How One Man Survived At Sea Against All Odds
This is not the way I'm going to leave my kids.”
Kevin Olmstead treaded water for a mind-blowing nine hours and 20 minutes the day he was tossed from his fishing vessel and ejected into the Mississippi Sound.
Olmstead isn’t a Marine or a Navy SEAL—in fact, the Fairhope, Alabama, fishing boat captain jokes that he often gets winded climbing stairs.
Yet picturing his boys losing their dad was powerful motivation against the current.
“I just kept thinking, ‘I'm not going down like this. This is not the way I'm going to leave my kids, my family,” he remembers of the harrowing day.
Olmstead’s survival story began around 10 a.m. on May 22, 2022, as he was returning home from Dauphin Island, a barrier island off the southwest coast of Alabama. The veteran charter captain had been wading offshore when the wind began picking up, so he decided to pack his things and head home.
On the way back, with the water getting bumpy, he decided to grab his life jacket from the back of the boat—a safety precaution that would prove morbidly ironic.
When the father of two came up for air, his head was bumping against the side of the boat and he could see the Ranger Boats sticker in front of him through the water. Three-foot waves were towering in all directions.
As he reached out his arms, he felt his fingers brush the boat ladder. Gasping for air, Olmstead managed to get one finger over a rung before it slipped off.
He could see that the boat was slowly moving away from him and quickly realized it must have been in gear. He tried to swim toward it, but the weight of his waterlogged wading boots tugged at his ankles.
“It’s like having two bricks tied to your feet. I don't think Michael Phelps could have reached that boat,” he says.
The gravity of the situation suddenly bore down on him.
“I felt a panic I've never felt in my life,” he remembers. “It was almost like having a heart attack. I realized I had just put myself in a situation that I may not be able to get out of. That could cost me my life.
“Then, as fast as the panic hit me, just as immediately, survival mode kicked in. I don't know how, but I just thought, ‘Stop, calm down. There’s nothing you can do about this right this second, so let's figure out how we're gonna stay alive.”
A plan of action
“At that point, all I had left was my underwear and my Columbia shirt,” he recalls of his desperation.
The Tamiami fishing shirt he was wearing had long sleeves that he thought might work better than his shorts.
“The wind was blowing hard, so I took the shirt off and I tied the sleeves up at the ends. I got each one filled with air to about the size of a baseball, maybe a little less.
“I curled them up and held them tight. It was a small amount of air—and when I say ‘small,’ I'm talking very little. But I held the sleeves up against my chest and said, ‘Let's see if this works.’”
He stopped treading water for a minute to see what would happen.
“I still sank underneath the water, but it seemed to help me just a tiny bit.”
If nothing else, he says, it gave him hope.
“I could pull those two little bubbles down underneath the water and feel a little bit of pressure. Like when you pull a life jacket down and it gets hard to push. It wasn’t a bunch, but any little bit helped.”
For the first 30 or 40 minutes, he was preparing himself to drown.
“I just thought, ‘I'm not going to be able to survive this. ‘This is going to be awful.’
“I did a lot of praying and talking to my kids. They were right there with me.”
As more time passed, however, it occurred to him that he might actually survive. He wasn’t wearing a watch, but he tried to estimate how much time was passing.
“Every so often I’d think to myself, “It seems like it's been half an hour. I'm still here.
“Then another 30 minutes would go by. I didn't know if I was dreaming or what—the water kept going over me, I was drinking the saltwater. Every half hour that went by I was like, ‘Oh my god, I'm still here. I can't believe it.’
“At some point, I knew I’d made it a couple hours. That’s when I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this.’”
Passing the time
Around 12:30 p.m, hypothermia began developing, although he didn’t know it yet. He still had seven hours to go.
During those hours, the 30-year fishing veteran cycled through a gamut of emotions. He felt stupid for having disconnected the kill switch, for not having worn his life jacket. He felt guilty for abandoning his family.
He experienced moments of extreme fear and despair as he thought about drowning—the physical sensations, all the movies he’d seen. At one especially painful point, he realized his fight for survival was occurring close to where a friend had drowned several years earlier.
There were moments where the physical exertion grew almost unbearable. Yet each time he felt he couldn’t move anymore, he’d think about his family—his wife back home, his two kids, his parents who'd be left childless.
And each time, he’d kick back into gear.
“It made me sick thinking I wasn't going to see my kids anymore,” he remembers of the traumatic ordeal. “That right there gives you enough willpower to keep going.”
There was a piling in the distance. It seemed too far to swim to, but at that point it was his only option.
“I swam against the current for a couple of hours at least,” he recalls.
By the time he got near, it was almost dusk and he’d been in the water close to a full day. He was delirious and beginning to convulse from the cold and hypothermia. As he grabbed the pole, he could feel that it was covered in razor-sharp barnacles.
“When I finally reached the piling, staying on it was another job in itself. I had to use the rough part of my palms and hold on as lightly as I could so I didn’t get completely cut up.
“My feet were around the bottom. There were barnacles there too, so I held them in the concave portion. Every time a wave would come, I’d get slammed against it, so my ribs hurt too.”
A rescue gets underway
Having grown up in Fairhope and spent three decades fishing, Olmstead was an integral part of the community. Half a dozen volunteer boats hit the water. Facebook threads went wild. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) was deployed, and a marine patroller from local law enforcement scoured the water.
A close friend kept Olmstead’s wife updated in secret so that his boys and parents wouldn’t worry. Search crews combed the water, and by dusk, a helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft were flying overhead. But there was no sign of the 53-year-old.
All the while, Olmstead had continued to clutch the piling. However, he was reaching a point of collapse. He could see boats in the distance and a plane flying overhead, but no one spotted him.
And then, just before 7:30 p.m., a fishing boat appeared that seemed to be moving parallel to him. He recognized his friends Rick Tourne and Kyle Mitternight from the front of the vessel. Elated, he took one arm off the piling and started splashing the water as hard as he could. His body was weak, but it was enough to catch their attention.
“I saw my buddy jumping up and down in the front of the boat and I knew they’d seen me.”
Back on shore, the message was relayed to another mutual friend who dropped to his knees and said, “He's alive.”
“He would've drowned because he wouldn't have been able to swim or hold on,” explained USCG AST1 Patrick Frazier, the rescue swimmer who attended to him. Frazier added that he’s never seen a case with that much raw exposure.
Lt. Cmdr. Mark Currier, a public affairs officer from the USCG Aviation Training Center, said he’s never heard of anyone surviving for that long in open water.
“For most people it's challenging to tread water for 15 minutes, much less nine and a half hours with waves and wind and hypothermia,” he said.
“In my experience, it usually switches to a recovery phase after a full day of searching.”
Something to hold on to
“Some people think it was all in my head,” he says. “And who knows, it could have been. But I’m telling you, I held on to those little bubbles for my life. When my buddies grabbed me out of the water nine hours later, I was still holding on to that shirt.”
According to Lt. Cmdr. Currier, it was a smart move regardless of whether it provided physical buoyancy.
“He had a great idea to take his shirt off and try to blow air in it and use it as a flotation device,” the lieutenant commander said. “That's what he had, so he used it. Whether it was a placebo effect or not, it helped him get through out there in the open water.”
Scenarios like that can be as psychologically challenging as they are physically, he added.
“It's different than treading water in a pool for nine hours where you can just reach out and grab the side,” he said. “When you don't see anything around you, the psychological effect starts to take hold. Despair, disappointment, resentment, anger. You have to be a tough mother to survive out there. … It was just sheer grit and determination [that kept him alive].”
Olmstead says it was his mind that kept him going more than any physical athleticism.
“I don't consider myself in great health,” he says. “I don't work out or do any sort of cardio. But I'm mentally tough.
“It’s a cliche, but it really [comes down to] a will to survive. I understand now when people lift cars or whatever. When they have that adrenaline when something happens. Because I experienced it.”
“Always wear a life jacket,” he said. “Have a float plan. Make sure that you tell a loved one where you're going so they can alert the Coast Guard when you don't come home. This stuff comes totally unexpected. ... You're already in [a bad] situation before you even know what's going on.”
Olmstead agrees, noting that he’s usually the extra-cautious one.
“I wear my kill switch everywhere I go,” he says. “My kids call me grandpa. They’re always saying, ‘Come on dad, let's go faster.’ … But it's one of those times where, in hindsight, I never should have put myself in that situation.”
The incident has taught him to never be complacent, he says. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing something—bad things can happen in an instant.
“People think it's not going to happen to them,” he says. “I've been on the water for 30 years running boats and I’ve never once had anything happen.
“But it only takes a second. Whether you’re in a boat, or getting in the car, or walking out into the road, accidents don’t take 10 minutes to happen—they take one second.
“And that's what this was. A second and a half, and I'm in the water fighting for my life.”
By sharing his difficult story, Olmstead hopes that other anglers and boaters will be especially vigilant on the water this season.