This is very bad, Williamson thought. It wasn't the first time he'd had to think quickly in a dangerous situation. Once he'd been caught in a freak lightning storm while hiking down Mount Rainier. As a teen, he'd been pinned underwater in gushing rapids, frantically waiting for his breath to give out. He had squeaked out of both situations, but now here he was, bobbing in the ocean. This is very bad.

Everything became a calculation. The boat was slowly vanishing into the chasm of the Atlantic. Williamson could dive for his own life vest, but it would burn energy. There was no telling how long they'd be out here. Conservation was key. His cell phone was still powered up in its waterproof case, but there was no signal. The men debated swimming east for service, but that was probably about four miles away. They might drain themselves with the swim, and "then the fucking phone might have gotten wet by then," Williamson reasoned later.

Text messages might work even if the phone didn't. So to his brother and wife, Williamson punched out: "911, sunk, 15 mi off."

Fifteen miles out to sea, Williamson (left) snapped a picture of himself and Whittaker.
Photo courtesy of Sandy Williamson
Fifteen miles out to sea, Williamson (left) snapped a picture of himself and Whittaker.

By 10:30, the situation had worsened. The boat was gone. "OK, I'm going to pray now," Williamson called to his comrade while silently beaming up a plea to see his children and grandchildren again.

"Me too."

The men were quiet. Williamson treaded water, holding tight to the cushion.

Whittaker floated and began to shiver. "I don't have a lot of body fat," he would say later. "It was cold." He was holding the emergency beacon in his right hand, trying desperately to keep it out of the water. To distract himself, he began reading the tiny print. "Oh," he called over to Williamson, "I'm supposed to pull the antenna out." He extended the foot-long metal rod and hit the signal again.

Then the men continued their wait.

There were so many what-ifs. The small plastic device might work, or it might not. His family might report him missing. Or maybe not. Rescuers could be en route. And if they were, they might not realize the Gulf Stream had nudged the men north from where the boat went down.

At noon exactly, there was elation. A red dot appeared in the sky and grew into a Coast Guard chopper. Then, as suddenly as it arrived, it buzzed away. The hope deflated.

A minute later, the dot reappeared. It again grew into a chopper. Then it again shrank out of sight.

On the third pass, the chopper hovered directly overhead. Williamson and Whittaker high-fived when the rescue diver hit the waves.

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