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

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Times Staff Writer

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

At night, sharks closed in on them. They kicked them away. The sharks always returned. Sometimes, they slipped under the raft and tore at the bags of ballast.

Storms hit. A few lasted days at a time. The raft tossed and lurched. The Butlers took refuge under the raft’s canopy in their shredded clothes. Simone grew dizzy. William made her eat.

Always, they hoped to see a rescue plane. William felt sure that his daughter, Sally, would notify the U.S. Coast Guard. She had. But there was no search. They did not know where to look.

The worst of the ordeal came during the last three weeks. One afternoon, the sharks arrived early. They were in a fury, going after small fish that took shelter under the raft. Soon, porpoises joined the feeding. It lasted well into the night.

During the darkness, something--shark or porpoise--ripped a two-inch gash in the raft. The ocean slowly seeped in as the Butlers struggled to bail it out. Only in the morning did William find the hole.


Sun Opened Sores

He sealed the puncture with a repair kit, but the raft was never quite right again. Keeping it afloat was a constant task. The seawater burned into William’s back, where the sun had opened sores.

Then, they lost the fish hook. William improvised. He used his left hand to stir the bait in the sea. The triggerfish would swim up slowly and bite down. He speared them with his right hand.

It was a depressing routine, day after day. Last Friday brought the worst of so many disappointments.

They sighted a merchant ship. William fired the last flare. The ship appeared to see them. It signaled back. Or so it seemed.

“I think they just deserted us,” Simone said. “Who knows what they thought? Or why they wouldn’t get involved.”

Heard Loud Engine

But, in the deep despair of the very next day, they heard a loud engine. The coast guard vessel trudged toward them.


“We were so overjoyed we started crying and hugging,” Simone said. “We were so overcome by joy we couldn’t get out of the raft. Our energy had dissolved.”

The Butlers now hope to return to Miami in a few days. By air. They cannot imagine how they could have endured even a few more days.

Yet, their long, harrowing sea journey--extraordinary as it is--is no record. In 1973, a British couple, Maurice and Maralyn Bailey, drifted 117 days after their sloop sank in the Pacific.

Whale Attacks Uncommon

That time, a whale, ironically enough, also did the damage. Whale attacks are very uncommon, though not unheard of, said Dr. Tom Dohl, a research biologist at the Long Marine Lab at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Dan Byrne of the Cousteau Society in Los Angeles speculated that the Butlers’ sailboat found itself within a large pod of sperm whales. “They go about 60 feet,” he said. “And they’ve been known to attack a boat.”


1. April 14--William and Simone Butler leave Miami on the sailboat Siboney.

2. May 23--Pass through the Panama Canal.

3. June 15--Whales sink boat. Butlers left adrift in raft.

4. Aug. 19--Rescued 13 miles off Costa Rica and taken to city of Golfito.