DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — The sun beat down on John Grady as he lay in the bottom of his 10-foot boat, drifting in and out of sleep.
He had been stranded at sea for more than a day after he and a kite-boarding instructor who were out for a lesson had lost their motor. Grady dreamed of planes flying overhead, of boats bobbing by, and he would jolt up: Someone was there to rescue them! … only to realize it was all in his head.
“It was surreal,” Grady said from his Delray Beach apartment Thursday. He returned home earlier this week and told his harrowing tale. “You dream, but realize that nothing’s there.”
Grady, 38, disappeared off the coast of Aruba, an island just north of Venezuela in the southern Caribbean Sea, after taking a kite-boarding lesson with an instructor on April 3. The two were found just before sunset by a passing oil tanker 37 miles west of Aruba after a harrowing 32 hours at sea.
Grady and his girlfriend, Danielle Wishka, were vacationing in Aruba on Hadicurari Beach. He went out for the kite-boarding session early that Friday. Rescuers spotted him and his instructor just before 8 p.m. Saturday.
Grady and the instructor were getting ready to head back to shore at about noon. Grady was still in the water as they were packing up when Grady heard a splash. When he looked toward the boat, he saw the horrified expression on his instructor’s face and Grady immediately realized what happened: the motor had fallen off the boat.
Quickly, Grady swam toward the boat with his kite still attached. They could use the kite to sail back, Grady rationalized, losing a motor wasn’t the worst thing that could happen.
But while transferring the kite aboard the boat, the safety line holding it to him snapped, and the kite drifted away into the sky.
His instructor searched for a radio, a cell phone; a flare gun. But nothing useful was in the boat.
What was worse, he said, is that his instructor was the sole operator of his company. The only person who would realize they were missing was Wishka, and he didn’t know when that would be.
“I knew it was really bad,” he said. “It’s crazy the amount of things that went wrong. It was a sequence of events that is so improbable.”
On shore, Wishka said she rationalized why Grady wasn’t back in the afternoon. She thought, perhaps, the lesson had gone long. Maybe the two were grabbing a beer or a bite to eat.
She decided to walk down to the beach and see if anyone had seen them.
Peering into the truck the couple had rented, she saw Grady’s hat — the hat he never goes anywhere without — and she felt her heart start to sink.
“I was frantically driving around, to the beach to the apartment, trying to figure out what to do,” she said. “Finally it hit me. I said, ‘I have to call the police.'”
After hours of interviews, the police also realized that Grady was nowhere on land. As the search boats went out, Wishka tried to remain calm.
Out on the water, night had fallen. Grady and his instructor huddled under the kite board to ward off the cold waves. They rationed what little water they had, and Grady began to wonder how far from shore they had drifted.
When morning hit, his heart sank: Before nightfall, he could see buildings in the distance. Now it was just blue — the endless ocean and sky above.
“As long as you see land, you have hope, you know?” Grady said. “When you stand up and you don’t see land or other boats, and it’s just you and the ocean, you start losing hope.”
As the hours passed, the two talked a little, but kept drifting farther out.
They saw a shark; a few dolphins. Birds flew overhead. They saw one tanker, but it didn’t see them. Grady figured once it got darker they could aim their flashlights toward any boat they might see.
But for the moment, there was nothing either one of them could do. They lay there drifting, dreaming, and wondering if anyone would find them.
“The ocean is unforgiving,” he said. “You have no control.”
Just before dusk, they saw another tanker coming toward them. Grady stood up on the back of the boat and flashed the light. He saw the tanker’s nose turn.
He knew then they were saved.
“It was the happiest moment of my life,” he said. “I can say that for sure.”
Wishka was on her third interview with police officers back on Aruba as Grady was boarding the oil tanker. It had been a whirlwind since she realized Grady was missing.
Grady’s sister had flown from the U.S. to join her on the island and the two tried to coordinate efforts to find him. Police asked questions but gave few updates. As hours passed, she became increasingly worried.
But then a detective popped his head into the interview room: “I have good news,” Wishka remembers him saying. “We found John.”
“At that point I lost it,” Wishka said. “Every detective, every officer seemed relieved. Everyone came outside and we knew it was good. We knew it was OK.”
The next morning, a Dutch navy destroyer brought Grady and his instructor back to shore. He was a little sunburned and a little dehydrated, but otherwise unscathed.
They got a nice hotel room with a big bed, took long showers and decided they would enjoy the next day. Just not in the water.
Grady and Wishka said they are happy to be home now, safely back in Delray Beach .
They’re also warning others that whenever they go out on the ocean, to make sure there’s a working radio or cell phone on board.
Had he just had a radio, Grady said, he might not have this tale to tell.
“We were really lucky,” Grady said. “Really lucky.”