real life

“Blood-curdling. Then it was over." Deborah watched three of her friends die in shark-infested waters.

When Deborah Scaling Kiley boarded an 18-metre luxury yacht on a clear sunny day in October 1982, she was excited about the six-day voyage of fun and relaxation that lay ahead of her.

The 24-year-old experienced sailor, along with Captain John Lippoth, his girlfriend Meg Mooney, Brad Cavanagh and Mark Adams, had just been hired by a billionaire to deliver his yacht Trashman, from Maine to its new owner in Florida.

“The weather was beautiful, the boat was fun to steer,” Deborah recalled in the Discovery Channel’s 2005 series I Shouldn’t Be Alive. “It really didn’t get much better than it was right then.”

But two days into their trip, the blue skies darkened and a brewing storm loomed on the horizon. By nightfall, the yacht was in the middle of a violent tropical storm.

Deborah Scaling Kiley
Deborah Scaling Kiley relives her ordeal on Discovery Channel’s 2005 series I Shouldn’t Be Alive. Image: YouTube

As the rain battered down and the yacht rode the giant waves like an out of control rollercoaster, Meg fell heavily and slashed open her leg.

“You could see the bruising begin,” Deborah said. “I could just tell she was in so much pain.”

Water was soon pouring into the boat. There was nothing the five could do. The yacht was sinking.

They jumped into the swirling waters and clung onto a small dinghy as they watched the Trashman slip under the raging ocean, never to be seen again.

As they clambered into the dinghy, Mark felt something nudge his leg.

To Deborah’s horror, she made out what looked like torpedo-shaped bodies in the water. At first she thought they were fish, but then they moved closer.

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“I realised it was hundreds of sharks. They were everywhere,” she told I Shouldn’t Be Alive.

“The minute we got in there were fins everywhere in the water. I don’t mean like two or three, I mean ten, twenty. They were everywhere.”

Drawn from miles away by the scent of blood that had been seeping steadily from Meg’s gaping wound, the sharks were ready to hunt. From all directions, the giant creatures began ramming the tiny vessel as the five held on.

***

The storm passed and daylight eventually came, but all the five could see was the never-ending expanse of the blue sky melding into the blue ocean.

By the third day, all hope seemed lost.

Watch the trailer for Capsized: Blood In the Water, the Shark Week film based on this true story of survival. Post continues after. 

Video by Discovery UK

Meg's leg had become seriously infected and she was fading fast. Everyone was starving and unbearably thirsty. So desperate were John and Mark for water, they lent over the side of the boat and began gulping down the salty seawater.

It only took a few hours before the hallucinations took hold of John and Mark’s mind.

John suddenly said that he could see land. He couldn’t be convinced otherwise and dived into the water and starting swimming towards the patch of land that only he could see.

“All of a sudden we just hear this shrill scream,” Deborah recalled in I Shouldn’t Be Alive.

“Blood-curdling. Then it was over, silence. There was no crying, nothing. There was no doubt what got him. The sharks got him.”

Then Mark mentioned the he had to run to the store to buy beer and cigarettes. He stepped off the side of the boat.

“We feel this bam. And then we feel this bam again. There’s this frenzied attack and the sharks are eating Mark underneath the dinghy,” Deborah said. “It was without a doubt the most horrifying moment of my entire life.”

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***

Lying in a rubber boat that was filled with a fetid mixture of urine, puss, and blood, it soon became clear Meg was close to dying. Her wound had festered to such a state that her leg had turned black; the infection had caused her to become catatonic.

“We were sitting there watching Meg die. It was tragic,” Deborah recalled.

Deborah Scaling Kiley
Deborah Scaling Kiley survived five days stranded in shark-infested waters in 1982. Image: Albatross by Deborah Scaling Kiley.

When Deborah and Brad next drifted back to consciousness from their fitful slumber, Meg was dead.

In that moment, Brad considered eating Meg’s body.

“We were starving, and you’d heard of cannibalism at sea. Are we going to nourish ourselves by… by… somehow figuring out how to butcher her and eat her?” Brad recalled on I Shouldn’t Be Alive.

Warned by Deborah that Meg’s body was too infected, the two decided to throw her body into the water. They removed her clothes and jewellery to return to her family.

“It was such a sad moment because we laid her naked body on the side of the raft and then we decided we couldn’t just roll her off. She needed some sort of funeral,” Deborah said. “So we said the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 and we gently pushed her body overboard.”

The two went straight to sleep. They couldn’t again bear witness to sharks attacking another one of their friends.

***

It had now been five days since their yacht had capsized. Weak from hunger and dehydration, covered in massive staph infections, and traumatised from what they had endured, Deborah and Brad were losing all hope. They began grappling with the very real possibility that they, after all they had been through, were going to slowly die lost in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Brad Cavanagh
Brad Cavanagh and Deborah Scaling Kiley were the only survivors of the 1982 boating accident. Image: YouTube.

Then Brad looked up and on the horizon there appeared to be a cargo ship in the distance. He looked again. And again. It wasn’t a mirage. It was an actual a ship and it was coming straight toward them.

The pair began yelling and waving. Someone standing on deck waved back.

“I didn’t care who these people were or where we were going,” Deborah said. “I was there and Brad was there and we were alive.”

After five days lost at sea, stalked by ferocious sharks and watching their friends die in the most brutal fashion, Deborah Scaling Kiley and Brad Cavanagh had managed to survive.

"Every day I wake up, and it's a new day and I'm happy," Deborah reflected tearfully in I Shouldn't Be Alive. "I always, always try to find something good in the bad things that happen to me. There's never a day that you're more thankful for life than the day you almost die."

Deborah went on to become a motivational speaker and in 1994, wrote a book about her experience called Albatross: The True Story of a Woman’s Survival at Sea, with part of profits donated to charity. Brad, almost unimaginably, continued to work as a mariner, eventually becoming a boat captain, and often sailed along the same route where the Trashman had sunk. They both appeared in docu-series I Shouldn’t Be Alive in 2005.

In 2012, Deborah died of unknown causes in her home in Mexico at the age of 54.

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