Couple lauds a life-saver

*Reprint from The Times--Tuesday, October 17, 1989
Christiane Biamonte

Life Raft stayed afloat for 66 days

HAMILTON -- A Florida couple yesterday told employees of the Switlik Parachute Co. they have a right to be proud of their work. It was a Switlik life raft that supported Miami residents William and Simone Butler for 66 days after their sailboat sank in the Pacific on June 15. They were 30 miles off the coast of Costa Rica when they were rescued by a ship.

The Butlers, now recovered from their ordeal, came to the Switlik factory on East State Street yesterday to thank the people who made the raft that saved their lives. The tiny, battered raft sat in a conspicuous place of honor on the factory floor as the Butlers talked about their experience, which started when whales holed the boat they were sailing to Honolulu.

Couple survives 66 days in life raft 1.png"We never had a life raft before," said Simone Butler, 52. "Just a few weeks before we sailed, we bought the raft." William Butler, 60, said he had bought the raft at the Miami Boat Show.  "As he wrote out the check for the raft, he said, Not that I intend to use it.' And I thought that was tempting the gods. I guess they were tempted," said Simone Butler, playing with the religious medals around her neck.

Stanley Switlik II, one of the company's owners, said he was amazed that the life raft had withstood sailing in deep water. "It's a coastal model, one that's meant to be used 20 miles offshore at the most," he said. "The fact that it and they survived is a great testimony to the raft's materials and the Butlers' ingenuity.

And the Butlers needed that ingenuity, as the raft was attacked by porpoises and sharks and holed not just once, but three times.

Simone Butler pointed to a line of stitching at the bottom of the raft. "That hole was made by a dolphin during a feeding frenzy," she said. I had bought some needles in Panama, and they were all rusty, except for one. For thread, we used a piece of the rope that was in the emergency kit, and we had to separate it into strands.

The raft had developed a hold even before they got it into the water, Simone Butler said. "We tore it against a sharp part of the automatic pilot as we were moving it out. God was watching us," she said. "We managed to fix it with the clamps we had."

Another hole was fixed with a piece of plastic cut from a camera case, a piece of leather from a glove, and a screw from a fishing rod reel, she said.

Over lunch at the Homestead Inn, William Butler told the Switliks how he had prepared the trigger fish he and his wife caught with their bare hands.  "Raw, served on a Switlik paddle," he said.

The couple had brought a freshwater converter with them on the raft. The water and the fish kept them alive, William Butler said. "Also, Simone, being French, grabbed four bottles of Perrier water as we abandoned the boat," he added, laughing. After they were emptied, the bottles served a useful purpose, to carry messages and money to land, the Butlers said. William Butler said that one of the bottles was found in September in Costa Rica, a month after they were rescued.

Although the physical danger of their situation was apparent, the Butlers said the greatest danger was boredom.

"We played dominoes. I had to let Sim win more often, or she would just get angry at me," William Butler said. Tempers were sometimes understandably frayed, he said. "We had spent the day drying out the bedding in the bottom of the raft, and I thought the leakage from the clamps over the holes in front was coming faster," he said. As we tried to tighten one of the clamps, it loosened instead. The raft started to deflate, and water poured in. "We shipped three of the four gallons of salt water. After I got the clamp in place, Sim started yelling at me, calling me an assassin and a murderer," he said.

He said he tried to lighten the mood by making jokes. "Sim was worried about the sharks. We always had a pack of them following us," he said. "One day, I said, 'Sim, don't worry about the sharks eating you, because by the time you get past the piranhas, there will be nothing left but bones.'" "She didn't take too well to that," he added, with a mischievous grin.

Though some might think that a non-stop diet of raw fish would be tiresome, he said he still likes sushi. "I kept asking, 'Sim, pass the soy sauce,' " he said. "When we got up to San Jose, one of my buddies had a party, and as a gag, he brought in a tray of sushi. I ate the whole thing."

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