Lost at sea

Ben pollock, his cousin frank doolin and their boys lazedon the deck of his 20-foot fishing boat. It had been one ofthe finest fishing days in memory—a fresh spring day in May2004, during which they had caught a good 70 sea bass, groupersand grunts, enough to pack everyone’s freezer.The two men and their oldest sons, Gabriel Pollockand Michael Doolin, and another cousin, JordanStokes, had been out in the Gulf of Mexicosince early morning, and now were enjoying the lastwarm rays of sunshine before turning back to port in Hudson,Florida. About 40 miles and two hours from shore,and an hour before sunset, they were looking forwardto taking their catch home.

Pollock had recently bought the1972-vintage craft and had taken it fora test run in the rougher waters of theAtlantic. Like most older boats, it hadnot been “foamed” (insulated with materialto keep it buoyant if it capsized).Doolin had an uneasy feeling aboutthis and told Pollock he wouldn’t goout in an unfoamed vessel. But Pollockkidded with him until he relented.Now as they turned off the reef, theboat seemed a bit sluggish. Pollockfigured the hull had taken on somewater. Easy to remedy. He pulled theplug from the hull to let gravity drainit as they motored back toward shore.Several minutes later, the engine,out of gas, sputtered and died. Time tofill up from the spare tank.

Doolin had gotten little sleepthe night before—an hourat best. But during that brieftime, he’d had a nightmare.He dreamed about his sonMichael—and in the dreamMichael was drowning. It stayed withhim, pricked his consciousness, as heheaded to the back of the boat. Meanwhile,Pollock replaced the plug in thehull, grabbed the fuel and a funnel,and prepared to refill the side tank.But now things were happeningvery quickly. The stern dipped low inthe water. Waves began to wash overthe sides. It felt like a hand was pushingthe boat down. Doolin grabbed afive-gallon plastic bucket and beganto bail. “Get the fuel in,” he yelled.Pollock bounded over. Theydumped in the gas. Pollock frantically turned the key, trying to get the engineto crank. But it wouldn’t catch—it was already underwater.“Grab the life vests. Grab anythingthat will float!” Doolin called out. Theboys jumped, and the men were flunginto the water as the boat rolled.Doolin gathered Michael, 13, andJordan, 12, close to him as loose gearbegan popping up all around them.He took out his cell phone, which hekept in a plastic bag—and punched911. Nothing. They were too far out.“Get the rope,” he yelled to Pollock.The anchor was pulling the boatdown. And they would need the yellowplastic line. Pollock and Gabriel,the oldest boy at 14, sawed it off usingthe edge of the propeller. Then, balancedon the rocking, overturned boat,the younger two used it to tie themselvestogether.

“You boys just sit here,” Doolin said,climbing aboard. “Don’t let this thingtip over, because we might have to beout here all night.” Outwardly theyoungsters remained calm, but Doolinknew they must be terrified.Pollock and Gabriel dove below tolook for equipment and popped up inan air pocket—a pocket that reekedwith gas fumes. Gabriel kicked his wayback up and gathered life vests floatingon the surface. While the othersput the vests on, Pollock continued todive, retrieving flares, a flashlight, aknife, an orange distress flag from insidethe boat. He put these items intoa small ice chest bobbing on thewaves, and went down again.Then came the hissing sound of escaping air. The boat was sinking.“Jump away, so it can’t suck youunder,” Doolin yelled.

A moment later, the stern tippeddownward; the bow pointed to the sky.Their largest ice chest, a king-sizedwhite Igloo, about five feet long bythree feet wide, was still tightlywedged between the steering columnand the hull. It was packed with foodand water, but was buoyant. They Pollock assured them help wouldcome. Emulating his dad, Gabriel exudedbravado. “Man, this is nothing,”he claimed. “The Marines do this allthe time.”

But Doolin knew the worst was stillahead. Within minutes, the gulf wouldswallow the big orange sun. No onecould see them now. Nobody wouldbe looking. Pollock had told their familiesthat they might stay out an extra could use it to keep afloat. Pollock decidedto risk one more dive.He swam downward and grabbedthe cooler’s handle. It wouldn’t budge.The sinking boat pulled him downwith it, faster and faster. He yankedagain, and it shot to the surface like atorpedo. Man and ice chest bouncedout of the water.

“Whoo-hoo!” Pollock called jubilantly,swimming with the huge Iglooto the others. After donning a lifejacket, he tied himself between his sonand Jordan. Supplies were floating upall around them, and without thinking,Pollock opened another smallcooler. Dozens of bloody fish spilledout. “Good grief, we’re nothing butchum for the sharks,” he cried. “We’vegot to get out of here. Swim!”

When they looked back from a hundredyards away, the boat was gone.The five of them were clinging to abobbing ice chest in the open sea.day—not to give it a thought if theydidn’t come home that night.Temperatures fell. The gulf wind,soothing in the afternoon, suckedwarmth from their bodies. Water temperaturesin the 70s could bring onhypothermia within three hours. Theyshivered; their teeth chattered. Andthe fathers hugged the boys close.

It was about 10:15 p.m. A shrimp boatwas speeding along a mile or so away.“Give me a flare!” Pollock shouted. Ona night as dark as this, a flare wouldsurely catch the eye of anyone ondeck. He set it off, expecting a widearc of flame. But the device barelyflashed up an inch before dying.

“That was a flare?” Doolin said, halflaughing.Pollock popped a second.It shot up a bit higher, then fizzled.A third sputtered and flickered out,giving no more light than a matchstick.The flares he had retrieved were

James and Carol Fullerton with Joe Miley on board InTheCooler. the oldest ones he’d had on board.The flashlight! Its beam might beweaker, but would shine longer. Pollockrummaged through the smallcooler where he had stowed salvageditems. Where was it? It had to be here.But it was gone. They all watched theshrimp boat disappear.
Every bone in Doolin’s body was rattling.It would be so easy to give upnow, to close his eyes and allow thesea to take him. But he had to stay inthis for Michael.
A tall, thin boy, Michael had almostno body fat to insulate him from thecold. He was lethargic now, at timesbarely conscious. “Wake up, wake up,”Doolin urged. The boy mumbled, andDoolin held him close, trying to forgetthe dream of the night before, prayingthat his son wouldn’t die.
The other boys had also becomeweak and disoriented. Gabriel had thedry heaves from salt water he’d swallowed.His father cradled him, rubbedhis arms to keep him warm. Jordanseemed to be hallucinating. The mencouldn’t understand what he was saying,but they understood his fear.
As dawn broke, Gabriel and Jordanperked up some. Michael was tooweak to keep his head up. Doolin andPollock tied him to the handle of theice chest in order to keep his face outof the water. They had been adrift foralmost 12 hours with no relief fromthe cold. It would be hours still beforethe sun warmed the air and sea.They swam east toward the shore.Jellyfish stung their legs, but theypushed on. By 7 a.m., staring at thevast emptiness, Pollock felt despair.Where were all the boats? They hadbeen an hour from shore when theirown went down. They should be see-ing fishing vessels out on the watersoon. But would the boats see them?Doolin understood that nobody wasgoing to spot five heads bobbing justabove the water. He had fished theFlorida Keys and knew that fishermenlooked for diving frigate birds to pointthem to fish. What could they toss inthe air that would resemble a bird divingfor prey? They had the small whitecooler—that would have to do.Sometime past eight o’clock, twoboats appeared, far southwest of them.Doolin threw the little cooler into theair. Pollock tossed their distress flag.Gabriel and Jordan joined in, shouting,yelling, throwing whatever theycould. The boats sped past.
Doolin took a close look at Michael.He was as limp as a dishrag, barelyconscious, no longer even trembling.Haunted by his dream, Doolin blamedhimself for bringing his boy fishing,and for their predicament.
Joe miley, James Fullertonand his wife, Carol, wereheaded to a fishing hole 35miles out from Hudson.With Miley at the wheel,InTheCooler sped along at 24knots. After more than an hour poundingover the waves, Miley stopped togive them all a break. Idling, the boatacted like it had picked up some seagrass. As Miley checked the prop, theboat drifted south.
When he finished, he glanced to thehorizon. Something was moving. Itwas just a speck. Birds diving, ormaybe sea turtles. That could mean a reef. And reefs meant fish. “You mindif we go downrange a couple ofmiles?” he asked Fullerton.Fullerton was reluctant. “Man,we’ve got a ways to go.”
But, if they found fish, Miley said,they wouldn’t have to go any farther.They decided to check it out.Drawing closer, the movementlooked more like debris floating onthe water than birds or turtles. ButMiley pushed on. Maybe that whitething hopping up and down in the airwas a bird after all.Closer still, and he thought fora second that it looked like peopleout there. But it couldn’t be.
“Oh, myGod,” cried Carol Fullerton. “Thereare children in the water.” Now theycould hear shouting and yelling.Tears welled up in Doolin’s eyes asthe boat pulled alongside them. Thepeople on deck helped get Michaeland the other two kids into the boat.Then he and Pollock climbed aboard.A woman wrapped his son in blanketsand towels, while the men poweredthe boat toward shore.
Over and over, Doolin, Pollock andthe boys thanked their rescuers.What to make of Doolin’s dream?Was it a premonition? Coincidence?What we do know is that Michael andthe others survived, healthy and withno lasting effects. We know that theyall owe their lives to a big cooler thatkept them afloat, a little cooler thatflew like a bird, and three fishermenaboard InTheCooler who found themadrift in the open sea.

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