In 1961, Tere Duperrault Fassbender was only 11 years old when she was abandoned at sea for days after the sinking of her family’s rented sailboat off the coast of Florida. In her memoir, “Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean,” Tere tells her full story of the famous rescue that fascinated the world. An excerpt:
The sea waif
While Harvey was telling his story to the Coast Guard three days after he had been rescued, and four days after the Bluebelle had last been seen, Nicolaos Spachidakis, second officer of the Greek freighter Captain Theo, was scanning the waters of the Northwest Providence Channel. The freighter was passing through the channel bound from Antwerp, Belgium, to Houston, Texas, and Spachidakis was on watch. From his post high up on the bridge, he could see several other ships scattered over the sea.
By some odd chance, one of the thousands of tiny dancing whitecaps in the distance caught the officer's eye. It didn’t seem to disappear like the others. For no particular reason, he continued to watch the tiny and unrecognizable speck, squinting through the sun's bright glare. At first he discounted it as a piece of debris; then decided it must be a small fishing dinghy because he could just make out a small bump that might be a fisherman. Then he realized with a start that no tiny fishing dinghy could possibly be out that far. He summoned Captain Stylianos Coutsodontis to the bridge.
When first sighted, the object was about a mile away off the starboard bow. As the ship drew closer, they were stunned to see that it was not a dinghy, but a small, white, oblong life float. Incredibly, sitting on it, alone in a vast emptiness of sea, was the last thing that could possibly be there: a beautiful, blonde-haired girl. She was looking up and waving feebly. They stared in stunned amazement, as if a female Moses had just been delivered up to them from the bulrushes. The sight challenged first perception, then comprehension. Where had she come from?
The girl was reclining stiffly, leaning back on her arms, wearing pale pink pedal pushers and a white blouse, her feet dangling over the side of the float. One of the crewmen took a picture of her looking up from her tiny craft, squinting against the sun, dwarfed by the expanse of empty sea around her. Her bleached hair was glowing brightly in the sun above her emaciated and painfully drawn sunburned face. This picture would shortly be wired around the world, and front pages everywhere would proclaim the miracle of the "sea waif." The picture was so powerful that it was a two-page spread in the next Life magazine: one page showing her on the raft, the other showing nothing but empty water. Ironically, it was printed in the very same issue that told of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, the son of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, in the sea off of New Guinea. He had been lost trying to swim ashore from a native canoe.
The captain called out orders to stop the engines and to put a small raft over the side. He was afraid that if one the ship’s large and unwieldy lifeboats were used, it might hit the child's light float and knock her overboard. The men quickly lashed some empty oil drums together and lowered the makeshift raft over the side.
Suddenly, the captain shouted orders to hurry. Sharks, perhaps attracted by the commotion, or maybe they had been stalking her for who knew how long, were circling the little float and moving in closer to the girl's dangling feet. Crew members crowded the rails and shouted to the girl not to jump.
Evangelos Kantzilas, a crew member, quickly sculled the unwieldy craft over to the float and lifted the girl aboard. She fell limp in his arms. He pulled back alongside the ship. Another crewman at the bottom of a pilot ladder slipped a bowline under the child’s shoulders and she was hoisted, hanging limply on the rope, a couple of stories up to the deck.
Her lips were puffy, her skin badly burned, her cheeks sunken, her hair bleached almost white by the tropical sun, and her eyes were dull and unseeing. A seaman lifted her and stood her on deck but her legs buckled. She was clearly severely dehydrated and in desperate shape. Coutsodontis picked her up gently and carried her to a spare cabin where she was placed in a bunk. Rough-hewn Greek sailors, with tears in their eyes, crossed themselves as they looked on, speechless. Moments later they tenderly gave her sips of water and fresh orange juice, gently sponged the salt from her fiery-red body with damp towels, and put Vaseline on her cracked lips.
The captain tried to get her to talk, but she did not respond and her eyes gave no sign that she saw or heard him. He kept coaxing and pleading, but she was mostly comatose, and he feared she was too far gone — from what kind of an ordeal he could barely imagine.
"Can't you tell me your name and how you found yourself in the water?" he asked. "I want to report to the Coast Guard that we have found you. If you will tell me your name, I can send information to your relatives that you are still alive."
Finally, she shook her head weakly and gestured downward feebly with her thumb, indicating in the captain's mind that she must be the sole survivor of some kind of disaster at sea that had claimed the rest of her family.
"You can't be sure they are lost," he said. "Maybe some other ship saved them."
She shook her head weakly again, and again she pointed to the water. She seemed to be saying that she had seen them swallowed up by the sea. A single word, "Bluebelle," barely rasped from her dry throat and through her swollen lips.
"Do you have any relatives anywhere?" the captain asked.
She nodded and he bent over as she whispered "yes" in his ear. She then managed to tell him hoarsely that her name was Terry Jo Duperrault and that she had relatives in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Then she slipped back into unconsciousness.
The Coast Guard had not specifically alerted Coutsodontis to be on the lookout for Bluebelle survivors, but he had overheard commercial news broadcast telling of Captain Harvey's rescue. He had paid little attention to it, though he was aware that he was in the general vicinity where the Bluebelle disappeared.
He telegraphed the Coast Guard in Miami: "Picked up blonde girl, brown eyes, from small white raft, suffering exposure and shock. Name Terry Jo Duperrault. Was on Bluebelle." This was the electrifying news that had brought Captain Barber rushing into the hearing room. It was also news that overnight made Terry Jo Duperrault the most famous girl in the world.
Even if it was uncertain, apart from Harvey’s not entirely credible account, what had happened to the Bluebelle and the Duperraults, it was now clear that Harvey was not the only survivor. Somehow Terry Jo had survived both whatever had befallen the sailboat and then four days without water in burning daytime sun and freezing nights, all the while somehow balancing herself on a life float that was about two-and-a-half feet by five feet — an oblong ring of canvas-covered cork with rope webbing in the middle that was designed to be held onto for a few hours by survivors in the water, not ridden on for days. (The Captain Theo did not retrieve the float, but the Coast Guard did find it a couple of days later. It had nearly fallen apart.) The float was, in fact, one that had been lashed forward on the cabin top of the Bluebelle. The veteran seamen of the Greek crew shook their heads in disbelief at the thought of what this young girl must have gone through.
Excerpted from “ALONE: Orphaned on the Ocean” by Tere Duperrault Fassbender and Richard D. Logan, Ph.D. Excerpted with permission by Title Town Publishing.