The storm before the
After surviving a near-death experience at
sea, alumna Deborah Kiley uses what she learned to help others
by Sherry Wodraska Neaves
Watching television as the attacks
of Sept. 11 played over and over, alumna Deborah Kiley was horrified
at the carnage. To compound the emotional impact, she kept flashing
back to an experience that almost took her life, but instead set
the stage for all that was to follow.
A Throckmorton girl who learned to
sail on Possum Kingdom Lake, Kiley was an adventurous 24 in 1982
when she signed on with a crew to deliver the 60-foot yacht Trashman
from Maine to Florida. Suddenly, a storm blew up and sank the boat
about 60 miles off the North Carolina coast.
Adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, crammed
into a rubber dinghy with four others, Kiley discovered an extraordinary
will to live. After five days at sea, when a Russian freighter finally
spotted the tiny craft, only two survivors remained.
"Three things allowed me to
live when others died," Kiley recalls now. "My incredible
will to live, my vision to liveI actually created a vision
for my future while floating out thereand grace, talking to
God. I always had a lot of hope and a lot of faith.
Deborah Kiley, right, survived five days
at sea after her yacht sank. Three of the five crew members
died. Here's what the life-altering experience taught her:
Go with your gut.
Know your surroundings
and look for the obstacles and the opportunities.
Act responsibly because
life will hold you accountable.
Look for gifts of grace
and remember to say thank you for them.
Possess the will to live
and a vision for the future.
"My reality was that the odds
were way stacked against me. But my expectation was to live."
Initially, all five crewmates made
it to the dinghy. But poor choices and lack of preparation led some
to their deaths. Capt. John Lippoth and crew member Mark Adams gave
in to their thirst and drank salt water, then became delusional
and decided to swim for shore.
Instead, they swam into a school
Meg Mooney, the other woman on Trashman,
sailed as a passenger, not a working crew member. For her the outing
was to be a pleasure cruise. As the boat went down, she became entangled
in the rigging, suffering deep cuts on her legs. The other four,
all experienced sailors, knew to avoid the wire cables. Meg did
"It's almost impossible to survive
in an environment you know nothing about," Kiley said. "Meg
had the will to live, but her cuts went to the bone. She eventually
died of blood poisoning the night before we were rescued."
Fear not or die
As the parched days and frigid nights crept past,
Kiley and Brad Cavanaugh fought to hold on.
"You have to really focus on the here and now in those kinds
of situations," Kiley said. "You absolutely cannot panic.
You cannot let fear take over or you cross that fine line between
sanity and insanity.
"The hardest thing is to stay in reality all the time. You
have to fight off the delusions. To do that, as things got worse,
I said the Lord's Prayer over and over again. I knew that if I could
say the words, I was still sane."
Even though the situation was desperate, Kiley experienced serendipity
throughout the ordeal.
Going down in the Gulf Stream meant that the water, though full
of sharks, was warm, not deathly cold. The seaweed Kiley gathered
for food and covering grows only in warm water. And, the greatest
blessing of all: Even Cold War politics couldn't stop the Russians'
"A Russian freighter, at the height of the Cold War. That's
what I call a gift of grace wrapped in funky paper," Kiley
said. "They were the greatest people."
For several years after the Trashman disaster,
Kiley tried to get on with her life. She married and had two children.
Plagued by nightmares, though, she fought to exorcise her ghosts.
Finally, in 1994, she wrote everything down in a book first published
as Albatross and recently reissued as Untamed Seas.
In 1997 her story was the subject of the ABC-TV movie Two Came
Back, starring Melissa Joan Hart.
Education to the rescue
Interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and Larry King, Kiley became a kind
of survivor spokeswoman. Still, she wondered how to reach more people
with her message. Deciding that a college degree would add legitimacy
to her work and weight to her words, she enrolled at UTA, creating
her own interdisciplinary degree in media dynamics.
Dover Binder, one of Kiley's Honors College advisers, remembers
her as "phenomenal."
"I always found Deborah's company delightful, energetic and
most of all inspirational," Binder said. "I remember thinking
that it was such a privilege to speak with her, yet she sought only
to share her amazing experiences in ways that would encourage and
At graduation in 1999, Kiley again celebrated survival.
"I can't even tell you what this degree means to me,"
she said. "UTA did everything it could to ensure that I got
through the program. I just love UTA. I am so thankful and feel
so blessed the school was there. They really wanted to see me succeed."
Today, Cavanaugh, the other survivor, races yachts
around the world, while Kiley reaches out to other survivors of
life-threatening experiences as a motivational speaker. Now, she
says, we must all be survivors.
"We have to adapt to this new environment. This is a new United
States. My model of survival is that stress is what occupies the
gap between your realities and your expectations. It's a species'
inability to adapt to the stress of its environment that leads to
"Survival is full of stress. Survival is full of pain. Learn
how to manage stress and you'll live a full life. Let stress take
over? It will kill you."
One aspect of the World Trade Center attacks continues to reinforce
her faith. "Survival involves amazing grace. It's not just
coincidence. You'll never put your finger on exactly why you survived.
You're not better. You're not worse. You only know that it's changed
your life forever.
"My experience on Trashman was hell. But it can be made into
heaven. Every day when I wake up, even if it starts out badly, I
can always find a way to make it better."