Longform.org's guide to castaways: six epic tales of tragedy and survival on the open seas.

Longform.org's guide to castaways: six epic tales of tragedy and survival on the open seas.

Longform.org's guide to castaways: six epic tales of tragedy and survival on the open seas.

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
July 16 2011 8:11 AM

The Longform.org Guide to Castaways

Perfect storms, wicked riptides, and drunken dares: six epic tales of tragedy and survival on the open seas.


Every weekend, Longform.org shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For a daily selection of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform.org or follow @longformorg on Twitter.

Lost at sea. Click to expand image.
What would you do if lost at sea?

Forget what you'd take to a desert island—what would you do if you were stranded at sea? Say, on a fiberglass boat with some fishermen you hardly knew? Or clinging to a dinghy with a pair of drinking buddies? Floating in the open water with your autistic son? The short answer: anything you can think of, including the unthinkable. Here are six stories about people lost at sea who did everything they could to be found.

Here Be Monsters Michael Finkel • GQ • May 2011

Three teenage boys from a remote island decide to set sail after a night of drinking. They go missing for 51 dire days:

"They were crazed with hunger, desperate beyond any measure. Their bodies were rotting before their eyes. Their tongues, thick with thirst, stuck to the insides of their mouths. What little saliva they could generate was viscous as glue. Their lips cracked. Their arms and legs swelled, the edema of famine. The gluteus maximus—the largest muscle in the body—was almost completely eaten away; there were only hollows of flesh ridged by pelvic bones. Starvation lowered their internal temperatures and they were colder than ever at night. Their bodies had used up all their fat. It was working on their muscles. Their minds would go next."

A Sea Story William Langewiesche • Atlantic • May 2004


The Estonia was carrying 989 people when it sank on its way across the Baltic in September 1994. Only 140 lived:

"Survival that night was a very tight race, and savagely simple. People who started early and moved fast had some chance of winning. People who started late or hesitated for any reason had no chance at all. Action paid. Contemplation did not. The mere act of getting dressed was enough to condemn people to death, and although many of those who escaped to the water succumbed to the cold, most of the ultimate winners endured the ordeal completely naked or in their underwear. The survivors all seem to have grasped the nature of this race, the first stage of which involved getting outside to the Deck 7 promenade without delay. There was no God to turn to for mercy. There was no government to provide order. Civilization was ancient history, Europe a faint and faraway place. Inside the ship, as the heel increased, even the most primitive social organization, the human chain, crumbled apart. Love only slowed people down. A pitiless clock was running. The ocean was completely in control."

Lost in the Waves Justin Heckert • Men's Journal • November 2009

Swept out by a riptide, a father and his autistic son find themselves in open water after dark:


"The ocean at night is a terrible dream. There is nothing beyond the water except the profound discouragement of the sky, every black wave another singular misfortune. Walt Marino has been floating on his back for hours, the ocean on his skin, his mouth, soaking the curls of his graying hair. The water has cracked his lips, has formed a slippery glaze on his shoulders and arms. The salt has stuck to his contact lenses, burning the edges of his eyes. A small silver pendant of the Virgin Mary sticks to his collarbone on a link chain. He can no longer see the car key floating below his stomach, tied to the string of his floral swim trunks. The water licks against his ears. Every familiar sound is gone."

The Storm Sebastian Junger • Outside • October 1994

The first extended telling of the story that would eventually become The Perfect Storm:

"Tyne must have looked back and seen an exceptionally big wave rising up behind him. It would have been at least 70 feet high, maybe 100 feet. The stern of the boat would have risen up sickeningly and hurled the men from their bunks. The Andrea Gail would have flipped end-over-end and landed hull-up, exploding the wheelhouse windows. Tyne, upside-down in his steel cage, would have drowned without a word. The five men below deck would have landed on the ceiling. The ones who remained conscious would have known that it was impossible to escape through an open hatch and swim out from under the boat. And even if they could—what then? How would they have found their survival suits, the life raft?"


Moby-Duck: Or, the Synthetic Wilderness of Childhood Donovan Hahn • Harper's • January 2007

In 1992, a Chinese freighter tipped violently during a storm and dumped a load of plastic bath toys—7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles, and 7,200 yellow ducks—into the open sea:

"Where had they gone? Into the Arctic? Around the globe? Were they still out there, traveling the currents of the North Pacific? Or did they lie buried under wrack and sand along Alaska's wild, sparsely populated shores? Or, succumbing to the elements—freezing temperatures, the endless battering of the waves, prolonged exposure to the sun—had they cracked, filled with water, gone under? All 28,800 toys had emerged from that sinking container into the same acre of water. Each member of the four species was all but identical to the others—each duck was just as light as the other ducks, each frog as thick as the other frogs, each beaver as aerodynamic as the next. And yet one turtle had ended up in Signe Wilson's hot tub, another in the jaws of Betsy Knudson's labrador, another in the nest of a sea otter, while a fourth had floated almost all the way to Russia, and a fifth traveled south of Puget Sound. Why? What tangled calculus of causes and effects could explain—or predict—such disparate fates?"

The Castaways Mark Singer • The New Yorker • February 2007

When they departed from a Mexican fishing village to set shark lines, they were five. When they were rescued halfway across the world nine months later, they were three. And their ordeal still wasn't over:

"The fact was that when Salvador, Lucio, and Jesús shared with me their memories of what had taken place on the panga, chronologies and details often didn't quite jibe. If I pressed further, this or that element might alter by another degree or two. In a courtroom, a lawyer trying to impeach their credibility could have carved any of them to ribbons. But to what purpose? The prime sinister scenario (not a view I hold, but, nevertheless): they weren't shark fishing; they were delivering fuel to a trawler moving a shipment of cocaine. (In San Blas, a rumor circulated that Salvador had been involved in such operations in the past.) Yet, in the grand scheme of things, what mattered was that, one day, five men got into a small boat, and nine months later three of them were serendipitously found float-ing on the other side of the world. They had survived and now had a story to tell, a story that they could explain only by referring to the supernatural. As a 'true' story, that was perhaps its principal defect: no one had ever before heard, told, or possibly even imagined one like it."

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @ longformorg. For more great adventure writing, check out Longform.org's complete archive