As Durden broke through to the surface—gasping for air—he watched his unmanned boat orbit around him on a path that moved further and further away. Locking his eyes on the white hull, he tried to swim back to it as quickly as possible. But between the motor, which was still running at three or four knots, and the wind, it was hopeless. Within minutes, it was gone.
His heart started to race as he spun around looking for something other than blue. There was no land in sight. No boats, either. He didn't have a life vest. His long-sleeved yellow t-shirt hung heavy on his arms and the equatorial sun beat down on his face.
The gravity of his predicament hit him immediately.
"I was like, 'This is a bad, bad situation,'" he says.
It was June 1, the first day of grouper season, and just hours earlier, Durden, a 60-year-old FedEx pilot, had untied his 22-foot Grady-White from a dock behind his house to go out trolling. Down from Reno to spend a couple of weeks at his vacation home on Homosassa River, just north of Tampa, Florida, he wanted to take advantage of the clear, beautiful afternoon.
It would be 20 hours until Durden got out of the water.
When his boat disappeared from sight, the former Navy pilot automatically recalled the survival tactics he'd learned. He started swimming east—the direction he boated in from.
"I knew it was damn-near impossible to swim to the shoreline," he says. "I figured the closer I got, the better my chance of getting rescued. I just had to have a game plan; I had to do something. So I swam really slowly."
He'd learned in the Navy to drownproof himself, staying above the water as long as possible with his arms spread, kicking his legs and fluttering his fingers so his face wouldn't go under, then flipping to the other side and floating, alternating every few minutes. He calculated about how long it would take before his wife, Lisa, called in to the Coast Guard to report him missing. She was visiting her mother just south in Bradenton, so it would be a few hours at least. In the meantime, he kept swimming. But the thirst kicked in quickly. He prayed that a can of Coke or a water bottle with just a few drops left in the bottom would float his way. None did.
A few hours before sunset, there was a glimmer of hope: A boat drove by. Durden tried to jump up as high as he could, waving his arms furiously as he screamed, "Man overboard! Man overboard! Over here!"
They didn't hear him.
Then came the moment he was dreading: nightfall.
"After that boat passed me, I knew I was in there for the night. That was a sad, sad feeling," he says.
Durden had been treading water for nearly eight hours with no food or fresh water, fully exposed to the elements. He was exhausted, his eyes and throat burned from saltwater, and all he could think about was his thirst. He passed the hours fantasizing about untwisting the cap off an ice-cold bottle of water and taking a long, deep gulp.
Meanwhile, his wife Lisa got back to the house at about 8:30 that evening and realized her husband of four decades hadn't returned.
"I thought maybe the boat had broken down. We had put in a new battery in it the day before," she says. Lisa called Sea Tow boat towing to ask if they'd gotten a call from him. They hadn't, and they recommended she call the Coast Guard immediately.
The next few hours were a whirlwind, with Sheriffs coming over to the house to ask questions about Bill and the boat, friends checking on Lisa, and her son, Billy, calling for updates from California.
"I just kept telling everyone that he was a Naval aviator—that he knows how to survive," she says. "I was scared but I never flipped out. I just knew he'd be OK. He knows how to survive."
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Durden heard a small splash behind him. Then a bigger splash to his left. It went silent and he breathed a sigh of relief. Then there was a little suction on his foot. And another right next to it. He looked down through the clear, deep-blue water and he saw two little remora fish latched onto his foot. He kicked them off. Another five clamped on, so he just let them suck on his swelling legs.
"I had my own personal saltwater fish tank swimming around my feet," Durden says.
At this point, Durden had been in the water for 12 hours. He once again started swimming to what he thought was the east, but then realized he was heading the wrong way. It was harder to navigate in the dark and he was having a tough time focusing.
He took a break. To keep his mind busy he stared at his dive watch, which glowed in the dark. He fixed his gaze on the stars, then on the little neon digits on his wrist, then back on the stars. It was like a game.
Durden prayed. And he began to consider what he'd do once he made it back onshore. He'd appreciate his wife more. He'd spend more time with his friends and family. He'd go buy more life vests.
One thing he didn't think about was death. "I was really pissed off at myself for being so dumb. I thought, This is too stupid to die over. I'm retiring, and I'm going to get at least one of those retirement checks."
Before daybreak, he saw two shrimp boats coming toward him. He mustered the energy to wave and scream. But as he swam closer, he realized he was hallucinating.
As the sun rose, he started to dry heave. He had diarrhea and his swollen tongue filled his bone-dry mouth. But he'd found the buoy of a crab trap to hang onto. Just before 10 a.m., he saw something hovering above him. At first he thought it was a UFO, but then he realized it was a drone, 3 feet by 3 feet."I thought, the Coast Guard is using a drone to find me! I knew they would. That drone hung over me for 10 to 15 minutes." But the Coast Guard didn't follow. Had he imagined it? He doesn't think so, but he can't be sure.
Then, finally at about 10:30 a.m. he saw a flare rip through the sky. He heard the roar of an airplane engine: A C-130 Coast Guard plane was flying overhead and had spotted him. Shortly after, a helicopter arrived.
It turns out they'd tracked the boat's GPS to find Durden's approximate location, and spotted him thanks to his bright yellow shirt. "I started waving like crazy," he says. "Oh my God, so much relief. It was like an angel appeared in the sky."
A member of the Coast Guard was lowered into the water with a basket, and Durden was slowly lifted from the water. He was shaking uncontrollably and could barely speak. When he got into the helicopter all he could say was, "Can you get me a Gator… a Gator… a Gator…" The officer asked, "You mean a Gatorade?"
When he got to dry land, his wife was there. His sister, who'd driven straight through the night from Atlanta, was there, too. Even though his boat had washed up on shore at 1 a.m., they never doubted that he would be found.
"For the last couple of nights, when the sun goes down, I get knots in my stomach. But I'll go back on the boat. I just won't go alone. Today, I bought four automatic, self-inflating life vests and I'm going to buy some other rescue equipment," he says. "I am so thankful to the Coast Guard; they're the reason I'm here. I feel grateful to be alive. And I want to not think about it for awhile."