The engine died a few miles off the Caribbean coastline of Belize. Nancy Masters, a 38-year-old Portland, Ore., nurse, wondered how long it would be before she and the three other tourists could make their dive.

The dive captain tossed the anchor, but the boat kept drifting. He jumped in, disappeared in the blue water and surfaced, holding a bent O-ring where the anchor had snapped off.

They checked the radio. Dead. Two of the divers tried to get the engine working. No luck. Another searched the boat for flares. Nothing.

That’s when Masters and the other divers – 50-year-old John Bain, a Wisconsin patent lawyer; Yutaka Maeda, a 34-year-old Japanese national; and Abigale Brinkman, a 28-year-old Indiana medical student – decided to swim for it. The dive captain was wary. If they swam in the wrong direction, he told them, there was nothing between the boat and Jamaica.

Against the dive captain’s advice, they strapped on their diving equipment – air tanks, fins, buoyancy vests and masks – and plunged into the Caribbean Sea shortly after noon Saturday.

Three days later, one of them would be dead and the other three would be clinging to life in the open sea, praying for rescue.

Masters, wearing a swimsuit underneath a pair of shorts and a loose-fitting shirt, told the others she thought they should swim hard in the direction of a reef where snorkelers had been dropped on the way to the dive site. The two men, both in wet suits, wanted to swim methodically. They all should try to conserve energy, one of them said. The medical student, wearing only a bikini, was scared.

They swam west toward what they thought was the direction of land. “We were going at different paces, and at this point we were all separated,” Masters said by telephone Wednesday. “Abby was really scared, so I decided to go back to try to find her. I never did. I never saw her or the others again.”

Masters, who works for the Veterans Administration Medical Center, didn’t panic. Last year, she went scuba diving off Honduras, and she has a feel for open water.

She fought the current and swam toward where she expected land, thinking she had plenty of daylight to make shore. But ocean waves have a way of turning minutes to hours.

When the sun set Saturday, she wondered whether swimming to shore had been such a good idea. “The waves are huge and they’re smashing over you and hitting you in the head,” Masters recalled. “The nights are so long. You’re thinking the sun is going to come up any minute and it doesn’t. That’s when you realize you’re stuck.”

Exhausted, she fell asleep for a few minutes at a time, but the waves never relented. She tried to use the scuba mouthpiece, thinking that if she could breathe she’d sleep. Her buoyancy vest kept her afloat, but the waves kept her awake. She started hallucinating, thinking she saw an island to one side, a buoy to the other.

When the sun rose Sunday, it reinvigorated her. She swam west, away from the sun, and convinced herself it would be only moments before she saw a rescue plane or a boat. Maybe she could make it to land or the reef. They have to be looking for us, she remembers thinking. They have to be.

She saw a ship, then a passenger ferry go by and thought they might be traveling in a shipping lane. As she swam harder to get to the area, she noticed three fish about 2 feet long approaching. Sharks? They weren’t big enough, but their large underbites looked menacing. They circled, occasionally darting toward her. She remembers wondering whether the movement would attract sharks. She didn’t want to get bitten.

“I wasn’t in a position where I could afford to bleed,” she said.

She kicked at them, and two swam off. One kept after her, darting toward her feet. She tried to hit it with a part of her breathing apparatus, and the fish finally swam off.

“I couldn’t waste time thinking about sharks,” she said. “If you’re thinking about sharks, how could you do anything else? “I guess I was lucky these were little guys compared to sharks.”

She swam harder. If no one was looking for her, she was going to find her own way out of this mess.

“I was going to make it happen if I had to will myself out of it,” she said.

The sun scorched her skin. She used a handkerchief on her neck and head to block the rays, but her skin still blistered. Her knees hurt and her fins rubbed her Achilles tendons raw. Underneath her arms, the buoyancy vest rubbed sores into her skin.

With no food or water, she would face another night floating at sea with her hallucinations. She saw a rat climb out of a tree that floated by. It walked into the sky and ate a star. She thought she was having conversations with people before realizing she was talking to herself.

“I was alone,” she said. “I knew that. But I also know that in some ways, those conversations and things I saw helped me get through the night. It stopped me from panicking.”

When day broke Monday, Masters said, she felt her body shutting down. Sunburn and hypothermia, the nurse in her was saying, might be sending her into shock. She wondered whether she could make it through another night. She stopped swimming and floated. Should she give up?

No.

She had plenty of daylight, she told herself. Stop considering what will happen later and try to get yourself noticed. Finding a ship became a priority again.

A small green plane with a red cross flew overhead. She pulled off one of her bright-yellow fins and waved it overhead. The plane kept going.

A few moments later, the plane flew back in the other direction. She waved again. No response.

They didn’t see me, she thought. How could they not see me? She started to doubt anyone was even looking for lost divers.

Something floated by – a plant, 3 feet long, that looked like a giant shallot. Maybe it had fallen off a ship. Her stomach had bothered her for nearly two days and she was famished. She broke the plant open and drank some of the liquid inside.

“I was glad it wasn’t an onion, but I didn’t care what it tasted like,” she said. “I was glad to get something in my stomach.”

The plane reappeared. She splashed the water and waved. The plane circled her a few times and flew off. They apparently had spotted her, but she couldn’t be sure.

The plane returned after a few minutes and dropped a red dinghy. Masters couldn’t get to it because it was dropped down current and floated the other way. Still, she was sure that someone would return to rescue her.

As she waited, she decided to swim again. In the distance, she saw another ship – a large tanker with the Chiquita Banana emblem on its side.

She yelled and splashed, calling for help. A man on the ship asked her whether she needed a boat.

“I told him of course I needed a boat.”

A small dive boat carrying police officers appeared from behind the ship. Someone dropped a ladder into the water, Masters handed up her diving equipment and climbed aboard.

“They gave me water but told me not to drink too much,” Masters said. “I didn’t care at that point. I was thirsty.”

The pilot and crew aboard the plane that spotted Masters were members of the Belize Defense Force, which had coordinated the search. After dropping the dinghy, the plane circled back and the crew spotted two other survivors – Maeda and Bain. Brinkman, the medical student, died and they found her body. Other boats picked up those divers, and everyone was taken to Universal Health Systems Hospital in Belize City.

News reports from Belize indicate that police and other officials are investigating the incident.

On Wednesday, the rescue crew stopped by the hospital to visit Masters and the other survivors. They explained that they saw her in the water first but had to fly back and forth to find the others. The dive captain drifted with the boat for a ways and eventually swam to a small island off the coast, she was told.

Masters thanked the pilot and crew for helping find her, and she’s looking forward to getting discharged and returning home to Portland this weekend.

“This was a huge comedy of errors that wasn’t funny at any point,” she said. “We all take things for granted, like electricity, your car working, your friends and family. But the one thing I will never take for granted again is how beautiful it is to have something solid under your feet. Just having something to walk on.

“In the ocean, there’s nothing to stabilize you. Having that boat finally underneath my feet was just indescribable. It’s what I craved more than anything, and I finally got it.”


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