After five days without food, most people would eat just about anything. For 15-year-old Troy Driscoll, it came down to a choice between his finger or a cluster of bright green phosphorescent jellyfish. Driscoll decided to go with the jellyfish.
"I said, if they're poisonous I'm gonna eat them. If it kills me, oh well. It was one of those things where I didn't care. It's something that's gonna kill me besides myself," Driscoll says. "I ate hatfuls of them. It was like an oyster, very slimy, but it had the worst aftertaste, really fishy. It didn't really fill me up, but I guess it was something to have in my system. I ate more."
While floating helplessly in a 14-foot sailboat in the Atlantic for seven days, Driscoll and his best friend, 17-year-old Josh Long, frequently resorted to such extremes to survive. Over the course of the week they encountered rough waters, record-low temperatures, sharks, and giant cargo ships bearing down upon them — not to mention their own physical and psychological struggles.
But miraculously, both made it through relatively unharmed. Now, nearly two and a half years later, Driscoll looks back on the events of that week. He's told his story so many times it's almost routine, but he sees it as his duty as a survivor.
On Sunday, April 24, 2005, Driscoll and Long paddled a training sailboat — without sails or motor — out to Sullivan's Island for an afternoon of fishing. Forecasters had warned of rough conditions that day, but the boys didn't intend to go out too far — or to get caught in a riptide. They were quickly swept up in a current under the surface which moved them out to sea. They tried to jump out and swim back to shore but it was hopeless — within an hour all they could see was an endless expanse of water. Yet they remained somewhat calm, since Josh's mom knew they'd gone fishing at Sullivan's. But night fell, bringing with it frigid temperatures. As their fingers turned blue, fear began to take hold.
From the first night, they slept little, kept awake by the cold and the dark waves that periodically splashed into the boat and soaked their shivering bodies. They spooned for warmth, sharing a wet-suit, and when day came, they embraced the light and heat. They talked, sang, prayed, and kept an eye out for a boat or land.
Halfway through the second day, they started to panic. The fishing poles and bait were thrown overboard in a fit of frustration. Helpless and immobile on the small vessel, the pair established a sort of daily routine as a coping mechanism.
"We talked about family, friends, sang worship songs," Troy remembers. "Anything to keep being lost off our minds, which was hard, but we kind of did it to the best of our ability ... We'd just mess around with each other, joking, laughing, teasing, and then there'd be moments where we'd cry again and just realize what the situation was. You can't do nothing but just wait and look for a boat."
Sometimes the waves got huge, seven feet or larger. All they could do was keep bailing to keep from sinking. When they calmed down enough, they'd try to sleep, urinating while lying down just to get warm.
"Then the water would come in the boat and just wash it right back out. It was disgusting, but in that situation you'd do anything just to get warm for five minutes," Driscoll says.
On the fourth day, their bodies beginning to reek, they ventured into the sea to refresh themselves. Driscoll remembers the water being so clear that he could open his eyes without the salt stinging them. But their swimming session didn't last long. Long noticed a school of sharks approaching, and the boys retreated before they got too close — close enough to bump right into the boat.
"It didn't bother us too much, but we didn't get in the water again after that," Driscoll shrugs.
That clear, sparkling water turned out to be too tempting for the boys' extreme thirst, and they were soon driven to drink the salt water.
"We knew we weren't supposed to do it, but it was so blue it looked like Gatorade, and we were just so thirsty and it was so cold," Driscoll says. "I guess it was just the texture in your mouth."
As the week wore on, thirst became Driscoll's biggest weakness.
"I would just drink salt water for like two minutes straight and Josh would have to pull me onto the boat. He was like, 'Stop, you're gonna kill yourself, you're gonna shut down your system.' At that point I really didn't care," he adds. "We had a knife on the ship but I don't have it in me to kill myself, no matter what my situation is." The salt water caused Troy's braces to rust, and when he spoke, they cut into his lips.
Besides such moments of desperation, the pair kept remarkably sane throughout the days they were lost. Through it all, they relied on each other to stay alive.
Driscoll says, "I'd always tell Josh, 'I don't want you to die. If you do, I don't think I'll last. I don't think I could sit out here by myself in the middle of the ocean.' And it was vice versa, he needed me too."
On the fifth night, Driscoll felt a strange premonition, and he asked Long to pray with him over the boat. The sea was as calm as a lake, and for the first time since the night before they'd left, they slept heavily.
Sometime in the middle of the night, their boat was turned on its side and the dark sea rushed in. The water no longer calm, a huge roar surrounded them, and they bolted to attention. Just feet away — almost close enough to touch — a giant container ship several stories high sped by the screaming boys. It kept moving, quick and oblivious, while Driscoll and Long rocked in its wake and watched the lights disappear.
"At that point I finally got mad at God because I'm out here, and I have nothing I can use to help me survive," Driscoll remembers, speaking fast. "I was sleeping, and the boat should have hit us so I could snap my neck or whatever, just so I could die, so I didn't have to suffer anymore. Josh was upset too, but we just tried to calm each other down, and just talked the rest of that night about the whole situation and how freaky it was."
On the seventh morning, they woke up to dolphins swimming around the boat. Shortly afterwards they spotted a rainbow.
"We saw that as a sign of good luck. Maybe it's the day we're either gonna die and go to heaven or someone's gonna rescue us," Driscoll says. "At that point I was like I don't care either way. I'm ready for something to happen."
They took a pyramid weight and wrote notes to their family and friends all over the boat, then huddled down, certain of their impending death.
"We were freaking crying like girls 'cause we knew death was right around the corner," he says. "Then I heard the boat motor. We always heard all kinds of cargo ships but they never saw us so it was like, it's pointless ... But something told me don't let it go.
"I looked out and saw the boat was coming right toward us. It was a huge yacht, and it was so cool looking at it and all the water breaking off to the side, and it was coming right toward us. I about had a heart attack, I was so happy, and I grabbed Josh and lifted him straight up — and he's a big boy. I just had so much energy, and we were so nervous that it was just gonna veer off ... They came in right toward us and we screamed, 'Don't leave us, don't leave us.'"
Though they'd joked they would hit land somewhere in Africa, they were about seven miles offshore of Cape Fear, N.C., over 100 miles from Sullivan's Island. The crew onboard the ship was unaware of the search for the boys — they'd just happened to run across them as they sped across the ocean toward New York.
"The first words I asked Capt. Rick were, 'Hey man, do you believe in God? I believe you're an angel,'" Driscoll says.
After boarding the yacht, they let the sailboat go, not wanting to see it again. They each chugged eight bottles of water and rested in the berth. That's when they really started hurting.
"When we got rescued that day, we didn't realize how much pain we were in," Driscoll says. "It was like mind over matter out there, like we knew that we had to stick it out and survive. We were gonna go until we couldn't go any further. But then after you realize, 'Hey I'm on earth, I've got food, I've got water,' all the aches start coming out of nowhere. Like I never realized, and neither did Josh, how burnt I was until we got to the hospital." They were also dramatically lighter — Driscoll lost 20 pounds, and Long lost 40.
Both Driscoll and Long took some time to recover. They suffered nerve damage in their feet from disuse and frostbite, and to this day neither one has much feeling in their feet. Driscoll had second-degree burns on his fair skin, which took weeks to heal. He also underwent physical therapy to learn to walk again. Remarkably, neither one has been plagued with psychological issues. Driscoll professes to be flashback-free. All in all, the experience toughened him up.
"When I was playing basketball [in high school] and stuff, I'd be worn out, thirsty, but I'd think, this ain't nothing, dude. We can do this. I've been through way worse," he says.
Now a senior at Grace Academy, Driscoll is over six feet tall and sports a buzz cut. While his thoughts are on graduation — and getting in shape for beach week — his true focus is firefighting. He's a volunteer at Pine Ridge Fire Department, and his dream is to work for the city fire department. Now 20, Long recently got back from honeymooning in Hawaii. He owns his own business — Josh Long's Lawn Care — and he's got a baby on the way. It's easy to forget the pair has lived through such an extraordinary challenge.
After the initial media frenzy and appearances on The Tonight Show and Montel, Driscoll says he strives to live a normal life, and when he's recognized, (as he often is) he tries to downplay his past. Still, he sees it as his duty to share his story with others, preaching a kind of carpe diem attitude that he's held with him since the incident.
"When I go tell my testimony and stuff, especially for teenagers, I tell them that you gotta mature up and respect your parents and everyone around you ... Even adults, I tell them you've got to treat teenagers with respect," he says. "It doesn't have to be lost at sea, it could be a car accident and then boom, they're gone. That's what hurt me so bad. I didn't even talk to my dad that day, and then I was gone. I couldn't hear his voice. I couldn't give my mom a hug."
He's convinced that their rescue was a sign from God, but he doesn't know why it happened to him in the first place. Instead, he focuses on his future.
"There's a reason I'm still here," Driscoll says, "either me being a firefighter and saving people's lives or telling my story to other people, I don't really know. Hopefully it's me being a firefighter and helping people out 'cause I love helping people out."
And while he doesn't think about being lost at sea every day — at least not anymore — Driscoll says, "I'm definitely still thankful that I'm here, thank God that I'm still alive and that he saved me ... I'm glad that I had the experience. It changed my life."
Of course, it's an experience he hopes to never have again.