Water came from every direction. It fell from above in fat, cold drops and it crashed over the sides of the boat, sloshing and pooling on the deck. It was relentless, that water, drenching Dan Suski as he fought to keep his balance in the stern of the Reel Irie, a midsize sportfisher that ran charters off the coast of St. Lucia. One wave leapt so high and hit so hard that it knocked the sunglasses off his head and swept them out to sea. But he wasn’t about to let the water distract him from his prize.
Dan knew he’d hooked something big when his fishing line snapped taut and began unreeling off the boat’s stern. But after he grabbed the pole, it took a good 40 minutes of two-handed reeling before he finally saw his catch: a 400-pound marlin, large even by southern Caribbean standards, with an eye the size of a baseball. Did it…just make eye contact with me? Dan thought with a mix of awe and humility as the spear-nosed fish leapt and thrashed in the boat’s white wake. An hour earlier, he’d struggled to calm the rolling in his stomach as the boat rose and dove on 12-foot swells. Now he was caught up in his man-versus-the-sea moment, mainlining adrenaline. Three years earlier he’d begun training for his pilot’s license, which was exciting in its own right. But this high was different—visceral. Primal, even.
It was a little after noon on April 21, 2013. The sky was dark, and the air was heavy and cool. While Dan and the first mate, Tim Cooper, fought the fish, Kate Suski, Dan’s older sister, sat in the boat’s helm, wearing a wool cardigan over her ankle-length sundress. She pointed Dan’s iPhone at him, trying to film his tug of war with the marlin, but the Reel Irie heaved, making it hard to get a steady shot. She concentrated so hard on the screen that she didn’t pay attention to the water that ran past her feet and toward the bow.
Next to Kate the captain, Griffith Joseph, held the wheel and steered the boat west, toward the safety of land. A native of the nearby island of Martinique and a longtime charter fisherman based in St. Lucia’s Rodney Bay Marina, he was comfortable on the water and unconcerned by the high seas that had tossed them around for the last two hours. But he hadn’t protested an hour ago when the Suskis asked to head for what they hoped would be calmer waters on the Caribbean side of St. Lucia. They were his clients, and this was their day.
Dan was still reeling in the marlin, bracing himself against the wind, when he heard the bang. It came from behind him, loud and with a hint of sizzle. For a second he wondered if they hit something, but that was impossible. The sea floor was more than 3,000 feet beneath them. In the helm, Kate turned to Captain Joseph with an eyebrow raised, but he shook his head: “Don’t worry about it.” Just to be sure, he left the wheel and opened the door to the cabin. Kate looked over his shoulder and just stared, unable to process what she saw.
Sensing movement behind him, Dan called back to his sister without taking his eye off his catch. “Is everything okay? What’s going on?” he yelled over the crash of the waves. “Don’t worry,” Kate shouted back. “Everything’s going to be fine.” She was lying—to him and to herself. The sea had invaded the cabin, leaving behind inches of water. And Joseph had just opened the hatch to the engine compartment, which she could see was almost completely flooded. Is this bad? It looks bad. But we’re still floating, so maybe the bilge will pump out the water. Won’t it? This isn’t happening…
Back in the stern, Dan cut the line and let go of the marlin. He didn’t have to see inside the cabin to intuit that Kate was shielding him from bad news. First, there was the bang. And Joseph was down below. Though Cooper was at the helm, the Reel Irie was traveling in a wide arc and seemed to be out of control. The boat’s scuppers, holes just above the deck that had no trouble draining the waves earlier, were now overwhelmed, and Dan was standing in water halfway to his knees. It was all too much to comprehend, and as he tried to make sense of their predicament Joseph came back from belowdecks. The captain, who moments ago was unfazed by the rocky weather, looked rattled and began handing out life vests: “We have to jump in.”
Kate’s phone buzzed with a text from Dan: “Do you wanna go deep-sea fishing on Sunday?”
It was a typically gray April day in Seattle as she walked with a coworker to the construction offices for a new apartment building in South Lake Union. She instantly brightened at the message. Her brother was preparing to housesit for a family friend on St. Lucia, where she’d join him in less than a week. She’d never been to the tiny Caribbean island, but she didn’t have to know much about it—other than that it sits at the southern end of an island chain tracing a path from Puerto Rico to Venezuela—to guess it would be a better place than Seattle to spend a couple spring weeks. The house they were watching was in Marigot Bay, a resort town on the west side of the island, where the water was calm and the surrounding hills were steep and densely forested. Temperatures were expected to be in the high 70s to low 80s.
More important than enjoying the weather, she’d get to spend time with Dan, whom she’d only seen sporadically since he moved to San Francisco a year earlier. For six years prior to that they both lived in Seattle and had been inseparable. If their father, Ron, would call and catch Kate at a bar during happy hour, more often than not she’d offer to pass the phone to Dan, who was there with her.
The Suskis grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut. Kate was born in 1973, and Dan followed eight and a half years later. They had another brother, David, just two and a half years older than Kate. Yet she found herself gravitating toward Dan, despite the age difference. David was serious and not especially easy to talk to; Dan was gregarious and happy to be her confidant. David had his own interests; Dan loved tagging along with his big sister. By the time Kate was in middle school, her passion was figure skating, so in winter their father would hose down the backyard to create an ice patch. Eager to include her little brother, she’d put a chair on the ice and stand next to him as he used it for support, encouraging him until his ankles stiffened and he found his balance. Whether she knew it or not, she was instilling in Dan a refusal to give up.
As a kid Dan struggled to swim. Lessons didn’t help, so Ron paid for a family membership at the local pool and Dan spent much of his free time there—alone—swimming lap after lap. Arm over arm, he pulled himself closer to his goal. And by college he was competing in triathlons.
The family was never far from water. The Suskis lived in San Diego for a brief time after David and Kate were born, and after Dan came along they made the cross-country trip back often. During other vacations, on the docks in Ocean City, Maryland, Ron taught them how to catch crabs with a chicken wing tied to a piece of string. The secret was to raise the line slowly while the crabs ate, and then slip the net underneath.
The Suskis did everything together, and at their center was their mother, Marianne. She was the planner, organizing their trips and packing the days with activities. She lived through her family, staying at home to raise the kids, driving Kate 45 minutes each way to the skating rink for practice every Saturday morning. The dividends from that work paid out on vacations, as she watched her children on the beach, silhouetted in the sun at they trailed a kite or chased one another in the water. As they grew up, the kids would fight and pull apart, but their desire to see her happy always brought them back together.
Kate moved to Seattle in August 2004 and pursued work as an architect, and Dan followed two years later and started an online marketing business. He would call home from time to time, ostensibly just to talk to his mom, but really he wanted Marianne’s opinion on his decisions. He drew strength from hearing her tell him to trust his instincts.
As adults, Kate and Dan’s eight-year age difference mattered even less, and their social circles overlapped. So it had been tough for her to watch him leave for San Francisco in 2012, and it would be good to see him again. The prospect of fishing excited her too. There was something soothing about dropping a line in the water. It reminded her of her childhood, when her father joined her for an Indian Princesses camping trip in northwest Connecticut and she won a ribbon for catching the biggest fish in her age group.
Back in Seattle, she arrived at the office and had to put away her phone, so she dashed off a reply to Dan: “Can’t wait.”
"Kate, jump. Now!”
While Dan, Joseph, and Cooper bobbed in the water just off the Reel Irie’s stern, Kate was rifling through her beach bag. What should I bring with me? I’m not really going to need this life vest, am I? Even as the back rail of the boat sank beneath the surface, she convinced herself that maybe a pocket of air would get trapped in the cabin and keep the boat afloat until help arrived. But the urgency in Dan’s voice as he ordered her to jump shattered her fantasy of an easy rescue. No longer worried about what to take and what to leave behind, she floated off the back of the boat and into open water. The water was warm, but she shuddered as it surrounded her, overcome by the feeling of being exposed.
The archipelago of which St. Lucia is a part acts as a barrier against the strong trade winds that blow from the northeast and southeast. When those winds find a gap through which to push—like, say between St. Lucia and its neighbor to the north, Martinique—they speed up. And as the winds go, so go the currents, which get more unpredictable as they approach land and begin swirling and peeling off in various directions. In other words, it can be challenging to navigate the eastern coast of St. Lucia with a boat in stormy weather. Without one and at the mercy of the ocean, survival is a dicey proposition.
That’s assuming the Suskis and the Reel Irie crew were off the island’s eastern coast. Under the stormy skies, using the sun to orient themselves was out of the question. Dan had only intermittently caught sight of land while fishing, but now, between the low-hanging clouds and the 12-foot seas, he’d lost track of it. All he really knew was that after spending most of the morning on the Atlantic side, they’d been heading west when the boat started to sink. And if they’d already made it into the channel between St. Lucia and Martinique, the fast-moving currents could wash them right past land and out into open sea. Traveling in a straight line from there, the next closest beach was on Nicaragua—more than 1,500 miles away.
For the time being, Captain Joseph wanted to stay put. Before abandoning ship he’d called a friend in Rodney Bay to relay the boat’s coordinates, and he assured the Suskis that, even in this weather, rescue would arrive in less than 45 minutes. His calm was comforting, and Kate’s heart, which had hammered against her ribs just minutes earlier as she contemplated leaving the sinking boat, began to slow. Having calmed down, she turned her attention to first mate Cooper, who appeared to be in shock, shivering and struggling to keep his eyes open.
As Joseph tried to collect their belongings floating nearby, they waited, treading water with the help of their life vests. Tossed up and down on the rolling seas, they watched the Reel Irie slip under the surface, stern first, until all that was left was the narrow bow pulpit, which stuck up out of the water like a lone finger. And then, without a sound, it was gone too.
Bruce Hackshaw was about to sit down to lunch at his home near Rodney Bay Marina when his phone rang. His family had captained charters off of St. Lucia for more than six decades, and normally at this time of day he’d be out helping tourists hook tuna and marlin. But he had no interest in being on the water that gray Sunday. “Weather like that, it was not weather to go out on a boat,” he would later explain. “I wouldn’t say it was proper weather to be outside with tourists.”
The man on the other end of the line, a friend who happened to be in the marina at the time, spoke quickly: “Something must be wrong. People are jumping in their boats and taking off with a lot of speed.” Hackshaw called his twin brother and business partner, Andrew, who made his own calls and learned about the Reel Irie’s fate. Within minutes, Bruce was down at the marina, pulling one of his five sportfishers away from the dock and heading toward the Atlantic side of the island.
Like the other charter fishermen who had joined in the search, Hackshaw had little information to work with: The boat was a 33-foot Blackfin Sportfisherman, carrying a two-man crew and two passengers. And its last known location was roughly 12 miles off the east coast of the island. It was about 1pm, less than an hour since the boat went down, but in those seas the survivors could have drifted more than a mile. And they’d drift even farther before he got there. So the best he could hope for was to spot debris and follow it to them. Maybe, if he was lucky, they had flares.
Hackshaw figured he had five hours before he ran out of daylight, what little there was with the storm. And he knew that if he or someone else didn’t find those people before the sun went down, their chances of lasting the night dropped significantly. The Caribbean had begun its annual warming, but they could still succumb to hypothermia if they spent too much time in the water. And then there were the more immediate threats. A ship could fail to spot them while crossing the channel and run them over. Or they could be picked off by sharks.
Hackshaw had seen enough hammerheads and tiger sharks on his charter runs to know that they were always lurking below the surface. The latter posed the biggest threat to the crew and passengers. Big, aggressive, and not terribly picky about what they eat, tiger sharks have a well-earned reputation as man-eaters. Only great whites attack humans more frequently.
As he raced east, cutting through waves and squinting through the spray, something kept gnawing at the back of his mind. This kind of thing didn’t happen on St. Lucia. And he knew Griffith Joseph. Hackshaw had worked with him in the past and knew him to be a safe, responsible captain. Why did he take tourists out in this weather?
The boats were taking too long to get there. By Dan’s count, it had been at least two hours since the Reel Irie sank—twice as long as the captain said it would take for help to arrive—and he was starting to get anxious. How strong are the currents? What if Joseph’s friends are looking in the wrong place? He’d spotted a handful of small planes, but they’d all been miles away and it was impossible to know if they were part of the search effort. Kate waved a water bottle, hoping it might catch the light and alert the pilots, but there was so little light to catch. “Do you think they saw us?” she asked, spitting out the water that kept slapping her in the face. As a teenager, Dan took canoe and kayak classes in the Vermont wilderness, where he learned survival skills. Those lessons came back to him in a rush. “No,” he replied. “You’ll know if they see us because they’ll tip their wing.”
They had to start moving. Dan was convinced of that now. Even though everything he’d learned told him to stay put, he decided their best chance of making it was to head toward shore. He was a strong swimmer, thanks to those years of training for triathlons, and Kate was too. If they were going to make it, they’d have to do it themselves. Dan’s survival calculus didn’t allow for variables like help from others.
Joseph disagreed, insisting that they remain close to the coordinates he’d given his friend at the marina. But Dan was resolute, and there wasn’t much the captain could do to stop him. Earlier in the afternoon, at the top of a swell, Dan caught a glimpse of what he thought was the island, and the foursome began moving slowly in that direction.
Battered by waves, thrown from crest to trough, unable to see the horizon—it was like running in a dream, and it was hard to tell how much progress they were making. But then, miles ahead they spotted a helicopter hovering above the water. It must be looking for us, Dan thought, and he pushed the others to swim faster. Up until that point they’d taken a leisurely pace, trying to preserve their energy and stick together, but now Joseph and Cooper struggled to keep up. Each time Dan looked back, they’d fallen a little farther behind, until they disappeared altogether. Now the siblings were completely alone.
And just as suddenly as the helicopter had appeared, it was gone again. Kate felt the panic rise from her stomach, tightening her chest as it traveled. “How do we even know we’re going the right way?” she asked, struggling to mask her fear. “Can you feel the wind?” Dan replied. She nodded. “Remember how it feels and what direction it’s coming from. We’ll let that be our guide.”
Kate remembered hearing him say that before, on one of the sailing trips they’d taken in the San Juans after their mother died. It had happened so suddenly, unexpectedly. On April 11, 2009, Marianne Suski was with their father, helping their older brother and his family move into a new home in Virginia. That night, as Ron fell asleep, she sat next to him, watching Charlie Rose. When Ron woke up in the middle of the night, she was unresponsive, cold. Marianne had heart disease and her physician determined that she’d died of a heart attack. But she’d been managing the disease and was in otherwise good health, so her death felt all the more unfair.
Dan showed up at Kate’s the next morning, eyes puffy and red. “I just talked to Dad,” he said. “Mommy died last night.” The ground beneath Kate shifted. Her mom had always been there when she needed comfort, so who was she supposed to lean on now? Dan didn’t give her time to think about it. The tickets to Reagan National Airport were booked, the flight left in less than three hours, and they had to pack. Quickly. So as the room spun, Kate put her head down and moved forward.
Marianne was the star around which her husband and children orbited. She lived for building and maintaining her family, and each member was a part of the whole. After her death, the unit fell apart, and they had to see one another as individuals with all of the faults that Marianne had helped them ignore. Without her, they hurtled off in separate directions. David retreated to his family in Virginia. Ron withdrew, trying to adjust to life as a single man after more than 40 years of marriage. Dan and Kate found some solace in helping their father learn how to care for himself, teaching him simple things like how to shop for his own groceries. Their trips to the family’s home in West Hartford were less frequent, though, and the isolation they felt in Seattle became oppressive. So they turned to each other.
Rather than close ranks and shut out the world, they ventured out. Together. Marianne had always enjoyed planning those family trips to Ocean City and San Diego. Dan and Kate went farther, to Amsterdam, to Barcelona. Traveling distracted them from the pain, but it also brought them closer to each other and, by extension, to their mother.
One of those trips came back to Kate now, as she swam next to Dan. A year after Marianne died, they drove up to the San Juans for a liveaboard sailing trip. Dan went to sailing camp as a kid, and Kate had a little experience, but this would be an intense, learn-as-you-go excursion. Once out on the water, Kate was reactive, adjusting the sail when she felt the boat pull to one side or the other. Dan, on the other hand, would sense subtle changes in the wind and turn the sail at just the right time. “Feel the wind, Kate,” he would say. While she struggled to master it, she couldn’t help notice how his confidence met his skill.
Now, stranded in the Caribbean, swimming blindly for her life alongside her brother, she chose to push the doubts aside and trust him when he said he knew the way. And just like she had after her mother died, Kate put her head down and kept moving forward.
Night was falling, and the weather was getting worse. Bruce Hackshaw headed back to the marina without finding any proof that the Reel Irie’s crew or passengers had survived. He made plans to resume the search early the next morning, but by then—thanks to the storms and unpredictable currents—the search area would have expanded dramatically. A second day of looking would likely be perfunctory.
Dan and Kate guessed that the setting sun meant the search would be suspended too. And panic began to wash over them. Dan’s thoughts were dominated by the realization that if they were going to live, it would be because they found land on their own. So he focused on what lay ahead of them. Kate couldn’t help but think about what was below.
In 2002 she dove with sharks while traveling in Australia. Years before her visit, tour boats would drop chum off the bow, and passengers would scuba dive off the stern to watch the black-eyed predators feed. The practice was frowned upon by the time she visited, but the sharks were still attracted to the lights of anchored boats, and she could slip into the water to watch them circle.
Now, without any kind of craft to climb back onto, she remembered their frenzied movements. Earlier in the day she felt something large move past her foot, and she replayed the moment on a continuous loop in her head. Was it a shark? Would it come back? Would there be others? Waves of nausea overtook her and her breath came in short bursts. She needed to talk about it, to let the fear out before it pulled her down. But to say the word out loud—shark—would give her fear a name and make it real. Finally, as calmly as she could, she asked, “Do you think there are sharks here?” “Not in this part of the Caribbean,” Dan replied, not entirely convinced himself. He could tell she was scared, and he knew that if his answer was anything less than definitive, despair could overwhelm her.
Something large moved past her foot. Was it a shark? Would it come back? Would there be others?
Emotional equilibrium. When one was down, the other was up. When one was scared, the other was brave. That’s the way it had always been. As a kid on a trip to Ocean City, Dan had paced the boardwalk, weighing whether to ride the roller coaster for the first time. Lights whirled around him and children screamed with laughter. Kate grabbed his hand and pulled him with her as she ran to the ride, promising him he’d love it. He did—just like she said he would—and then he wanted to go again. Now it was his turn to take her hand when she was scared.
His strength buoyed her. For hours the voice in her head had grown louder, drowning out the crashing waves around her: We’re not going to make it. She beat back the fear by telling herself that she couldn’t die this way, that she wanted everyone—her family, her friends, anyone who read about their disappearance—to know that she fought for it.
But she kept going because she knew she had to for Dan. In a practical sense, if she gave in to the terror and the pain and the exhaustion, he’d want to pull her along, to make her keep going. And that would only slow him down. Eventually he’d have to let her go, and the guilt and the grief would overwhelm him. If he was going to survive, she had to as well. Kate knew all of that because that’s what she’d do if the roles were reversed.
With a thick layer of clouds to blot out the moon, they swam on in almost complete darkness, never quite sure they were going in the right direction. And then, up ahead, like a beacon for lost souls, a light cut through the night.
Something’s wrong, Jan Clausen thought as she finished packing for St. Lucia. It was Sunday afternoon, and Dan wasn’t answering his email. Which was weird because he was never far from a computer or his iPhone.
Clausen met Dan through a mutual friend not long after he moved to Seattle from New York in 2006. Through him she met Kate, and the three became travel partners, always ready to hop a plane for a quick adventure. She was there after the siblings’ mother died too, and it was Clausen who Dan called when he couldn’t cope with the anguish. “What do I do?” he asked. “You’re in shock,” she told him. “You need to find a safe place. Kate is in shock too, so go to her and talk through this together.” And over the next few months, she watched as the siblings took turns propping up each other as they struggled with the loss. They returned the favor two years later, lending Clausen support when her mom got sick and passed away.
There would be plenty of room in the house in St. Lucia, and Clausen was Dan’s first choice when thinking of someone to join him and Kate. She didn’t have to give the invitation much thought before saying yes—but she did balk at the idea of going deep-sea fishing. She’d chartered a boat off of San Francisco a few years prior and struggled on the rough seas, so she suggested that the Suskis go on Sunday, before she was scheduled to arrive.
The fishing trip didn’t cross her mind, though, as she wondered why Dan hadn’t responded. Maybe he’d been so busy having fun that he just forgot. Before bed she tapped out another quick message on her phone, just in case. Okay, I’m boarding my flight tomorrow, and I’m officially worried about you. What’s going on?
The lights weren’t getting any closer. Arm over arm, stroke after stroke, Dan pulled himself toward them, but they still seemed so far away. He wasn’t imagining them, because Kate saw them too. But maybe it was an optical illusion. Maybe it was a slow-moving boat. The relief he’d felt upon seeing them was intense, personal—he really was leading them in the right direction!—but now that they didn’t seem to be getting closer, hope began to drain from him. Not only had he been wrong, but his mistake was going to cost Kate her life too. The emotional swing was so crushing, it almost would have been better if he hadn’t seen them at all.
It was Kate’s turn to lie; she could tell they were trapped in a current that was sweeping them alongside the light but wouldn’t let them get any closer to it. “We’re totally making progress,” she said. “I’ve been watching for the last hour, and we’ve definitely changed our position in relation to them.” She wanted to believe the lie too. After more than 12 hours in the water, her shoulders and ankles felt like they might rip from her body. The edges of her life vest—the very thing meant to keep her alive—were digging bloody abrasions into the front of her neck and around her shoulders. The pounding from the salt water had cracked her lips and swelled her tongue.
Suddenly the water’s surface began to glow, as if lit from below. As Dan and Kate pushed forward the eerie, green light enveloped them, bathing their faces. Then Kate recognized what it was. “Phosphorescence!” she shouted, almost giddily. They’d happened upon a huge swath of bioluminescent plankton, and once again she was back on the sailboat with Dan in the months after their mother’s death. At night they’d take the dinghy out to enjoy the water in peace, and along the way the motor would churn up the tiny, glimmering sea life. Seeing it now they were revived by the memory of those healing moments.
Exhausted but heartened, she and Dan turned their attention back to the light they’d been swimming toward and started paddling again, almost willing themselves home. Eventually they escaped the current that had held them, and the light did start getting closer. But as they made their way, Dan and Kate began to hear waves. Loud waves. Scary-loud waves. They saw the white, foamy edges of the water first and then the steep cliff face the water was hitting. “This is it! We made it. We can totally climb this,” Dan yelled. “Maybe you can,” Kate answered. She was 10 years old again, standing atop the cliffs at Point Loma in San Diego with her family, watching the waves throw themselves against the jagged rocks below. The water was beautiful from above, as it rushed forward recklessly. But then 10-year-old Kate pictured herself caught in the swell, hurtling against those rocks, and her knees buckled.
The crash of the waves brought her back to the present. They had to look for an easier way to get on shore. “We’ll swim until we can’t anymore,” she told Dan. “And if we haven’t found anything better by then, we’ll climb.” Her shoulders were so sore, she’d been reduced to dog-paddling, but now she swam harder—maybe harder than she had all night. She didn’t want to be wrong, and she didn’t want to be the reason they didn’t make it out of the water.
Then the cliffs fell away, and just enough moonlight poked through the clouds for the siblings to see their salvation: a small strip of land tucked in between two rocky outcroppings and surrounded by trees. It almost didn’t seem real. Dan and Kate rode a wave onto shore, crawled under the trees and out of the wind that felt even colder now that they were out of the water, and huddled under sea grass to keep warm.
They guessed it was a little after 2 in the morning, nearly 14 hours after the Reel Irie sank. They’d swum almost 12 miles, through a storm so strong it intimidated the experienced boat captains who were looking for them. They’d managed not to attract the attention of sharks—most likely because the high seas had masked the sound of their swimming. They’d pushed each other when survival seemed impossible. And now it was time to rest.
Tapion Hospital in St. Lucia’s capital city of Castries is only 36 miles from Hewanorra International Airport. But the drive along narrow, winding Micoud Highway takes more than an hour. The wait was interminable for Jan Clausen. While she sat on a layover in Miami, Dan had called to tell her what happened. He was so calm that she almost couldn’t grasp just how dire the situation had been. But the more she thought about it on her five-hour flight, the more anxious she got. Freaked out, even. And now that she was on the island, she just wanted to see her friends and know that they really were okay.
Dan and Kate were in separate wards. Clausen went to Kate first, and her breath caught in her throat when she walked into the room. Kate’s skin was sallow and pale, her eyes were dark, her lips dry and cracked. Tears ran down Clausen’s face, both from the shock of seeing Kate like that and from the joy of knowing that she was okay. Through her own tears, Kate managed to croak, “It’s good to see a face from home.”
Across the hospital, Dan lay in his own bed, processing the news he’d received earlier in the day from another Rodney Bay–based charter fisherman.
After resting on the beach for two hours, Dan and Kate began hiking west, hoping to find civilization. The forest, full of prickly bushes and dense underbrush that dug at their bare feet, eventually gave way to a dirt road. There, outside of the village of La Bourne, they ran into a farmer named Benoit, who called the police and stayed with the Suskis, feeding them crackers and water.
Before setting out on their hike, though, Dan had hung his life vest on a tree along the beach, to mark where they’d come ashore. When he mentioned that fact to the authorities, they relayed the information to fishermen still searching for Griffith Joseph and Tim Cooper. And after spotting the orange life vest from the water, Bruce Hackshaw recalibrated his search. At noon—24 hours after the Reel Irie sank—he found the captain and first mate, just a few miles from shore. “Griffith was fine,” Hackshaw later explained. “Tim was a mess. I reckon a few more minutes and that would have been the end of him.” Not only had Dan’s faith in his own survival skills seen him and his sister through the night, but it’s likely his clear thinking on the beach saved Joseph and Cooper too.
The Reel Irie was never recovered. And no one is quite sure why it sank.
Cheating death at sea was only the first step of survival for Dan and Kate Suski. They returned to St. Lucia in November 2013 to thank those who had helped them and to try to find closure. It was elusive.
For more than a year after her 14-hour swim in the Caribbean, Kate lived in fear. She’d been active all her life—skiing and figure skating as a kid, running as an adult—but even the thought of going out for a jog in those first few months after St. Lucia sent her into a spiral of emotionally crippling hypotheticals. What if I blow out my knee? What if I trip and break my foot? What if I fall into traffic? She came home from work, shut herself in her house, and watched TV. When she did go out, it was usually to see Dan. He moved back to Seattle shortly after the incident and was the only one who could understand the panic that still overwhelmed her.
Dan struggled too, gripped by intense anxiety that made otherwise manageable situations impossible. Less than a decade earlier he’d been working on his pilot’s license; now the thought of getting on a plane brought cold sweats.
Therapists coaxed both of them back out into the world, encouraging them to recount the story out loud, over and over, focusing on shorter segments of it until the memories stopped being experiences to relive and became nothing more than moving pictures.
It wasn’t until almost the second anniversary of that day in St. Lucia that the healing really began. Kate had to move forward again, and in late 2014, a few months after selling her house, she left Seattle for a nearly nine-month trip around the world. She hopped from the British Virgin Islands to Italy and on to Istanbul, Nepal, Kathmandu, and the whole of Southeast Asia. Dan joined her in Indonesia, where, together, they decided it was time to start living again. They were going to get into the water and finally confront the fears that had stalked them for nearly two years.
They’d been on the water since St. Lucia, but this would be different; they were going to dive into it. Kate sat on the edge of the boat, heart racing, bracing for the shock that she’d felt when she slipped off the Reel Irie, the uneasy feeling of being submerged and untethered. In a weird way, though, it was invigorating, and with a sudden burst of confidence, she fell back into the water and disappeared under the surface.
Dan waited a second, and then he slipped under too.