The storm before the calm
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 live—I actually created a vision for my future while floating out there—and 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.
Deborah Kiley

"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 of sharks.

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 not.

"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' timely rescue.

"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 benefit others."

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 extinction.

"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."


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