The Lights of Platform Gail

Survival swimming in the Channel Islands.

Light / Dark

Usually when I go out to the Channel Islands, it’s to dive for sea urchins. This time it wasn’t a work trip. It was to go surfing. 

The waves in the Channel Islands are horrible. The wind is always onshore, and there are so many great white sharks that I surf with a bang stick. But there was a nice west swell running and the weather looked good, so I decided to catch some waves and spend the night on my boat, Miss Grace, a 22-foot Anderson.

I went down to Channel Islands Harbor, put Miss Grace in the water, and headed for Santa Cruz Island. Halfway there, my boat started pounding. It got worse and worse. If it were a workday, I would’ve powered right through it, but this was supposed to be fun. I turned around and headed home. 

Halfway to the harbor, I throttled back to call a friend. After I hung up, I decided to take a piss. Although I was taught by the best urchin divers in the business about safety, for whatever reason, I was careless and didn’t take Miss Grace out of gear. I went to the starboard side and was standing there doing my business when a wave slapped the side of the boat. I lost my balance and stepped on my urchin rake. When I tried to grab the rope on my davit, I missed it and went overboard. When I went to pull myself back aboard, Miss Grace was gone. She was chugging toward the harbor. 

I swam as hard as I could, but my boat was getting farther and farther away and I knew that I wasn’t going to catch it. Once I realized the gravity of my situation, panic set in. I was probably 7 miles from shore in a T-shirt and shorts, treading water and thinking, Great! I’m gonna die! 

After a few minutes, I went into survival mode. I said to myself, “Rule No. 1: Don’t panic! Save your energy!” I got my bearings, did a 360, and saw that there wasn’t a vessel in sight. I did see what I assumed was Platform Gina, one of the oil rigs in the area, but it turned out to be Platform Gail. I thought, That’s going to be one hell of a swim, but I have two choices: Swim there or give up and die. 

I looked to see where the current was going and plotted my course. I started swimming the crawl, but after two or three minutes I knew that I was going to wear myself out. Next I started swimming the breaststroke, and it felt a lot better because I wasn’t expending so much energy.

Waves of emotion kept sweeping over me. I didn’t know if I could make it, but I had to think positively. Every time a negative thought came into my mind, I tried to push it away. After a while, I found I was talking to myself in the third person: “Scott, you gotta do this for yourself and your family. You’re going to make it.” 

I kept thinking of Dr. Paul Hornyak, a gnarly long-distance ocean swimmer, whose saying is “Just keep swimming.” That and the chorus to the Grateful Dead song “Row Jimmy” became my mantras. When I looked at the oil platform and it didn’t seem like it was getting any closer, a voice said, “Just keep swimming.” 

As the sun went down and it got dark, I was feeling very lonely and isolated. All of a sudden, I heard a big splash next to me. I thought it was a great white, and my heart jumped out of my chest. Then a seal popped up right next to me and looked at me like, “Dude! What are you doing out here?” 

I’d never been so overwhelmed with joy to see another living creature in my life. Instantly, the seal became my best buddy. I kept talking to him: “Hey. I fell off my boat and gotta swim to that oil platform.” After a while, I ran out of things to say, so I sang Grateful Dead songs to him and told him jokes. 

Twice, when I stopped swimming, he went under and bumped me in the legs with his nose. He kept telling me, “Dude, get your ass in gear! Get going!” At one point he dove under, disappeared, and was gone. I was bummed to lose him, but I could also see that I was getting closer to the platform. 

As I slowed my pace and rested on my back, a flock of 40 or 50 seagulls came out of nowhere and hovered over me. A couple of brave ones swooped down on me, and I yelled, “Hey, guys, I’m not bait!” 

Although I kept saying “Just keep swimming,” I was getting tired. After about four hours, exhaustion was really setting in. There was no telling myself that I wasn’t almost finished. 

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I started to see light. I thought,

This is it. This is the light I’ve heard about. I’m not religious at all, but I was like, “Thompson, it’s time to get right with God!” I looked up to the sky and said, “God! Sorry for all the shitty things I’ve done. I’ve tried to be a good person and I hope you can forgive me. At least take care of my family.”

The light kept getting brighter and brighter. I thought that I was done, and was ready to give up. I was crying and talking to the sky when I heard this sound—rum, rum, rum. What the hell is that? I wondered. 

I snapped out of my trance and saw that I was about 500 feet from the oil platform. I was like, “Oh, my God! It’s the light from the platform!” I swam as hard as I could, grabbed the closest pylon, and clung to it like a limpet. I was getting the crap beaten out of me by open-ocean swells, and shredded by the mussels, but there was no way I was letting go. 

I looked all around for the fucking ladder I’d been dreaming of for the past five hours. Then, suddenly, there was a big surge, the sea level dropped, and I saw it—leading to a metal platform and stairs. Although I was only 50 feet away, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t help but wonder if I could even make it. Another big surge came, and when I felt the water pushing on my back, I knew it was going right toward the ladder. I realized it was now or never. 

I pushed off the pylon and the surge took me right to the ladder.

I grabbed onto a rung and it took everything that I had to climb onto it. Once I reached that platform, I flopped down on it like a seal. Next, the exhaustion, cold, and shock hit me all at once. I felt like I’d gotten hit by a bus. 

I climbed the stairs on my hands and knees, got to a gangway, and walked down it until I saw a big panel filled with buttons and switches.

I saw a big red “Oh, shit” button and was tempted to push it, but thought to myself, Thompson! You’re in a big bowl of shit already. Don’t make it any worse. 

I kept walking until I saw a big glass window, and when I looked inside, there was a guy sitting behind a computer. I started banging on the window and the guy jumped out of his chair, opened the door, and said, “Who the fuck are you? What’s going on?” 

I somehow managed to convey that I’d fallen off my boat, that I was hypothermic and needed to warm up. Another guy came and they took me to a shower, turned on the hot water, and I began to thaw out. A few minutes later, one of them came back with a white paper cup full of the most disgusting, burned, truck-stop coffee I’d ever come across in my life. I think for the rest of my days it will be the best cup of coffee I’ll ever drink. 

I just sat under the hot water and thought to myself, Thank God I’m alive. I also kept singing. 

And I say row, Jimmy, row
Gonna get there?
I don’t know
Seems a common way to go
Get down, row, row, row
Row, row

The author would like to thank captains Paul Amaral and Carson Shevitz of TowBoatUS Ventura and Channel Islands, who went beyond the call of duty to recover Miss Grace from Anacapa Island, the crew on Platform Gail for the best cup of coffee he will ever have, the Coast Guard, and the nurses and doctors at Oxnard’s St. John’s Hospital.