The following narrative was authored by Chris Kavanaugh, who has graciously shared his experience to benefit others.
Advisory Added June 2, 2011: A decade after this article was posted, questions have been raised about the authenticity of this incident. You can read about that here. As the author is no longer available to investigate these claims, and other issues of substance are more pressing, I have decided to provide to readers of this article this notice that this incident may not be authentic. Regardless, the events described do involve themes that are all too common in many survival incidents and the anlysis and lessons leaned retain validity in that regard, so the decison has been made to retain this on ETS with this cautionary advisement.
- Doug Ritter
The California Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura, California, are rich in history and natural wonders; Indians, Spanish galleons and Russian fur sealers, dwarf mastodon and whale fossils, and rare flora and fauna. I joined an archaeological excavation to one of the islands in late May. I literally had one hour's notice when my old field partner, Bob, called me on Friday and asked me to replace a no-show. The excavation was scheduled to last ten days.
I quickly assembled clothing, sleeping bag, and my field tool kit. My pocket survival kit (in a tobacco tin), first aid kit (in a duplicate tin with a peened cross on lid) and Sawyer Extractor (snake and insect bite kit) went into three pockets. A folding Myerchin knife, whistle and signal mirror went on a neck lanyard. A sheath knife, two canteens and three Mainstay survival ration bars completed my gear. At the last minute I spotted a mislaid twin-pack of sponges and stowed it in my fourth pocket as an afterthought.
Bob arrived with rest of the crew. I noticed his old Woodsman's Pal (Pro Tool Industries ed.), meant for chopping wood and the like, and joked about rare island grasses that a Swiss Army Knife could handle. This produced cold looks from the two grad students. Bonnie, our fifth member, held up a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife and gave me a big smile.
On the way to the marina I learned that Roger and Jeremy, the two grad students, had recently attended a "wilderness retreat" under a native teacher and could "live with the land." Their packs boasted a huge Indian Kukhri (also spelled Kukri) and a hefty Russian Spetznaz Special Forces Survival Machete.
At the Marina I learned that we would cross immediately on a small charter boat, our supplies would follow. I asked if we had a float plan filed, a field radio and a first aid kit. Bob replied it was a Park Service job, they knew where we were going to be and the radio and first aid kit were with the supplies.
I advised the Harbor Master to expect our radio contact and filled our 5 canteens(Bob forgot his). I could hear the SNAFU Gremlin giggling as we boarded.
Donning a lifejacket,the skipper asked if I was afraid of the water. I replied "Yes, Semper Paratus" (Always Ready, the U.S. Coast Guard motto and anthem). He immediately reduced speed and yielded to a sailboat well off our tack. We made landfall early in the afternoon. The supplies did not.
The group's attitude at this point was one of inconvenience. Roger decided to build a fire. I watched as he unsheathed his huge Kukhri. "Uh guys, this island is all grassland" I quipped, pointing to the abundant Driftwood on the beach. On return from my third, solo, driftwood gathering trip I found Roger and Jeremy hacking away at the wood.
As the sun set and they became chilled due to the perspiration the chopping created, they really needed that fire. I passed out food bars, then gathered dried grass for additional tinder. Our five quarts of water were nearly depleted. Whatever wonders the island held, what it lacks is any water. I quietly talked to Bob about our situation. He was sure the supplies would show up the next day. I gave it until noon. Everyone slipped into their sleeping bags. The serpentine lights of the Pacific Coast Highway faintly twinkled from the mainland. So near, yet so far.
We woke a few hours before dawn, the grass soaked with fog drip. I remembered the sponges and gathering the canteens, began collecting. The sponges readily sopped up the dew from the grasses and I squeezed out the water into the canteens.
This method had never been very rewarding, in my experience, but it's all we had. I was soon joined by a curious Bonnie. Handing her a sponge and a canteen, we kept a methodical pace until sunrise. I was surprised, but quite pleased to find all five canteens nearly full. I added a Potable Aqua tablet from my survival kit to each canteen, then Bonnie and I began building three driftwood piles. On our final trip back to camp we found one pile blazing away. "Hey Chris, why three separate piles? That's dumb!" they all exclaimed nearly in unison. I distributed the now sanitized water and Mainstay rations and explained the universal distress signal--three of anything.
Temperatures were in the low 80's during the day with constant sea breezes. It was cooler when the sun went down and considerably cooler in the pre-dawn hours with the marine layer and accompanying fog drip.
I told everyone to sip their water throughout the day and to avoid overexertion to conserve. Again Bob protested, expecting the imminent arrival of our supplies.
We hiked to a high vantage point and I taught Bonnie how to use a signal mirror. We flashed several passing aircraft and pleasure boats without any apparent response. That evening my Spark-Lite fire starter ignited our three signal fires. We eventually bedded down for the night.
We were again all up before daybreak gathering water and driftwood. Suddenly, Jeremy let out a scream. He had waded into the water, impulsively and barefoot, to seek shellfish, but found a stingray. The Sawyer Extractor was used to good effect, but he was still very ill; vomiting and rapidly dehydrating.
We fashioned a lean-to from my garbage bags and 15 feet of parachute cord and duct tape I had wrapped on my knife sheath. Bonnie took the signal mirror and went off to try to attract attention. Bob and Roger gathered more driftwood. My CPR and First Aid certification were current, but I felt as inadequate as my dwindling first aid materials. There was little I could do except make Jeremy as comfortable as possible. We reduced our water intake to augment Jeremy's supply in order to combat dehydration from his vomiting.
Bob and Roger both decided to suck on rocks. I felt it was my turn to be sarcastic, but decided it was better to maintain our thin reserve of group harmony. I sat up that night with Jeremy, adding more fuel to our signal fires until the flames were leaping over my head.
The sun rose on our routine of gathering water and driftwood. We all looked up in unison to the sound of a marine engine and air horn. Slowly approaching was the Park Service patrol boat. We were rescued!
It turned out that the supply ship had been given our departure date from the island as our arrival date. Our contact had then left for the weekend without confirming that the supplies were delivered. Our signal fires had finally attracted the attention of a pilot of a commercial airline flight inbound to Los Angeles International at approximately 6:45 p.m. PDT, just after sunset and about the same time the Harbormaster had made inquiries after we failed to check in.
Jeremy was evacuated and Roger promptly quit. With our supplies finally Delivered, I remained to complete the project with Bonnie and Bob. I radioed in everyday for the remaining ten days!
As a postscript, Bonnie is enrolling in a survival course and Bob still hasn't secured our paychecks. The pilot who reported our signal fires turned out to be an acquaintance with military survival training. Finally, the Park Service called this past week. The approach of summer has pushed the fog seaward of the island. The grass is dry.
NOTE: Further information about the incident and comments about lessons learned below were obtained via a series of email exchanges with the author after receipt of the story above.
The scenario is classic; anticipations unfulfilled result in an unexpected stranding. It doesn't take a plane crash or a boat sinking. Nor do you have to be a hundred miles from help. In this case, Chris' training and preparedness made a big difference in how the group fared. A little preparation and fundamental survival knowledge goes a long way. The skills and simple materials that Chris used don't represent an advanced level of knowledge. Any good basic survival course should leave you with these skills.
It says something scary about the type and quality of instruction that Jeremy and Roger apparently received during their wilderness retreat that they were better equipped with over-confidence than with the elementary knowledge they needed. While there are a lot of very good survival schools, as with any business there are always those that sell more than they can deliver. Without some references, however, few of us are equipped to evaluate how good a school may be or how well we are equipped after instruction. Ignorance is bliss and that is what the less reputable or the misguided prey upon.
There are as many ways to instill survival knowledge as there are people teaching these skills. No matter if the school is grounded in some mystical foundation or a philosophy of becoming one with nature or one against nature, the fundamentals, the elementary knowledge and skills that would have stood these young men in good stead during their brief ordeal, are nearly universal. Moreover, while survival instruction should instill in you the confidence that you can deal with an emergency, it should also provide some sense of limitations and the importance of being prepared. Chris noted, "I was horrified at the lack of gear anyone had."
Easily the most important lesson we can take away from this experience is that most simple of concepts, the advantage of being prepared for the unexpected. Chris' experience in the Coast Guard first instilled that key concept. Later on he expanded his knowledge, attending various survival and wilderness schools. This training gives an appreciation for the rewards of having on your person some basic equipment and supplies. Thus, when the call came his first instinct was to grab the equipment and supplies he might possibly need if things didn't go as planned. It wasn't a case of prescience, it was just his training and experience kicking in that ensured he would be "equipped to survive."
The boys' and Bob's choice of edged tools is telling. Chris noted, "my first notable observation was their cutlery." It wouldn't have been notable if it didn't stick out like a sore thumb. A large knife isn't an immediate indictment of someone's capabilities, but lack of a complementary small blade and a questionable choice for the large blade is something else. As Chris wryly observed, the island they were traveling to is almost exclusively covered in grassland. It's always a good idea to adapt your gear to the environment with which you'll likely have to deal.
The pair of sponges that Chris grabbed as an afterthought proved fortuitous. However, had he not grabbed them it would not have altered much except to change what they used to gather the water. Any sort of absorbent material such as a piece of clothing could have, and has been used. Gathering dew to provide water is one of those fundamental skills that's included in virtually every wilderness survival manual and text.
Chris noted that there are some things you need to be mindful of when doing so. "Care must be taken to avoid poisonous plants. While many require ingestion to cause problems, others, such as poison oak, emit toxic oils. Bird droppings can also compromise quality." Survival improvisation is almost always a matter of compromises. Part of learning survival skills is learning what traps to watch out for as you improvise to survive. If someone doesn't point out the traps, be sure to ask.
Which leads us right to Jeremy's misstep, the kind that could prove fatal in some other circumstances. The sea can provide a bounty for those who know what to do. However, another one of those fundamental rules you learn in a basic course that includes survival at the sea shore is not to wade barefoot into the water. There just isn't much you can do about such an injury with limited medical supplies, as Chris was all too aware.
This goes back to a basic premise applicable to all survival situations--think first! Many, if not most injuries in the wilderness occur from doing before thinking. That's bad enough under the best of circumstances. In a survival situation it can prove fatal. When there's a group, you should take advantage of everyone's experience before doing something that is not in your area of expertise, and even then it can't hurt to bounce ideas off others. Discussion beforehand can save a lot of trouble later.
Mind you, there was little need for anyone to be worrying about food given their immediate situation. They still had survival rations and it's another fundamental bit of survival lore that food is the least of your worries in most situations. Food certainly wasn't worth the risk of injury at that point.
As far as food goes, in an interesting side note, Chris said he didn't have fishing equipment in his kit, it was on order at the time. Some hooks, swivels, sinkers and fishing line are typical contents for small personal kits, used for both fishing and catching birds. Jerremy's Russian Spetznaz Survival Machete has a hollow handle that comes with three hook, line and sinker sets as well as three strike anywhere matches, all wrapped up in a small plastic bag. While Chris noted, correctly, that fishing can be "problematical from a beach anyway," he also explained that the beach was littered with ancient Indian shell-carved hooks and stone sinkers that might have been used in a pinch. You just never know what useful tools you may find, if you look around carefully.
The group dynamics during the episode provide some interesting contrasts and lessons. Bob and Chris were the elders in the group, 48 and 47 years old respectively. Jeremy and Roger were both 25, Bonnie was the youngest at 21.
Bob was the titular leader of the group and obviously something of an eternal optimist who preferred denial to recognizing that there were issues that needed his attention. One can imagine how things might have been different if Chris hadn't been present to assume leadership.
Denial of reality can easily worsen a situation. Failure to take action at the earliest possible opportunity generally results in squandered resources and opportunities. The lesson is that if something isn't going as planned, you shouldn't expect things to somehow turn out okay without intervention. Murphy's Law is one of life's more consistently reliable laws. Not quite as reliable as gravity, but close. If it turns out that it is only a minor hiccup, you've lost little by taking or planning action. If you don't do something, odds are that things will get worse because Murphy loves a sucker and the longer things go, the more opportunities for things to become even worse offer themselves.
A little bit of paranoia is healthy and serves as what we often call the "survival instinct." Chris assumed the worst when the supply boat didn't arrive. "I took the opposite view of Bob and assumed the damned thing had sunk or been busted for pot," he recalled. He also set himself a deadline for further action, "I set an arbitrary time limit of noon to start signaling for help." Thus, Chris was controlling the situation, the situation wasn't controlling him.
For all their bravado early on, Chris remarked, "Roger and Jeremy accepted the routine I set. Jeremy and Roger stressed out quickly when they realized we were in a real (survival) situation. I think it was a lot of the macho youthful male realizing that there are bigger forces in the world that bite back."
While Chris commented that "I think my slender resources and knowledge made it my ball game," it may have been more effective if Chris had assumed command in a direct fashion because Bob's leadership wasn't effective or even apparent. It might have been better if Chris and Bob had a heart-to-heart discussion and then Bob announced that given the situation and Chris' experience and equipment, he was thereafter in charge.
Sometimes you have to take the bull by the horns and state the obvious, "I've got the training and experience and equipment, so I'm the logical person to be in charge." In other situations more tact may be in order, it may not be politically possible to assume command, but you can work with and through whomever is officially in charge. This is analogous to the situation in many military combat units where the officer in charge uses the more experienced sergeant's knowledge to his and the unit's benefit.
It's always important that somebody is in charge and makes decisions when there is a group. A democracy isn't usually the best way to manage a crisis. By the same token, it behooves us to ascertain who is best equipped to lead in such situations. Just as it may not be the person who's normally in charge, it may also not be you.
Bonnie seems to have exhibited the best attitude one could hope for from a neophyte in such a situation. "Bonnie was the most helpful and cheerful one of the bunch," noted Chris. She remained upbeat and positive and made every effort to assist as best she could. She "has a very analytical and curious mind set" and was ready and willing to do whatever needed doing, without having to be asked in many cases. This made her Chris' best asset and someone he didn't have to worry about, despite her being the youngest and least experienced in the group.
In a high stress situation, which virtually any survival experience is, the potential exists for interpersonal relations to come apart at the seams. It may take a conscious effort to keep the peace. Chris remarked, "I tend to make cracks that people take offence to easily. I was smart enough under the circumstances to shut up and ignore the others remarks." Chris' understanding of the importance of maintaining a working group is evident in his commitment to bite his tongue when necessary. Even so, Chris noted that "I believe another day and there would have been some personal fireworks owing to stress."
There's a popular expression that says "timing is everything." When it comes to survival it is often very true. Each of the islands in the park is supposed to have a ranger on site, but there was none. While the islands see a fair number of tourists and campers, none were visiting or visited during this episode. The islands are also popular cruising grounds, and the waters are often thick with boats, but Chris reported sighting few boaters.
Success in signaling is often as much chance as anything. You have to hope that there's someone out there to see your signal and that they recognize it for what it is, a cry for help. Considering how many people are oblivious to their surroundings, that's not great odds. Someone who has had survival or search and rescue training is far more likely to recognize a survival signal such as mirror flashes or signal fires, as opposed to an aerial flare which is more universally understood to be a signal. The more potential viewers there are, the better your odds. The more time spent signaling, the better your odds.
The airline pilot who noticed the signal fires had previous military survival training. He recognized them for what they were. Signal fires require constant attention to keep them burning brightly. That means maintaining a watch through the night. Chris recalled, "the first night they were completely extinguished by daylight. I made the piles progressively larger and I realized I had to attend them with more care. Between watching Jeremy and limiting activity during the day this was no problem." In other circumstances, it would be prudent to rotate the watch so everyone got some sleep and shared in the responsibilities. That can also be important as a way to keep everyone involved and maintaining morale.
A few weeks later and the grass was dry. Timing again. Does that mean they would have gone without water? No, there were other options available. Chris commented, "my contingency plan, had we remained, was to dig some seeps. We all had #5 Marshalltown trowels in our excavation kits and our latrine holes were quite moist below the root layer." Another alternative near the ocean is a solar still, "I probably could have rigged a still. I had the basic materials." A solar still set up to desalinate water is much more productive than a typical desert solar still, which in my experience aren't generally very productive.
It is worth noting that despite the fact that the signal fires were reported at approximately 6:45 p.m., and they were only a few miles off the coast, it wasn't until sun-up that rescue arrived. The lesson is that even after you are sighted, and if even you receive acknowledgement of the sighting, you may have to wait some time for rescue. Depending upon your location, conditions and available resources, it may be quite some time. You must maintain a survival mind set until rescue and more importantly, until you, yourself are rescued. In some situations you may have to wait your turn and things have been known to go wrong during the interim as survivors await a subsequent pickup.
Bob's failure to file a float plan and dependence upon others to look after their interests was poor planning. Never leave for anywhere without making sure someone responsible knows what's planned and when to expect your contact or return. Chris' discussion with the Harbormaster might well have saved the day, had their signal not been noticed.
It is entirely possible that a cellular phone might have brought a very quick end to the affair, if they had one. "With the almost addictive use of the things here, that was my first question to the group. Nobody did!" explained Chris. While generally considered only effective over very short range, cell phones have proven to be life savers for considerable distances in the right circumstances, from a high point and/or with a clear shot to a tower. Also, had they a VHF radio, marine or aviation, or even CB or SSB handheld, or an emergency beacon (121.5 or 406 MHz), it would also likely have been over in short order.
Chris had the survival skills the situation required, yet in summing up the experience he commented, "this was truly a learning experience. The more I learn, the more I realize what I don't know!" Wise words for all of us to remember.
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Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
Email: Doug Ritter
First Published: July 8, 2001
Revision: 04 June 2, 2011
Narrative © 2001 Chris Kavanaugh - All rights reserved
© 2001 Douglas S. Ritter & Equipped To Survive Foundation, Inc.
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