Shipwrecked: A Shocking Tale of Love, Loss, and Survival in the Deep Blue Sea

Illustration by Comrade

Adrift in the middle of the ocean, no one can hear you scream.

It was a lesson Brad Cavanagh was learning by the second. He had been above deck on the Trashman, a sleek, 58-foot Alden sailing yacht with a pine-green hull and elegant teak trim, battling 100-mile-per-hour winds as sheets of rain fell from the turbulent black sky. The latest news report had mentioned nothing about bad weather, but two days into his voyage a tropical storm formed off of Cape Fear in the Carolinas, whipping up massive, violent waves out of nowhere. Soaked to the skin and too tired to stand, the North Shore native from Byfield sought refuge down below, where he braced himself by pressing his feet and back between the walls of a narrow hallway to keep from being knocked down as 30-foot-tall walls of water tossed the boat around the open seas.

Below deck with Cavanagh were four crewmates: Debbie Scaling, with blond hair and blue eyes, was an experienced sailor. As the first American woman to complete the Whitbread Round the World Race—during which she’d navigated some of the most difficult conditions on the planet—she was already well known in professional sailing circles. Mark Adams, a mid-twenties Englishman who had been Cavanagh’s occasional racing partner; the boat’s captain, John Lippoth; and Lippoth’s girlfriend, Meg Mooney, rounded out the crew, who were moving a Texas tycoon’s yacht from Maine to Florida for the winter season.

As the storm continued, Cavanagh grew increasingly angry. At 21 years old and less experienced than most of the others, he felt as though no one had a plan for how they were going to get out of this mess alive. He knew their situation was dire. The motor was dead for the third time on the trip, and they had already cut off the wind-damaged mainsail. That meant nature was in control. They could only ride it out and hope to survive long enough for the Coast Guard to rescue them. Crewmates had been in contact with authorities nearly every hour since the early morning, and a rescue boat was supposedly on its way. It’s just a matter of time, Cavanagh told himself again and again, just a matter of time.

After a while, the storm settled into a predictable pattern: The boat would ride up a wave, tilt slightly to port-side and then ride down the wave, and right itself for a moment of stillness and quiet, sheltered from the wind in the valley between mountains of water. Cavanagh began to relax, but then the boat rose over another wave, tilted hard, and never righted itself. Watching the dark waters of the Atlantic approach with terrifying speed through the window in front of him, Cavanagh braced for impact. An instant later, water shattered the window and began rushing into the boat.
He jumped up from the floor with a single thought: He had to rouse Scaling from her bunkroom. He had to get everyone off the ship. The Trashman was going down.

Three days earlier, the weather had been perfect: The sun sparkled on the water and warmed everything its rays touched, despite bursts of cool breezes. Cavanagh was walking the docks of Annapolis Harbor alongside Adams, both of them hunting for work. A job Adams had previously secured for them aboard a boat had fallen through, and all they had to show for it was a measly $50 each. As they made their way along the water, Cavanagh spotted an attractive woman standing by a bank of pay phones. He looked at her and she stared back at him, a sandy-haired, 6-foot-3-inch former prep school hockey player draped in a letterman jacket. It wasn’t until she called out his name that he realized who she was: Debbie Scaling.

Cavanagh came of age in a boating family. He’d survived his first hurricane at sea in utero, and grew up on 4,300 feet of riverfront property in Byfield, where his father, a trained reconnaissance photographer named Paul, taught him and his siblings how to sail from an early age. From the outside, the elite schools, the sailboat, the new car every five years, the grand house, and the self-made patriarch gave the impression that the Cavanaghs were living the suburban American dream. Inside the home, though, it was a horror show. Always drinking, Cavanagh’s father emotionally abused, insulted, and belittled his wife and children, Cavanagh recalls. Whenever Cavanagh heard the clinking of ice cubes in his father’s glass, his stress meter spiked.

Despite that—or perhaps because of it—all Cavanagh ever wanted was his father’s approval. Sailing, he thought, would earn his respect. Cavanagh’s sister, Sarah, after all, had been a star sailor, and at family dinners his hard-drinking—and hard-to-please—father talked about her with pride and adulation. In fact, it was Cavanagh’s sister who had first met Scaling when they raced across the Atlantic together a year earlier. She had recently introduced Scaling to Cavanagh and her family, and now, standing at that pay phone in Annapolis, Scaling could hardly believe her eyes. At that very moment, she had just called Cavanagh’s household in hopes of convincing Sarah to join the crew of the Trashman, and here was Sarah’s younger brother standing right in front of her.

Scaling was desperately looking for help on the yacht. Already things had been going poorly: The boat’s captain, Lippoth, who was a heavy drinker, was passed out below deck when she first showed up at the Southwest Harbor dock in Maine to report for work. Soon after they set sail, they picked up the captain’s girlfriend, Mooney, because she wanted to come along for the trip. From Maine to Maryland, Lippoth rarely eased the sails and relied on the inboard motor, which consistently sputtered and needed repair. They’d struggled to pick up additional hands as they traveled south, and Scaling knew they needed more-qualified help for the difficult sail along the coast of the Carolinas, exposed at sea to high winds and waves. Scaling didn’t share any of this with Cavanagh or Adams when Lippoth offered them a job, though. Happy to have work, the pair accepted and climbed aboard.

Perhaps Cavanagh should have known something was wrong with the yacht when the captain mentioned that the engine kept burning out.

“Mayday! Mayday!” A crew member was shouting into the radio, trying to summon the Coast Guard as the yacht began taking on water. Cavanagh had just burst into Scaling’s cabin, while Adams roused Lippoth and Mooney. And now they huddled together at the bottom of a flight of stairs watching the salty seawater rise toward the ceiling. Lippoth tried to activate the radio beacon that would have given someone, anyone, their latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, but the water rushing in carried it away before he could reach it.

The crew started making their way up toward the deck to abandon ship. Cavanagh spotted the 11-and-a-half-foot, red-and-black Zodiac Mark II tied to a cleat near the cockpit. The outboard motor sat next to it on the mount, but the yacht was sinking too fast to grab it. As he fumbled with the lines of the Zodiac, one broke, recoiled, and ripped his shirt open. Then he lost his grip on the dinghy, and it floated off. Fortunately, it didn’t go far. Adams wasn’t so lucky. A strong gust of wind ripped the life raft out of his hands, and the sinking yacht started to take the raft and its emergency food, water rations, and first-aid kit down with it. By the time Cavanagh swam off the Trashman, it was nearly submerged.

As Cavanagh made his way toward the dinghy, he kicked off his boots, which belonged to his father. For a moment, all he could think was how angry his dad would be at him for losing them. When he got to the Zodiac, he yelled to the others to grab ahold of the raft before the yacht sucked them down with it. The crew made it onto the dinghy with nothing but the clothing on their backs. As they turned around, the last visible piece of the Trashman disappeared beneath the ocean.

Terrified, the five crew members spent the next four hours in the water, being thrashed about by the waves while holding on to the lines along the sides of the Zodiac, which they had flipped upside down to prevent it from blowing away. During the calmer moments, they ducked underneath for protection from the strong winds, with only their heads occupying a pocket of air underneath the raft. There wasn’t much space to maneuver, but still Cavanagh felt the need to move toward one end of the boat to get some distance from his crewmates while he processed his white-hot anger at Lippoth and Adams. Over the past two days, Adams had often been too drunk to do his job, and Lippoth never did anything about it, leaving him and Scaling to pick up the slack. Cavanagh had spent his childhood on a boat with a drunken father, and now, once again, he’d somehow managed to team up with an alcoholic sailing partner and a captain willing to look the other way.

Perhaps he should have known something was wrong with the yacht when the captain mentioned that the engine kept burning out. Maybe he should have been concerned that Lippoth didn’t even have enough money for supplies. But there was nothing he could do about it now, adrift in the Atlantic and crammed under an inflated dinghy trying to stay alive.

As nighttime approached and the temperature dropped, Cavanagh devised a plan for the crew to seek shelter on the underside of the Zodiac yet remain out of the water. First, he grabbed a wire on the raft and ran it from side to side. He lay his head on the bow of the boat and rested his lower body on the wire. Then the others climbed on top of him, any way they could, to stay under the dinghy’s floor but just out of the water. When the oxygen underneath the Zodiac ran out, they’d exit, lift the boat just long enough to allow new air into the pocket, and go back under again.

Sleep-deprived and dehydrated, Cavanagh’s mind wandered home to Byfield and the endless summer afternoons of his childhood spent under his family’s slimy dock, playing hide-and-seek with friends. Cavanagh had spent a lot of his life hiding from his father and his alcohol-fueled rages. If there was a silver lining to the abuse and the fear he grew up with, it was that he learned how to survive under pressure and to avoid the one fatal strain of seasickness: panic.

The next morning, that skill was suddenly in high demand as Lippoth unexpectedly swam out from under the Zodiac to find fresh air. He said he felt like he was having a heart attack and refused to go back under. The storm had calmed, but a cool autumn breeze was sucking the heat from their wet bodies, and Cavanagh wanted the crew to stay under the boat to keep warm. Disagreeing with him, Cavanagh’s crewmates decided to flip the boat right-side up and climb onboard. It momentarily saved their lives: They soon noticed three tiger sharks circling them.

Mooney had accidentally gotten caught on a coil of lines and wires while abandoning the yacht, leaving a bloody gash behind her knee. Everyone else had their cuts and scrapes, too, and the sharks had followed the scent. The largest shark in the group began banging against the boat, then swam under the craft and picked it up out of the water with its body before letting it drop back down. The crew grabbed onto the sides of the Zodiac while Cavanagh and Scaling tried to fashion a makeshift anchor out of a piece of plywood attached to the raft with the metal wire, hoping that it would help steady the boat. No sooner had they dropped the wood into the water than a shark bit it and began dragging the boat at full speed like some twisted version of a joy ride. When the shark finally spit the makeshift anchor out, Cavanagh reeled it in and Adams, in a rage, grabbed it and tried to smash the shark’s head with it. Cavanagh begged his partner to calm down. “The shark’s reaction to that might be bad,” he said, “so just cool it.”

Cavanagh believed that if they could all just stay calm enough to keep the boat upright, they could make it out alive. “The Coast Guard knows we’re here,” Cavanagh told the others, who had heard a plane roaring overhead before the Trashman sank. It was presumably sent to locate any survivors so a rescue ship could bring them back to shore. Unknown at the time was that a boat had been on the way to rescue the group, when for some reason—a miscommunication of sorts—the search was either forgotten or called off. No one was coming for them.

Brad Cavanagh is still haunted by his fight for survival. / Portrait by Matt Kalinowski

Fighting to survive, Cavanagh knew he needed to keep his mind and body busy. With blistered lips and cracked hands, he pulled seaweed onboard to use as a blanket, and he flipped the boat to clean out the urine and fetid water that had accumulated in it. First, he scanned the water to make sure the sharks had left. Then, with Adams’s help, he leaned back and tugged on the wire to flip the boat, rinsed it out, and flipped it back over again so everyone could climb back in. He had a job and a purpose, and it kept him sane.

The others struggled. Adams and Lippoth were severely dehydrated. (Adams from all the scotch he drank and Lippoth from the cigarettes he chain-smoked before the Trashman went down.) Meanwhile, Mooney’s cut was infected and filled with pus; she was getting sicker and weaker. As they lay together in a small pool of water in the bottom of the boat, they all developed body sores, likely from staph infections. Cavanagh’s skin became so tender that even brushing up against another person sent a current of pain through his body. After three days without food and water and using their energy to hold on to the Zodiac during the storm, they were all completely spent.

Realizing that the Coast Guard may not be coming after all, some crew members began to believe their only hope for survival was to eventually wash up on shore. What they weren’t aware of was that a current was pulling them even farther out to sea.

That night, Cavanagh dreamt of home. He was on a boat, sailing, and talking to the men on a fishing vessel riding along next to him as he made his way from Newburyport to Buzzards Bay. It was the route his family took when moving their boat every summer.

The day after he had that dream, the situation descended into a nightmare: Lippoth and Adams began drinking seawater. It slaked their thirst momentarily, but Cavanagh knew it would only be a matter of time before it sent them deeper into madness. Soon enough, the delusions began. First, Lippoth started reaching around the bottom of the boat looking for supplies that didn’t exist. “We bought cigarettes. Where are they?” Lippoth asked. Then Lippoth began trying to convince Mooney that they were going to take a plane to Maine, where his mother worked at a hospital. “We’re going to Portland,” he told her. “I’m going to get the car. I want you guys to pick up the boat and I’ll come back out and get you,” Lippoth said before sliding over the edge of the Zodiac and into the water.

“Brad, you’ve got to get John,” Scaling said to Cavanagh in a panic. But Cavanagh was so weak, he could barely muster the energy to coax Lippoth back onboard. “If you go away and die, then I might die, too. I don’t want to die,” Cavanagh pleaded.

It was too late. The wind pulled the Zodiac away from him. The captain soon drifted out of sight. Across the empty expanse of the ocean, Cavanagh could hear Lippoth’s last howls as the sharks attacked.

An old newspaper clipping of Cavanagh and Scaling, not long before their rescue. / Courtesy photo

Now there were four. Cavanagh, though, noticed Adams was quickly careening into madness, hitting on Mooney, and proposing that sex would cheer her up. Rebuffed, he decided to take his party elsewhere. “Great,” Cavanagh recalls him saying, “if we’re not going to have sex, I’m going back to 7-Eleven to get some beers and cigarettes.”

“You’re not going,” Cavanagh said. “We’re out in the middle of the ocean.”

“I know, I know,” he told Cavanagh. “I’m just going to hang over the side and stretch out a little bit. I’ll get back in the boat.”

Holding onto the side of the raft, Adams slipped into the water. Cavanagh looked away for a moment to say something to Scaling, and when he turned back, Adams was gone. Soon after, the boat began to spin and the water around them started to churn wildly. Cavanagh knew the sharks had gotten Adams, but he was so focused on surviving that it hardly registered that his racing buddy was gone forever.

The three remaining castaways spent the rest of the evening being knocked around as the sharks bumped and prodded the boat. They found something they like, Cavanagh said to himself. And now they want more.

Mooney lay there shivering violently from the cold. In the black of night, she lurched at Cavanagh, scratching at him and screaming. Then she began speaking in tongues. In the morning, Cavanagh woke first and found her lying on her back, her arms outstretched, staring into the sky. “She’s dead,” Cavanagh said when Scaling woke up. “She’s been dead for hours.”

Then a terrifying thought came to his mind: Maybe we could eat her. He was so hungry, so desperately famished, but her body was covered in sores and oozing pus.

Cavanagh and Scaling removed Mooney’s shirt so they would have another layer to keep warm, and her jewelry so they could return it to her family. They still hoped they would have that chance. Then they pushed her naked body off the raft. She floated like a jellyfish, with her arms and legs straight down, away and over the waves. Neither of them were watching when the sharks came for her, too.

After Mooney died, Scaling was troubled that she was lying in pus-infected water and begged Cavanagh to flip the boat over and clean it out. Weak and unsteady, he agreed to try. Standing on the edge of the Zodiac, he tugged the wire and tried to flip it, but he didn’t have the strength to do it alone. Then he gave another tug, lost his balance, and tumbled backward into the water. He tried to get back in the boat but couldn’t. Panic seized him. Every person who had come off that boat had been eaten by sharks. He needed to get back in fast, and he needed Scaling’s help.

Cavanagh begged her to help him up, but she only sat there sobbing inconsolably on the other side of the raft. With his last bit of strength, Cavanagh willed himself over the side on his own. He sat in the boat, winded and seething with anger. The entire time, from when they were on the Trashman with a drunken crewmate, during the storm, and throughout their harrowing journey on the Zodiac, Scaling and Cavanagh had upheld a pact to look out for each other, to protect each other from the sharks, the madness, the others. How could she have left me there in the water? he thought. How could she have let me down? They were supposed to be a team. Now on their fifth day without food or water, he couldn’t even look at her. There were two of them left, but he felt alone.

They sat in a cold, uncomfortable silence until he had something important to say. “Deb, look,” Cavanagh shouted. A large vessel was approaching them. They’d spotted a couple of ships before in the distance, but none were close enough for them to be seen. As it moved toward them, he could see a man on the deck waving. Shortly after, crew members threw lines with large glass buoys on the end of them. But they all landed short, splashing in the water too far away. Undeterred, the men on deck pulled the rescue buoys back and tried again.

Cavanagh, for his part, couldn’t move. “I’m not going anywhere,” he told Scaling. It felt as if every muscle had gone limp. He had nothing left after spending days balancing the boat, flipping it, pulling it, and watching his crewmates die. The ship made another turn. Closer. The men aboard threw the lines again. Scaling jumped into the water and started swimming.

Seeing his crewmate in the water was all the motivation Cavanagh needed. Fuck it, he told himself. Here I go. He rolled overboard and managed to grab a line, letting the crew reel his weakened body in and hoist him up onto the deck along with Scaling. Aboard the ship, Cavanagh saw women wearing calico dresses with aprons and steel-toed work boots waiting for them. They were speaking Russian. At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Coast Guard never came to save them, but ice traders on a Soviet vessel did.

The crew gave Cavanagh and Scaling dry clothes and medical attention, along with warm tea kettles filled with coffee, sugar, and vodka. That night, as the Coast Guard finally arrived and spirited the two survivors to a hospital, the temperature dropped down into the 30s. Cavanagh and Scaling wouldn’t have made it through another night at sea.

As Cavanagh was recuperating in the hospital, his mother flew down to be by his side. Seeing her appear at his bedside felt like the happiest moment of his life. His father, however, never came; he was on a sailing trip.

Cavanagh soon returned home to Massachusetts and once again felt the need to keep busy: He immediately began taking odd jobs in hopes of earning enough cash to begin traveling to sailboat races again. Processing what he’d endured—five days without food or water and man-eating sharks—was next to impossible. The Southern Ocean Racing Conference season in Florida started in January, and he was determined to be there, but not necessarily to race. He needed to talk to the only other person who had made it off that Zodiac alive. He had something important he needed to tell Scaling.

A few months later, Cavanagh boarded a flight to Fort Lauderdale for the event. With no place to stay, he slept in an empty boat parked in a field. Walking around the next day, he caught a glimpse of the latest issue of Sail magazine and stopped dead in his tracks: Staring back at him was a photo of him and Adams, plastered across the cover. A photographer had snapped a shot of the two racing buddies just before they’d joined the Trashman. It was like seeing a ghost.

Cavanagh paced the docks searching for Scaling—then there she stood, looking as beautiful as ever. His whole body was pumping with adrenaline at the sight of his former crewmate. He needed to tell her he was in love with her. They had shared something that no one else could ever understand. The bond he felt was far deeper than any he’d ever known.

He moved toward her to speak, but the mere sight of Cavanagh made Scaling recoil, reminding her of the horrors that she’d suffered at sea while in the Zodiac. “I’m sorry, but I cannot be around you,” he recalls her saying. “I don’t want you to have anything to do with me. Please leave me alone.” Dejected and hurt, Cavanagh retreated. Then he did what he’d always done: He walked the docks, banging on boats until he found someone willing to hire him.

As the years rolled by like waves, Scaling became a socialite and motivational speaker, talking publicly and often about her fight to survive. She appeared on Larry King Live and wrote a memoir. She and Cavanagh both continued to sail and ran in similar circles, seeing each other often, and both trying desperately to hide their pain when they did.

Scaling eventually settled down in Medfield, where she raised a family and spent summers on the Cape. In 2009, her son, also an avid sailor, drowned in an accident. Nearly three years to the day later, she passed away in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, at 54. Cavanagh was walking out of a marina in Newport, Rhode Island, when someone broke the news to him. He was profoundly disappointed. Disappointed with life itself. He had loved her. There was no information in her obituary about her cause of death, but he recalls there were whispers among family members of suicide. Cavanagh believed no one could have saved her: She was still tortured by those days lost at sea. He was now the lone survivor of the Trashman tragedy.

Several years later, Scaling’s daughter gave Cavanagh a frame. Inside it was a neatly coiled metal wire—the same one Cavanagh had rigged up to suspend their shivering bodies under the Zodiac and flip the boat to keep it clean. It was what had kept them both alive. Unbeknownst to him, Scaling had retrieved it after the dinghy was found still floating in the ocean. She framed it and hung it on her wall, keeping it close all those years.

Cavanagh remains hell-bent on learning why the Coast Guard never showed up in the aftermath of that fateful storm.

On a cold winter day, I drove to Cavanagh’s home in Bourne, where he lives with his wife, a schoolteacher, and his two children. He still had wide shoulders and a strong face, now layered with deep wrinkles, and greeted me with a handshake. His enormous hands engulfed mine.

The wind howled outside and a fire burned in the living room’s gas stove as he sat down on his couch to talk—for the very first time at length—about his life since being rescued. Above his head was the rendering of a floating school he once wanted to build for the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. It had classrooms, living quarters for the students, and bathrooms, but it never was built. It became one of Cavanagh’s many grand ideas over the years, all of which had to do with sailing, that he never saw to fruition. He wants to write a book, too, like Scaling, but he hasn’t been able to get started.

Sailing is the one thing that has remained constant in Cavanagh’s life. He said the ocean continued to give him freedom, even as he remained chained to his past, to the shipwreck that almost killed him, and to the abusive father who failed him.

While we sat there, listening to the wind, Cavanagh pulled out his father’s sailing logbook. In it were the dates and locations of his around-the-world trip. The day his father set sail in 1982, Cavanagh thought he was finally safe. His mother had just filed for divorce and Cavanagh no longer felt he had to stick around to protect her, so he left home to start his life. His father had invited him to join him on his trip, but there was no way Cavanagh was doing that. He wound up on the Trashman instead.

Cavanagh paused to read his father’s entries from the days that Cavanagh was lost at sea. At the time, his father had been docked and drunk in Bermuda, which lies off the coast of the Carolinas, just beyond where the yacht went down. Then he set sail again into the weakened tail end of the same storm that had sunk the Trashman, not knowing that his son had been floating in that same ocean, fighting for his life and waiting for someone to save him.

Cavanagh remains hell-bent on learning why the Coast Guard never showed up in the aftermath of that fateful storm. He has documents and photos from the official case file after the sinking of the Trashman, but they give few, if any, clues. He has spent decades trying to figure out what happened, and now that he’s the only crew member alive, he’s even more determined to find the truth. He wants to know how rescuers forgot about him and his crewmates, and why. Haunted by his memories, he has driven up and down the East Coast, stopping at bases and looking for anyone to speak to him about the incident. He is still adrift, nearly 40 years later, still searching for answers.