Survival: 11 hours overboard without a life jacket

Sailing in Block Island Sound - Joseph Gross says he’ll wear a life jacket from now on
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A man who survived nearly 11 hours in cold water without a life jacket says he'll wear one from now on.

Joseph Gross said he could see the Coast Guard searchlights as he treaded water in the dark calm of Block Island Sound near Rhode Island in the USA.


The 51-year-old had already been in the water without a life jacket for three hours when he spotted the lights that would eventually find him hours before dawn.

'The searchlights came on, then I saw the helicopter,' Gross said Thursday from a hospital bed at South County Hospital, where he was listed in stable condition. 'I knew I had a better chance. I tried to stay up as long as I could.'

Before sunset on Tuesday, Gross had been motoring from Block Island behind the wheel of Rock Bottom, his 23-foot boat. About a third of the way back to shore, the Westerly Yacht Club member had his foot up on a side rail when a wave hit the boat and he fell overboard.

'It happened in a second,' Gross said. 'The boat went up, came down and dug right in. The back end came up for whatever reason.'

The sudden movement shifted his weight and sent him reeling overboard into 70-degree (21 degree Celsius) water wearing just a bathing suit.

The boat sped off and would eventually run aground on Green Hill Beach in South Kingstown with its motor running; a woman called 911 around 7:30 p.m. to report it.

'I watched the boat just fly away,' Gross said. 'I was a long ways from anywhere, 6 to 8 miles from land. At first I panicked. I thought, ‘This is the end.’'

He had one glaring thought on his mind. 'Death. Death. What more could I tell you?' Gross said.

But Gross said he realized he needed a plan and needed to stay calm in order to survive. He figured out the tide was moving toward Block Island, so he started swimming slowly in that direction.

'I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something. Calm down. The water is not that cold right now,’' he said.

As the hours stretched on, Gross tried creating a makeshift flotation device using his bathing suit, but it didn’t work. 'It was rough,' he said. 'You keep asking yourself, ‘How hard do you want to live?’'

At one point, Gross said one of the search boats came within 200 yards of finding him, and a Coast Guard helicopter came close to spotting him but turned east at the last minute.

'I tried to get back in the search grid,' he said. 'I stuck with my plan and tried to swim to New Harbor [on Block Island].'

Gross said he neared the south side of a break wall off the island, but kept getting pushed out by the tide. By the time he was rescued, hypothermia had set in and he was starting to hallucinate.

He thought the Coast Guard vessel that rescued him was an airplane. 'You have no idea how cold that is,' Gross said.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Riley Harriman said the 8-plus-hour search ended at 3:37 a.m. Wednesday, when Gross was found 3 miles southwest of Point Judith Lighthouse. A 47-foot boat from Station Point Judith, a 25-foot boat from Station Block Island, a Coast Guard Cutter and a Jayhawk helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod were all used in the search, along with a state Department of Environmental Management vessel.

'Pretty incredible,' Harriman said of Gross’ survival against the odds. 'Unfortunately, these things don’t come up as much, as far as finding the person.'

Gross said he planned to return to work in the engineering department of General Dynamics on Monday morning, and would be back out on the water next weekend.

'But with a lifejacket on,' Gross said. 'If I’m not working this time of year, I’m on the water. That’s not going to change.'

'I want to thank the Coast Guard, the DEM and South County Hospital. I can’t say that enough,' he added.

The DEM was continuing its investigation of the incident on Wednesday and has not yet released its findings, though there will be no charges brought against Gross, spokeswoman Gail Mastrati said

Meanwhile it's possible Joseph Gross has been punished enough. He says he feels fine physically, but emotionally 'it's kind of torture to me.'

Gross says he has spent so much time boating he got complacent, but reaffirms he plans to wear a life jacket from now on.

Editor's Comment: Maybe he should think about a tether as well, to keep him ON the boat.