UKUMEHAME, Hawaii – A 49-year-old woman held onto a water container to stay afloat for 19 hours until she was rescued from choppy ocean waters a mile off Maui, she said.
Lillian Ruth Simpson, of Juneau, Alaska, told the Maui News that she also wrapped her bathing suit top around her head to keep warm after sunset.
A fishing charter boat spotted her in the water Friday morning, dehydrated and sunburned. She was treated at a hospital and released.
"The times I thought, 'I'm going to die, I'm going to die,' I would say, 'No, I have three kids and you're not taking me anywhere," she said.
A buoy near where Simpson was floating registered an average water temperature of about 80 degrees this week, said National Weather Service forecaster Robert Ballard.
Simpson, who worked as a drug and alcohol counselor in Alaska, had been canoeing alone and paddled out to some tour boats Thursday morning to distribute invitations to a fundraiser for a documentary on youths and drugs. She was already tired from the effort when strong winds flipped her canoe, she said.
She called to a nearby charter boat for help, but it left her alone in the Pacific. She tried for hours to right the canoe before giving up, she said.
"Every time I turned it, the boat would partially submerge," she said.
Then she decided to swim for shore.
"I just kept trying to swim toward Olowalu, but really the water did not want to take me there," she said.
Simpson spent a long night dozing off, accidentally swallowing sea water, throwing up and trying to keep warm.
Joseph Carvalho Jr., captain of the boat Strike Zone, spotted what he first thought was a large balloon in the ocean early Friday morning. He went to investigate because floating objects usually attract mahimahi and other game fish.
It wasn't until the boat got close that the crew realized it was Simpson. After they carried her aboard, she was hungry, thirsty and couldn't remember her name.
"She told me that she kept telling herself, 'At least the water's warm,"' Carvalho said. "Your survival instinct kicks in. She made something out of nothing and that saved her life."
Simpson said that she is not a strong ocean swimmer, but that she has been around boats all her life because her father and sister fished.
"I won't say I'm not going back in the ocean," she said. "But I'm not going back alone anytime soon."