April 08, 1991 12:00 PM

For Richard and Evelyn Shanklin, this was to be a dream voyage, an idyllic honeymoon cruise through the West Indian islands. Their 30-foot sailboat was christened Go for It—and the twosome, married just two months earlier, had every intention of doing just that. Setting sail from Spanish Wells, in the Bahamas, on the sunny morning of March 18, they looked forward only to sharing another joyous day in their new life together; they had no idea that within hours they would be engaged in a struggle for survival.

The Florida couple—he, 51, a retired clothing salesman, and she, 49, a former chemical company employee—were frequent sailors. They had met a year earlier at a Fort Lauderdale sailing club, ‘Tell in love on the second date,” says Richard, and were married. In February they shipped out for an extended cruise of the Bahamas. A month and a half later, the 50-mile run to the Abaco islands looked like smooth sailing. “It should have been a 10-to 12-hour trip,” says Richard. ” ‘Everything was going fine.”

Then the wind suddenly switched direction and hit the boat with gathering force. Though Richard cranked up the engine, “we were barely moving,” he says. When the navigational equipment began to malfunction, he says, “we realized we might not make it to the Abacos by dark.”

Before long the Shanklins realized they might not make it at all. At about 11 P.M. the boat struck a coral reef. Within minutes water was rushing in—up to their ankles, their knees and, finally, their thighs. Calmly they prepared to abandon ship and board their eight-foot emergency dinghy. Both put on life vests. Evelyn gathered supplies, while Richard went to put out a Mayday call on the boat’s radio. When he discovered that it wasn’t working either, Evelyn tried sending distress signals on the portable two-way radio. “Come back, come back,” she remembers someone saying. She gave the boat’s position, but before she could confirm that the message had been received, the boat began to head for the bottom. “The bow went straight down,” says Richard. Evelyn, standing in the stern, was catapulted into the air, striking the mast. She was caught in the ropes and began choking on gulps of cold, salty water. Calmly she resigned herself—for the first time that night—to the end. “You relax when you know you’re going to die and there’s nothing you can do about it,” she says.

But Richard refused to surrender. He swam over and frantically tore at the rigging that was pulling his wife down. “It was a miracle that I was able to untangle her,” he says. Before they could rejoice, however, they recoiled in horror: The dinghy, which Richard had left unattended in order to save Evelyn, was floating away.

Moments later, the sailboat slid from view, and they were left bobbing in their life jackets, stranded without food, water, a flashlight or flares. All they had—for comfort, hope, salvation—was each other. Their lives ceremonially joined just months before, Evelyn and Richard were now tied together, literally, for life; she was strapped to an air-filled boat fender they had managed to salvage—and he was strapped to her. “I wasn’t scared,” says Evelyn, who was convinced, nonetheless, that she would die. “I was angry. Here I was starting out a new life, and it was going to be taken away.”

Richard, though, clung as tightly to hope as he did to his wife. “The Coast Guard will come,” he assured Evelyn. “When morning comes, I can swim us to shore.” But morning seemed an eternity away. Silently, Richard worried about the sharks that roam the Gulf Stream. Evelyn, unaware of the danger, concentrated on holding tight to her wedding ring. “My fingers were so shriveled from the water that it kept slipping off,” she says. Pain too made the hours seem longer. Evelyn’s back and neck ached from her fall, and the chill of the water caused her and her husband excruciating muscle cramps.

When Evelyn seemed close to giving up, Richard reminded her of the time they had planned on spending together. “You promised me 39 years,” he teased. “Can I yell at you every day for 39 years?” she replied. But as the night wore on, laughter gave way to despair. Fearful she would drag him down, Evelyn pleaded with Richard. “Cut me loose and go to shore.” she said. “I’m slipping off, I can’t hold on.” Richard refused. “You can let go,” he said, “but I’m not letting go of you.”

Then, nearly 24 hours after they set out, dawn’s light brought hope. Though they could see sharks circling below them, a helicopter was beating through the sky above. Both Richard and Evelyn shouted and waved their arms. Earlier that night, soon after the wreck, another Coast Guard chopper, notified by local Bahamian authorities who had received Evelyn’s call, had passed directly over them. At least, says Richard, remembering the mix of frustration and elation as they watched and waited for a second time, “we knew they hadn’t given up looking.”

On the next pass, the rescue crew spotted the couple, floating about two miles southeast of Great Abaco Island. “We were crying and waving,” says Richard. Minutes later they were safely aboard a Coast Guard cutter. They were then flown by helicopter to Miami, and a few hours later, after doctors had given them a clean bill of health, they checked into a Miami hotel but couldn’t sleep. “We stayed up to see the first light,” says Richard. “It was something just to see that again, to thank God. We’ve faced death together,” he adds quietly. “Given that, you have some very lasting thoughts about what you’re going to do if you ever get out of there.”

Laughing, Evelyn translates: “We’re going to stay on land for a while.” Then a second thought: “We will eventually buy another boat. The name,” she says, smiling at her husband, “will be Just Begun.”

Karen S. Schneider, Cindy Dampier in Miami

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