Tips from those who survived against the odds


The Downs Family were fast asleep in their berth on the United Fruit Company freighter Heredia as it steamed 40 miles off Louisiana on its way to New Orleans. The air on this May evening in 1942 was warm and seas were calm, and the family had gone to bed anticipating a morning arrival in port. 

After a year of working in Central America, Ray Downs was glad to be heading back to the U.S. with his family — wife Ina, 8-year-old Sonny and 11-year-old Lucille. None of the family members, or even the crew aboard Heredia, knew they were being stalked.

A German U-boat, U-506, commanded by 29-year-old Erich Wurdemann, had the freighter in the cross-hairs of its periscope. At approximately 0200, the commander ordered two torpedoes fired at Heredia. When they hit the ship, most of the 61 souls on board were killed. Incredibly, the Downs family all survived, despite the fact that they were blown or swept in different directions when the second torpedo hit. 

The survival story of the Downs family, and the daring patrol of Erich Wurdemann, are featured in my new co-written book So Close to Home. This is my seventh book about survival at sea, and I’ve learned that survivors — especially those who overcame long odds in their quest for life — have much to teach us. Over the past 12 years, I’ve interviewed dozens of survivors from maritime disasters and learned that certain mindsets and techniques are not only useful in life-or-death situations but also for when sailors feel overwhelmed when a number of things go wrong.

Here are few tips I’ve learned from the very best survivors:

1. Suspend the past and future and instead do “the next right thing” when you feel overwhelmed. One survivor trait that surfaces time and time again, is that true survivors do not waste time thinking about how they got into such a position or who to blame. Nor do they waste time thinking about the distant future, which might lead to the “what’s the use” syndrome. Instead they look at what they need to do now to move them one step closer to their goal. 

The freighter Heredia.

One of the survivors I interviewed in my book Fatal Forecast, Ernie Hazard, survived for 50 hours being thrown about in a life raft in the cold North Atlantic during late November. When I asked him if he thought about how a poor weather forecast got him into his predicament or if he thought about the long odds of rescue, he smiled and just shook his head. “I was focused on something more immediate,” Ernie told me, “and that was what do I need to do in the next few minutes to keep living? Whenever my mind wandered back to the details of the accident, I’d get busy on solving a problem that was most pressing such as bailing water and repairing the leaks in the life raft. I knew rescue might be a long shot, but I was going to do my best until my last breath.”

2. To avoid getting trapped in a survival situation, do not project past outcomes to current situations. Our minds automatically size up a situation compared to something similar in our pasts. We then project the prior outcome into the new situation and determine that if we follow a similar course of action everything will be fine. But every situation is different, and we must force ourselves to look at each important event on its own merits. More than one survivor told me that the reason they got into the jam was that they had been in a similar situation and made it through all right. But, had they been paying attention to the more subtle clues, they would have realized that just one different variable can lead to a bad outcome. They now size up each situation on its own merits, and resist the urge to group it with past experiences and outcomes. 

3. Adrenaline can be the enemy. When adrenaline kicks in, it often prompts us to take quick action. Fight that urge for just a short period, and instead pause. Often times the simple act of pausing gives us time to think of several options, rather than leaping into action. When I researched the story of the fatality involved with the 45-foot Hardin ketch Almeisan, I concluded that adrenaline and the appearance that the boat was destined to sink caused the captain to begin preparations to board the life raft far too soon. The boat — even if damaged — is far safer than a life raft, and in the case of Almeisan the sailboat stayed afloat for several more hours after the life raft was deployed.

In a different tragedy, a Coast Guardsman named Ralph Stevens reflected back on a distress call that set into motion a series of events at sea that turned tragic during the Blizzard of ’78 off the Massachusetts coast. “When we heard an initial distress call from an oil tanker, everyone operated on adrenaline rather than taking a step back and analyzing the situation. I understand how in some circumstances there is no time to waste, but in this case the 600-foot oil tanker wasn’t going anywhere in that harbor. We should have taken a step back and looked at the big picture before sending so many men into harm’s way.”

4. Sticking to “the plan” can get you in big trouble. So many people force the situation to meet their plan or their schedule, and end up in trouble because of that thinking. It’s better to let the situation form your plan, and sometimes that might mean abandoning the schedule entirely and trying again down the road. Here’s where good communication skills are needed, as it’s important to explain to your crew that you are changing the plan, but not the objective. In my research I talked with boaters who had a goal to reach by a certain time. When bad weather moved in, they tended to ignore it because they were so focused on completing their plan in the allotted time. They look back now and say, “We should have turned back, altered our plan, and tried to complete our voyage on a different day or even a different time of year.” 

I researched the sinking of the tall ship Bounty in Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and found that behind the decision to try and “sail around the storm” the captain also was trying to stay on schedule for their arrival in St. Petersburg. I’ve learned schedules can get you killed, and one of the worse items you can have on a boat is a calendar. 

5. Two friends who served on the 95-foot Coast Guard cutter Cape George were ambushed by a storm that battered their ship with 115-mph winds and enormous seas. Often times a wave would knock the ship so far on its beam they wondered if it would ever come back up. The two Coasties thought they would never see land again, and credit their survival to their teamwork and especially their captain’s leadership. I naively said to one of the enlisted men, “The captain must have been a real take-charge guy.” My Coast Guard friend answered by saying, “Not really. He was calm, and even quiet, but when he needed to be decisive he was. What really impressed me is that he didn’t micro-manage or second-guess his crew during the dark hours of the storm. He let the helmsman steer the boat, he let the navigator set the course, but he was there for advice and his demeanor allowed all of us to do our best at our particular job as coolly as we could.” The lesson I learned from survivors within a group is that good leaders allow individuals to do their best without constantly second-guessing them.

6. When given the option, choose the decision that is reversible. True survivors and good leaders are not afraid to make a U-turn. They never say, “I’ve put so much time into this, I might as well keep going…” Instead they take a cold look at their decision and are not afraid to make modifications according to the situation unfolding before them. Celebrate the little achievements. Every true survivor takes the time to acknowledge little victories. They give themselves a pat on the back. So next time you are in a jam at sea, give yourself a pat on the back each time you accomplish even the smallest of tasks. 

7. And finally, circling back to the Downs family whose ship was sunk by the U-boat, I learned to never give up hope. The father, Ray Downs, eventually found Sonny and together, with two other survivors, they floated on a balsa wood raft. Life rafts in 1942 were nothing like they are today — this one looked like a sandbox. It was a perfect square, but hollow in the middle. Each person sat on one side of the square and their combined weight made the raft sink, so that only their heads and shoulders were out of the water. After 12 hours of being submerged in the Gulf of Mexico, little Sonny was near death from hypothermia. As dusk descended on the castaways the father tried to take Sonny’s mind off the cold, and he said let’s see how many seagulls we can count flying by. Ten minutes later, Sonny watched what he thought was a seagull getting larger and larger as it flew on a parallel course to them. It was a Navy PBY, and because they were looking in that direction the foursome all waved their shirts and the plane spotted them. Three hours later, a shrimp boat found them in the pitch black of night.

Michael Tougias is the author of several survival books, his latest is So Close To Home: A True Story of an American Family’s Fight for Survival During WWII. Visit to see where the author is giving a slide presentation on this event or the one chronicled in his bestseller The Finest Hours.

By Ocean Navigator