Week at sea filled with fear, boredom, hope

Missing teens prayed for rescue or death

Published on 05/08/05

BY RON MENCHACA
Of The Post and Courier Staff

After one of the area's largest air and sea searches, hope seemed lost that two teens adrift last month off the Carolina coast would be found alive, or at all. Then, a fishing boat found them. Here's a day-by-day account of how the boys survived.

SATURDAY, APRIL 23

Troy Driscoll and Josh Long sweat in the mid-day sun, patching and sanding their new sailboat. They're racing to finish the repairs so they can get the boat out for a test run today.

Troy, 15, and Josh, 17, spend most Saturdays together, fishing or shooting bows and arrows. Their target today, though, is this ugly, JY-15 sailboat. It's spray-painted and cracked, little more than a fiberglass shell with no mast or sail. They call it "Under Construction."Someone mistakenly told the boys it is a Sunfish sailboat, a similar but different craft.

Josh's uncle from Fairfax didn't have much use for the boat and gave it to the boys. He occasionally used it to tool around in a pond. As they worked, the boys talked of launching it in the Ashley River. If it did OK, maybe they'd take it for a spin off Sullivan's Island, where they liked to fish.

They break for lunch and eat ravioli with Josh's dad. They plan later that night to drop by a friend's birthday party but hope to get the boat in the water before they go. Then another friend is on the phone. He needs help fixing his car. The boys oblige. By the time they finish, it's time for the party.

The sailboat's test run is canceled. They make plans to meet early the next morning.

SUNDAY, APRIL 24

Josh tells his mother that he and Troy are going shark fishing in their new boat.

Josh's mom heads to a friend's house. It has a pond nearby. Why not fish there, she suggests. The day is windy. She jokes with the boys that they will drift away in that little boat. That won't happen, they tell her.

The plan is to get an early start paddling out to a big sandbar a couple of hundred yards off Sullivan's Island and fish there. But the boys eat up the morning gathering gear. It's unusually chilly outside, so both wear jeans. Josh wolfs down two corndogs; Troy eats a bowl of Honeycomb cereal.

They grab tackle boxes, a cooler and six fishing poles. They pack it all into Josh's black Ford Explorer. Josh adds his two-piece wetsuit and fins. They load the boat, white with a blue hull, onto its trailer. Then they track down two kayaking paddles to power their craft. They can't find any life vests.

For shark bait, they buy a bucket of raw fish at Wal-Mart. It stinks. They don't pack any food or water for themselves. They don't plan to be out long.

It's nearly noon when they arrive at Sullivan's Island's Station 30. A small-craft advisory is in effect. The boys are not concerned because they plan to be on the water only a few minutes, paddling out to an exposed sandbar. The wind is gusting to 28 knots.

As they are set to push off, Josh remembers they forgot their bait in the truck. He sends Troy to get it. At the truck, Troy pauses for a second. He looks at his cell phone. The saltwater might damage it, he thinks. He grabs the bait and tosses the phone back into the truck.

They launch on an outgoing tide. Almost immediately, a riptide seizes the boat. They paddle furiously to stay on course, but the drift is too strong. They drop anchor, but it wags behind the swift-moving boat like a spinning lure.

They'll have to swim for it. Josh won't leave the boat behind so he ties a rope around his chest and loops it to the boat.

Troy can barely swim against the current, and he knows there's no way Josh can do it tethered to a hunk of fiberglass. Panting for breath, he climbs back in the boat and tells Josh to do the same. "You're going to die if you don't stop," he screams.

Josh climbs back in the boat exhausted. He asks Troy to find his cell phone and call for help. "I left it in the car," Troy says. Josh shakes his head. What now?

They watch helplessly as the shoreline shrinks in the distance. They signal frantically at vessels on the horizon and make a desperate attempt to steer for a sea buoy, but the paddles aren't made for roiling waters.

Josh lashes out when one of his fishing poles slips into the water. He angrily flings the empty cooler into the air. The boys stay awake scanning the night sky for a rescue plane that they are sure is looking for them. The temperature plummets. Troy shivers.

They slide underneath a short deck at the bow of the boat and huddle there. Everything below their waists is exposed to the biting wind and soaking wet.

At 10. p.m., Josh's father, Eddie Long, reports the boys missing. The Coast Guard searches from Folly Beach to Sullivan's Island. The families don't know where the boys launched from. They think the boys are in a Sunfish sailboat.

MONDAY, APRIL 25

The screech of gulls wakes them at dawn. They wipe sleep from their eyes and survey the surroundings: nothing but ocean in every direction.

For the first time, Troy is genuinely worried. He thought they'd be rescued by now or at least have drifted back toward land. "Holy crap," he says. Josh says they need to stay focused and keep their eyes peeled for ships. If they wave their paddles in the air, the ships will see them, he says.

Despite their manic motions, a tugboat 500 yards away never alters course. Troy punches the hard deck in frustration. Why aren't they stopping? He thinks about his life being cut short, how he won't be able to finish school and make his parents proud.

Their stomachs growl, their last meal of corndogs and Honeycomb cereal long gone. Fear is stronger than hunger. They stay alert for the faintest whirl of helicopter blades or the hum of a steamship. Troy considers eating the shark bait. He decides against it after he gags on the odor.

Boredom begins to overtake fear. Troy likens the boat to a prison, only it's worse because he can't even leave his cell.

Their throats are dry; it's as if they've been chewing dirt. They scoop up handfuls of saltwater, gargle it and spew it back at the sea. They hope it won't kill them.

They strategize about surviving. Troy pulls out a fillet knife and cuts a piece of soft fabric from a portable chair attached to his tackle box. Now they have pillows.

One of them suggests a game of I Spy. They giggle when they realize how absurd it would be to spy "something blue" out here.

The hours drag on. They go long stretches without talking. They've known each other so long that they have no need. Darkness draws out emotions. They cry openly with each other and talk about how much they love and miss their families. "This is crazy," Troy says.

They can't believe it's gone on this long. They thought they might endure one night but not two.

That night, they take turns wearing the wetsuit top. Josh uses his fins to bail water off the deck.

The raging sea bucks the bait and some of the gear off the boat. The boys toss what's left into the ocean.

One kayak paddles also is lost. They disconnect the remaining two-piece paddle to make two oars but see no value in paddling against swells that dwarf their boat.

The sky sprinkles rain. They look like kids catching snowflakes on their tongues as they open their mouths for rain. It's a fleeting drizzle, but the water tingles their taste buds like honey.

When it stops, they lap up puddles on the deck like stray dogs.

Tracking a signal from Troy's cellular phone, police locate Josh's Ford Explorer about 11 a.m. at Station 30 on Sullivan's Island, giving rescuers the crucial launch point they need to calculate the sailboat's drift. The search stretches 34 miles offshore from Charleston Harbor to Bull's Bay.

TUESDAY, APRIL 26

They are alive to see another sunrise. They pray for the sight of land. The sea drowns their spirits.

Troy can't stand the boredom. "Beau, what are you thinking about?" he asks Josh.

Josh dreams of family. He's glad he hugged his mom before they left. Troy darted out of his house that morning and can't remember his last words to his mother. That gnawed at him. The boys argue over who had the least satisfying good-bye. Troy tortures himself with thoughts of rescue scenarios.

They sing the same four church hymns for hours. Anything to ward off the hunger that consumes them. Troy dreams about his other favorite cereal, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Mountain Dew. The visions are so vivid, so rich, he tastes the sugary drink on his lips. "I tasted it, where is it?" he asks Josh.

"We're at sea," Josh says, annoyed. Josh remembers the ravioli lunch he'd shared with his dad.

That night, it's so cold.

The Coast Guard in South Carolina suspends its search for the boys, citing a lack of concrete leads. Coast Guard officials in North Carolina decline to take up the search because they don't believe the boys have drifted to their coastline.

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 27

Morning brings hope. Maybe today is the day they're found.

But weakness envelops the boys. Troy decides he won't starve to death maybe die in his sleep but not wither to a skeleton. Jellyfish drift all around, gooey balls of gelatin and stringy tentacles. Josh fishes one out of the ocean with his baseball cap. Troy rips a hanging piece from the slimy mass. It smells awful as he throws it into his mouth and forces it down with a gulp.

He eats just one piece. If it does not kill him, he'll eat more tomorrow. Josh isn't that hungry. He's too worried. But he pretends to eat so Troy will quit pestering him.

They stare at the water, wondering where the current is taking them. Africa, Josh guesses. "How would we be received in Africa? Imagine what we could eat there."

Troy's mind wanders. "People must be laughing about us back home. What idiots they must think we are going out unprepared like this. People will assume we tried to go deep-sea fishing in a tiny sailboat."

It's hot. Troy strips down to his boxer shorts. He doesn't realize the sun is cooking his skin.

Josh leaves his clothes on. His hat keeps the blistering rays off his face. He notices Troy is getting darker each day. They swim to cool off until sharks close in. One breaks the surface and the boys see its fin. The boys are more angry than scared. They can no longer swim. Still, they dangle their feet in the sea.

Troy suits back up when the sun goes down, bracing for the heat of the day to turn to cold night. "Dude, this is really happening, isn't it?" he says out loud.

They cry themselves to sleep.

Troy hears a horrible noise that sounds like a freight train. Is he dreaming? He darts up and sees a wall overtaking the boat. It's a monstrous container ship. Its engine is deafening. Josh is screaming, hoping someone will hear.

He may as well be whispering.

Troy sees a flash of red, the hull moving past as its wake casts the boat aside like a piece of debris. Five, maybe 10 seconds, it's over.

The search continues along a 42-mile stretch between Charleston Harbor and Bull's Bay as hundreds of civilians from across the Lowcountry join the effort. Before they're done, volunteers will have mounted the largest rescue operation in local memory. State officials hint that the rescue mission is now a recovery mission.

THURSDAY, APRIL 28

At dawn, they give each other gut checks, asking each other how they are. The jellyfish Troy ate yesterday didn't kill him, so he eats more. They cry and pray all day.

A boat appears to be coming straight at them. Then it turns. They pound their fists.

Troy asks Josh to kill him. Josh tells Troy that he'll punch him in the face if he doesn't quit talking about dying. Both want to die peacefully, together. The day blurs into weakness and delirium.

Rescue workers expand the search to the entire coast of South Carolina. A prayer chain extends across the country, but hope dwindles.

FRIDAY, APRIL 29

They alternate between prayers for rescue and prayers for peaceful death. Conversation is hard because it veers to family and then the boys break down. Troy watches a star arc across the night sky. Is this a good sign?

Most people doubt the boys are alive. Family members refuse to give up. Rescuers vow to keep looking so that the families will have closure.

SATURDAY, APRIL 30

Both boys wake surprised to be alive. A rainbow appears. It seems out of place in this hell.

They drift in and out of sleep. There's nothing to do but wait for death and hope it comes soon.

Troy hears a distant hum. Josh is praying. Their boat rises on the crest of a swell and Troy glimpses a ship. "You've got to get up," he tells Josh. "This boat is coming right for us."

The boat, seven miles off Cape Fear, N.C., grows larger on the horizon. It doesn't turn. The boys scream like wild animals. It's a fishing boat. It's a miracle. The vessel maneuvers alongside the sailboat. Her first mate hangs over the side and yanks Troy onboard. Then it's Josh's turn. Now he's onboard. He's crying again, but these tears are different.

They are going home.