"Both of us were resigned to dying because it seemed like such a good opportunity to do it," says H. Marvin Bird. 63, author of the harrowing sea adventure, A Long Time Between Beers, starting on page 74. "When death seemed so close, I became fascinated with it. I thought, 'Well, here it comes. Now I'll get some of the answers.' But Bill and I really talked just enough about it to agree we wouldn't talk about it. After all, death is a rather morbid subject, don't you think?"
For 11 horrendous, morbid days, Bird, a dedicated landlubber who had spent his life in such pursuits as dry cleaning, building contracting and mortgage insurance, had been lost and seemingly hopelessly adrift in the 16-foot Lazy in the raging Gulf of California. With him was his friend and co-worker, Bill Knorr, who was far from an old salt himself. Very far.
Theirs is a tale of men doing things that neither knew how to do, like building a makeshift still to produce drinking water. "I had no technical knowledge," says Bird. "We did it because we had to." But daughter Lydia, 24, of Santa Barbara, who helped write the article, says of her inventive father, "He knows how things work. He has always had a logical mind." The still, born of this logic, produced about a quart of potable water; it saved their lives.
The nightmare began a few weeks after Bird, a resident of Southern California for 24 years, had retired from Family Life Insurance Co. Knorr had just bought the Lazy, and the two thought that it would be fun to join a flotilla on a lengthy trip to the southern part of the Gulf. Soon after getting under way, however, it was apparent that Bird and Knorr lacked the ability and the boat lacked the capability to make such a voyage. So they dropped out, first to make a minor repair, then to fish. As they were heading to shore after each man had caught half a dozen triggerfish, the fearsome wind known as the chubasco sprang up, raising mountainous waves.
November 13, 1978
"Marvin survived because he knew a lot about survival," says Paul Palmquist of Orange, Calif., a friend of Bird's and a member of the search party. And why does Bird think he survived? "You've got me stumped," he says. "But we were optimistic when we had no reason to be. And we didn't fight with each other."
These days Bird has found a snug harbor on Spain's south coast where he lives in the tiny village of Fuengirola—without a telephone. He has three logical reasons for doing without one: 1) it costs about $1,000 to get a telephone installed; 2) because it costs so much, few have telephones, so Marvin would have no one to call; 3) and most important, "I retired to get away from the telephone."
Bird plays golf, gardens—and goes fishing in the Mediterranean. How can he bear to set foot on another boat? Says Bird, "Frankly, it has never occurred to me that such an awful thing could happen again. But sometimes at night when I'm out on the sea, I do think about it. And a very cold shiver goes up my spine."