Who was Deborah Kiley and why am I thinking about her?
She was a very experienced sailor, who hired on in Bar Harbor, Maine, to crew a yacht called the Trashman in October 1982. The ship hit heavy weather and sank off of North Carolina. She and the four other crewmembers managed to escape the sinking on a rubber dinghy. Deborah and her friend Brad Cavanagh were the only ones to survive. Without water, the two managed to stay alive for five days, when they were rescued by a Soviet cargo ship.
I am thinking about Deborah Kiley, because the story is a memorable one, but also because it reads to me like a cautionary tale for perilous times. Our ship of state seems to be floundering into rough seas, and Deborah’s story offers parallels that could be instructive.
When the passed-out three could not be wakened for their shift, Deborah and Brad ended up keeping watch the entire night. By the time the hungover partiers managed to sober up enough to stand their watch, Deborah and Brad had been fighting the storm for eleven hours, and they collapsed in exhaustion. The next thing that Deborah remembered was Meg, the captain’s landlubber girlfriend, waking her up: the ship was going down.
Deborah watched in horror as Mark inflated the life raft that contained the supplies and equipment they would need to survive. He was supposed to have tied it to the stern first, but in his impaired state, he failed to secure it. The untethered, inflated raft was scooped up like a giant kite by 80-mile-per-hour winds that sent it sailing over their heads and skimming out of reach across the waves. And here I think of all the social safety nets that are designed to rescue people in economic crises. To what are they tied?
So, there they were, five of them… on a boat with no food, no water, suffering from hypothermia… and surrounded by sharks. By the third day, it was clear that Meg was dying from blood poisoning. Dehydration had begun to make them all delusional. Deborah woke up that night to hear the sound of slurping. John and Mark were drinking seawater. Sheepfaced, they explained, “We were thirsty.”
At this point, Deborah and Brad felt they were at risk of losing their minds. They began to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Deborah later said that they knew that as long as they could remember each and every word that they “might be able to walk that fine, tight wire of sanity.” By the morning of the fourth day, Meg began to speak in a distinct but unintelligible language. Deborah, raised in an evangelical tradition, recognized it as “speaking in tongues.” Shortly after that, Meg died in Deborah’s arms.
And yet… here is where her choices become very interesting.
Deborah had the discipline to maintain rituals of civilized behavior. Rituals of hope and humanity. She insisted on removing Meg’s jewelry in order to return it to her relatives… as if there would ever be an occasion for such an exchange! She also insisted on reciting a prayer as they rolled the woman’s body into the shark-infested waters. And later, when both she and Brad were almost too weak to care, she had insisted that they turn the dinghy over in order to change the filthy water in which they had been lying. Rituals. Like changing the sheets, plumping the pillow, opening the window. Changing the energy. Not giving in. Not saying, “It isn't going to matter anyway, because we’re barely conscious and all going to be dead in a couple of hours.” Maintaining standards of cleanliness, of decency, of respect. Holding onto her humanity, and in doing that, holding onto and affirming life.
As women, it’s been our job to keep going in times of war, of disaster, of evacuation, of famine. It’s been our responsibility to make do, to feed the children, to keep them busy—and happy, if possible. Despair has been almost a privilege for women on whom so many are depending. And we have learned to respect the rituals of daily living, the cyclical rhythms that may be disrupted or distorted, but that keep on in a fashion as long as there is life. Deborah, a child of alcoholics, had learned the art of focusing on essentials when surrounded by chaos. Sometimes our strengths derived from our oppressions can come back to bless us.
Five people in a dinghy... Two of them were addicts, focused on their addictions: sex, cigarettes, alcohol, dominance. With poor impulse control, they drank the seawater because they were thirsty. They lashed the steering wheel of the boat so they could go back to sleep. They inflated the life raft before securing it, because they were in a hurry. One of them attempted to rape a dying woman. The world would just have to adjust to them and to their needs. And when it didn’t, one of them was willing to puncture the boat that was keeping them all alive... just for the temporary rush of control it would give him.
And there was the victim, Meg. No experience sailing. Drunk, injured, needing to be rescued repeatedly… and eventually dying from her wounds.
And, finally, Deborah and Brad… staying sane, taking turns sharing tasks, restraining the maniacs, comforting the wounded. And Deborah... keeper of the rituals.
If our ship of civilization is floundering amid mounting environmental and climate crises, how will we meet it? Like addicts and compulsives, or like overwhelmed victims, or with the courage and strength of Deborah Kiley, fighting for the survival of all to the end?
As our crisis deepens, peoples’ natures reveal themselves. I believe they have in this last election. I see the egotistical and defiant raft-puncturers, the delusional deniers, the passive and helpless… and I see so many who will hold onto their values and their humanity to the end. That gives me hope.
Kiley's book is Albatross: The True Story of a Woman's Survival At Sea.