Out of desperation, a delirious Lippoth and Adams began drinking from the ocean. Toxic saltwater accelerates dehydration and shuts down the kidneys. In different circumstances, both men would have understood this.

Lippoth was the first to go. Convinced that he saw land, he suddenly threw himself overboard.

A blood-curdling scream and the captain was gone

“All of a sudden, we just heard this shrill scream. Blood-curdling,” said Kiley. “Then it was over, silence. There was no crying, nothing. There was no doubt what got him. The sharks got him.”

Shortly after, Adams suffered a similar fate. He babbled incoherently of heading to the shop to buy beer and cigarettes before hurling himself over the side of the dinghy.

“It was by far the most horrifying moment of my entire life,” Kiley said as she watched sharks eat him too. In their frenzied attack on Adam, the sharks butted the raft, tipping it precariously. Somehow, it managed to stay upright.

Hallucinations weren’t yet over for the surviving crew members.

Mooney succumbed next from the blood poisoning. She was dying before Kiley and Cavanagh’s eyes, but there was nothing they could do to help. When the pair woke in the morning, she was dead.

Starving and dehydrated, Cavanagh considered eating Mooney’s remains. Focused, Kiley talked him out of it.

A third perishes

Mooney’s infection had wept all over the dinghy’s floor, which was now sodden with a mess of seaweed, blood, and pus. Feeling that they were risking infection themselves, the two survivors threw their friend overboard.

First, they undressed her, saving clothes and jewelry to give to her family, if they survived. Then they recited a prayer and pushed her over the edge of the boat.

‘We tried to sleep so we wouldn’t see Meg being eaten by sharks,” said Kiley.

The pair had now been at sea for five days. Three of their friends had died. They tried to clean the boat from Mooney’s infection. While doing so, Cavanagh slipped and fell into the shark-infested waters.

A desperate Kiley used all her strength to try to pull Cavanagh back into the boat, but she was just too weak. Then the pair spotted a cargo ship on the horizon, and a surge of adrenalin came over Cavanagh. Summoning the last of his strength, he managed to haul himself back on board.

Deliverance

When the pair were picked up 140km south of Cape Lookout, they’d drifted almost 150km off course.

Kiley and Cavanagh’s five days in the Atlantic Ocean shifted the course of their lives irreversibly. It took years for Kiley to stop hearing her friends’ screams as the sharks ate them. Returning to her previous life no longer made sense.

Kiley became a motivational speaker and penned two books about her ordeal. Albatross: The True Story of a Woman’s Survival at Sea (1994) and No Victims Only Survivors: Ten Lessons for Survival (2006).

She married twice and had two children. In a cruel irony, her son drowned at the age of 23. When Kiley was 54, she herself died at home in Mexico. The cause of death was not made public.

Before she died, Kiley and Cavanagh featured in a 2005 Discovery Channel episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive. In the documentary, Cavanagh admitted, “It’s not something you just turn off when it’s over. You keep living in that survival mode. I don’t know if you’re shellshocked or what…but it’s impossible to just go back to being the way you were before.”

Although his outlook on life changed, Cavanagh returned to the water as a professional yachtsman.

Brad Cavanagh, years later.

After 22 years in the exercise industry, offset by long-haul adventures around the world, Alex Myall found a better option a few years ago and has never looked back. She took a diploma in travel journalism, backed it up with travel industry certificates, then launched Chasing Dreams Travel NZ, her own travel agency. Now she combines her love of writing and world travel with running her business from her home on the spectacular South Coast of Wellington, New Zealand, while simultaneously being mum to a gorgeous baby girl. She maintains a “life’s too short to do things by halves” attitude.


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