A Rescue In The Sea Of Despair



Eric Van Fossen


At one point in my life I was a sailor. I operated the nuclear power plant on a submarine.

Once, while in the Caribbean we were submerged and on our way to our next mission. Submarines have amazing technology that allows them to listen for noises out in the sea. Our sonar men must have heard something on the surface because we slowed down to take a look. Through the periscope the Captain saw a lone man on the ocean’s surface treading water, bobbing up and down and being tousled by the waves.   There was no wreckage around him. There was no lifesaver float. He was just there. He was not even wearing a life jacket. He was treading water to stay afloat and survive. Only he knew how long he had been there.

Treading water. Alone in the sea.

We stopped the boat (submarines are affectionately called boats- not ships) and then surfaced in order to rescue him. We pulled within about fifty yards of him. For his wellbeing we could not pull any closer than that. He would have to come to us to be rescued.

Submarines are made to be stealthy and quiet. It seemed this poor soul was not even aware of our presence. He continued to tread water with his back turned to us. No doubt his entire focus, his entire world at that moment was to simply stay afloat and just survive.

From high up in the conning tower our Captain grabbed a megaphone and called out to him, “Ahoy!”

The Captain’s booming voice from up on high out in the middle of nowhere must have sounded to be Omni-present. At first the man was unable to recognize that we were there. He simply kept treading water. He was spending all of his energy on only surviving. Eventually the Captain boomed out, “Stop treading water and swim!”

This must have had some effect, as the man treading water in a sea of despair finally turned and realized that help had arrived.  He yelled back, “I cannot swim.”

Our wise Captain replied, “But you have been treading water for God knows how long. If you can tread water then you can swim. Doggie-paddle if you have to, but stop treading water!”

This seemed to do the trick. The lost man changed his actions from just treading water to some sort of a swim stroke. It was not an athletic or even a proper swim stroke. In fact, it was very awkward looking. But that one change moved him and he was able to slowly make his way over to the boat. We pulled him out of the water and gave him water, food and dry clothes.

When he had sufficiently recovered he asked me, “Is this the Sea of Despair?”

I chuckled lightly and replied, “No my friend, this is the Caribbean Ocean.”

Now it was his turn to laugh. He smiled, “You know, when I was out there alone treading water to just survive, it seemed only to be deep and dark. But the second I started trying to swim to my rescue I could begin to see the beautiful turquoise blue of the waters which surrounded me.”

I have told this story before and have subsequently been asked if it was a true story.

It is true that it’s a story. A sea story.