U.S. Tourists Survive Caribbean Shipwreck, 14-Hour Swim

An American brother and sister were on an all-day fishing trip in St. Lucia when their boat sank, forcing them to swim for 14 hours before reaching shore

Friday, Apr 26, 2013  |  Updated 8:53 AM CDT
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U.S. Tourists Survive Caribbean Shipwreck, 14-Hour Swim

AP

This Nov. 2009 photo courtesy of Dan Suski shows Kate Suski, right, and her brother Dan while on vacation in San Diego, Ca. The brother and sister are recovering in the eastern Caribbean island of St. Lucia after their ship sank on April 21 during a fishing trip, forcing them to swim almost 14 hours to reach land, according to the siblings. The Suskis said they are recovering after being hospitalized with severe dehydration and tendinitis. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Dan Suski)

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A tourist from San Francisco is recovering in the eastern Caribbean island of St. Lucia after a day long fishing trip with his sister turned into a life and death experience. 

Dan Suski, of San Francisco, and Kate Suski, of Seattle, told The Associated Press Thursday that they thought they would die and never reach shore. Dan Suski is a 30-year-old business owner and IT technician in the city.

He said he and his sister, along with the boat's captain and a first mate, were forced to swim almost 14 hours to reach land after their boat sank.

The ship experienced an electrical problem on Sunday and began to take on water. The captain told everyone to abandon the sinking ship some 12 miles off St. Lucia's west coast.
 
The Suskis said they are recovering after being hospitalized with severe dehydration and tendonitis. They plan to fly back to Miami on Saturday to meet with their father. Everyone on the boat survived.

Dan Suski said he was still trying to reel in the fish when water rushed into the cabin and flooded the engine room, prompting the captain to radio for help as he yelled out their coordinates.

The waves kept pounding the boat that the Suskis had chartered from a local company in the eastern Caribbean island called "Reel Irie.'' It was April 21, around noon, and the trip was supposed to be a highlight of their sunny vacation.

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As more water flooded the boat, the captain threw life preservers to the Suskis. "He said, 'Jump out! Jump out!''' Kate Suski recalled in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press.

The Suskis obeyed and jumped into the water with the captain and first mate. Less than five minutes later, the boat sank.

"The captain was telling us to stay together, and that help was on its way and that we need to wait,'' Kate Suski said. The group waited for about an hour, but no one came. "I was saying, 'Let's swim, let's swim. If they're coming, they will find us. We can't just stay here,'" she recalled.

They began to swim, but the Suskis lost sight of the captain and first mate amid the burgeoning swells. Soon after, they also lost sight of land amid the rain.

"We would just see swells and gray,'' Dan Suski said.

A plane and a helicopter appeared in the distance and hovered over the area, but no one spotted them. 

Several hours went by, and the sun began to set. "There's this very real understanding that the situation is dire,'' Kate Suski said. "You come face-to-face with understanding your own mortality ... We both processed the possible ways we might die. Would we drown? Be eaten by a shark?"

"Hypothermia?'' Dan Suski said.

"Would our legs cramp up and make it impossible to swim?'' she continued.

The brother-and-sister team swam for 12 to 14 hours, talking as they pushed and shivered their way through the ocean.

Dan Suski tried to ignore images of the movie "Open Water'' that kept popping into his head, referring to the story of a scuba-diving couple who was left behind, while his sister couldn't stop thinking about sharks. "I thought I was going to vomit I was so scared,'' she said.

When, exhausted, they got within 30 feet of land, they realized they could not get out of the water.

"There were sheer cliffs coming into the ocean,'' she said. "We knew we would get crushed.''

Dan Suski thought they should try to reach the rocks anyway, but his sister disagreed. "We won't survive that,'' she told him. They swam even more until they noticed a spit of sand nearby. When they got to land, they collapsed, barely able to walk. It was past midnight, and they didn't notice any homes in the area.

"Dan said the first priority was to stay warm,'' she recalled. They hiked inland and lay together, pulling up grass and brush to cover themselves and stay warm. Kate Suski had only her bikini on, having shed her sundress to swim better.

Dan Suski shed his cotton shorts, having recalled a saying when he was a kid that "the best-dressed corpses wear cotton.'' They heard a stream nearby but decided to wait until daylight to determine whether the water was safe to drink.

As the sun came up, they began to hike through thick brush, picking up bitter mangoes along the way and stopping to eat green bananas.

"It was probably the best and worst banana I've ever had,'' Dan Suski recalled. Some three hours later, they spotted a young farm worker named Benoit walking with his white dog.

He fed them crackers, gave them water and waited until police arrived, the Suskis said. "We asked if he knew anything about the captain and mate,'' Kate Suski said. "He said he had seen the news the night before and they hadn't been found at that time. I think we felt a sense of tragedy that we weren't prepared for.''

The Suskis were hospitalized and received IV fluids, with doctors concerned they couldn't draw blood from Kate Suski's arm because she was so dehydrated.

They also learned that the captain and mate were rescued after spending nearly 23 hours in the water, noting that their relatives called and took care of them after the ordeal. St. Lucia's tourism minister called it a miracle, and the island's maritime affairs unit is investigating exactly what caused the ship to sink.

Marine Police Sgt. Finley Leonce said they have already interviewed the captain, and that police did not suspect foul play or any criminal activity in the sinking of the ship. The brother and sister said they don't blame anyone for the shipwreck.

"We are so grateful to be alive right now,'' Kate Suski said. "Nothing can sort of puncture that bubble.''

Upon returning to their hotel in St. Lucia earlier this week, the Suskis were upgraded to a suite as they recover from cuts on their feet, severe tendonitis in their ankles from swimming and abrasions from the lifejackets. "It's really been amazing,'' Dan Suski said. "It's a moving experience for me.''

"Since this ordeal, I've been waking up at dawn every morning,'' she said. ``I've never looked forward to the sunrise so much in my life.''

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