Shipwrecked alum has an amazing saga of survival

by Megan Murray ’09

Leo Sherman fulfilled the dream Illinois State prepared him to pursue. For years he enjoyed a career in education, mentoring students as a teacher and administrator. By the fall of 2008, Sherman was ready for a break from his professional duties and followed another passion. He took to the seas to be a part of his friend’s quest to circumnavigate the world.

The adventure nearly cost him his life.

“I had been a superintendent of schools for 15 years in four different districts, a building administrator for nine years, and a teacher for four,” said Sherman, who graduated in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree. He completed a master’s in 1982, and a certificate of advanced study in 1988, all in education.

He is now the vocational director for Iroquois County Schools in Illinois, which is the job he resumed after taking a year of unpaid leave to sail a 43-foot catamaran with an Illinois friend, Quen Cultra.

“I wanted a change from my job situation. While the trip might not have been the best timing for my career, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Sherman said.

Cultra, who had sailed around the globe in the 1960s, built a vessel named Queequeg II. He began his second attempt in 2007 with first mate Joe Strykowski from Florida. Sherman joined the initial crew for 40 days in 2008, connecting in Key Largo, Florida. They passed through the Panama Canal on Sherman’s 55th birthday. He flew back to his Illinois home in Gilman, while Cultra’s adventure continued. Sherman rejoined his captain friend and Strykowski in Australia in the fall of 2008.

“As we left Townsville, Australia, our trip began by sailing over the Great Barrier Reef. It was beautiful. We fished every day and anchored up almost every night, until we got to the Northern coast of Australia. About the time we got to Cooktown, it was turtle mating season. There were turtles everywhere,” Sherman said.

“It was the chance of a lifetime, all of it. That’s why I took a year off. I was sick of watching it on television, and reading about it in books and magazines. I wanted to experience it.”

The crew journeyed to Thursday Island, then on to Darwin, Australia. “It was just one adventure after the other,” Sherman said. Little wind and low fuel forced them to stop in Kupang, Indonesia—a primitive place on East Temor Island. After refueling they were on course for Bali. “There were pure white beaches and incredible coastlines,” Sherman recalled. “It was breathtaking.”

Back in Australian waters, a storm hit that damaged the rigging. The crippled Queequeg II sailed into Christmas Island. The men stayed for 29 days, which was “critical to the voyage. It delayed us enough to put us in the Indian Ocean’s cyclone season,” Sherman said.

On December 14 the three men began a six-day journey to Cocos Keeling Island. From there the plan was to navigate a three-week stretch across the Indian Ocean before reaching the island nation of Mauritius.

“We were headed through the middle of the Indian Ocean. We were sitting on three-mile-deep water, 2,500 miles away from anything. About 15 days out I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ But we were making about 100 miles a day, and finally on day 22 we saw land—Mauritius Island,” Sherman said. “I had never been so glad to see land in my entire life.”

After a week of rest and relaxation the men checked the weather and decided to continue west to Madagascar, a run of about 560 miles. They did not predict the extreme weather that engulfed them by the fourth day.

On January 20, 2009, Sherman was at the helm in the middle of a storm that would destroy the Queequeg II. The waves were 15 feet when he started his shift at 1 p.m., and had swelled to 50 feet when Cultra took over at 4 p.m.

“We were headed through the middle of the Indian Ocean. We were sitting on three-mile-deep water, 2,500 miles away from anything. About 15 days out I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’”

Sherman headed for the kitchen. “I was starving. I was living on instant coffee and cup-o-soup. I had my heart set on frying up some potatoes.” Just 10 minutes after he had gone below deck, a 50-foot wave hit.

“It lifted the stern straight up, shot the nose of the boat into the water, and flipped the stern of the boat forward over the bow. It was just a monster wave,” Sherman said. “I went to pick up the potatoes and the next thing I know, all hell breaks loose and I’m rolling over. Stuff is flying everywhere. I roll across the ceiling, then I stand up and I realize we’re upside down. Water is coming in fast, and the door and window to the cockpit are gone. The hatches and forward window are broken and gaping open.”

Cultra disappeared the moment the wave hit. Sherman found Strykowski. Together they secured the remaining water jugs, and determined the emergency position indicating radio beacon was working. Sherman found his scuba mask, and discovered air pockets on both sides of the boat.

“It lifted the stern straight up, shot the nose of the boat into the water, and flipped the stern of the boat forward over the bow. It was just a monster wave.”

“I put on my mask and dive under. Everything is covered in diesel fuel. As I surface back in the main salon after exploring the hulls, I can hear Joe calling my name. I lead him under water to the starboard hull,” Sherman said. “Everything was happening so fast. Joe and I quickly realized we had to get to the other side. All of our things—clothes, tools, fishing and scuba gear—were on the port side.

“After Joe found some rope, I dove through the main salon to the port hull. Joe was to follow along the rope when I got to the other side. I swam across with the rope, secured it, and then tugged twice. This was Joe’s signal to come across to the other side. Joe was confident he could swim across even without a mask,” Sherman said. “I felt tugging, then more tugging, but Joe didn’t appear. I dove back under to the other side, and Joe was just gone.”

Realizing he now faced a dire situation alone, Sherman experienced a range of emotion. “I’m angry, I’m upset, and I’m alone.”

Standing in a section of the boat that had filled up to his waist, Sherman had no time to ponder what happened to Cultra and Strykowski. He put on two dive suits he found among supplies that were still accessible, and made his way back to the other side of the broken boat as the storm raged on.

He grabbed the two, five-gallon containers of water before finding the boat’s shower. With the three sides of the stall protecting him from debris, Sherman floated in waist-deep water for two days, surviving on soggy crackers and dried Bing cherries.

“I was determined to stay alive,” said Sherman, who suffered numerous abrasions, deep cuts to one arm, and puncture wounds to both legs. He credits his survival on training from Cultra, who had instructed the men to stay with the boat should they capsize.

Darkness came fast that first night. When day broke Sherman started diving around the boat again, looking for anything that could help him survive. By noon he was exhausted, but he had found a hammer and wood chisel that he used to cut a hole in the hull. Physical exhaustion, lack of food, and exposure was taking its toll.

The next morning Sherman looked out his improvised window and saw a Korean freighter. “I started waving things around, but they didn’t send the boat. I realized I was going to have to swim.”

Sherman strapped together some bags, and emptied the water jugs so he could use them as floatation devices. As he made his way onto the bottom of the boat, a wave knocked him off his feet and straight onto his back. Despite added pain from this new injury, Sherman swam the equivalent of two blocks to reach the freighter.

“I start swimming but my boat is catching up with me as it moves with the waves and wind, and the freighter started toward me. My knee and ankle are caught between the two boats. I had a hold of a rope they had thrown down to me. I told them to pull, but they didn’t understand or hear me. So I am just floating between these two boats,” Sherman recalled.

The pull of water under the freighter became a hazard. “The hull started hitting me in the head. By the third blow it had knocked my scuba mask off. I realized I was going to die if I didn’t let go of my things and use both hands to pull myself out from under the freighter with the rope.”

All of Sherman’s belongings floated away. He was entangled in a rope ladder as he was pulled 25 feet up the side of the ship to safety on January 22, 2009. Sherman was rescued from the Indian Ocean approximately 200 miles from the Southeast coast of Madagascar. He had drifted more than 80 nautical miles inside the capsized vessel.

The freighter’s crew cared for him for almost two weeks as the vessel traveled on to Luanda, Angola. Despite some difficulty with airport immigration officials, Sherman flew from Luanda to Johannesburg, London, and then finally to Chicago. It was February 4 when he made it back to his family in Gilman, including his wife, Barbara (Getchell) ’76, M.S. ’84.

Since his rescue and return to his life as an educator, Sherman has had time to reflect on how his dream of living on the high seas turned into a nightmare. “I lost my best mates,” he said, noting Cultra and Strykowski were never found.

“I realized I was going to die if I didn’t let go of my things and use both hands to pull myself out from under the freighter with the rope.”

The experience has changed him in ways that are indescribable.

“I understand that one’s life is short and fragile. While I may have learned things from my experience, I continue to live in the same old world that I left to go traveling in 2008,” Sherman said. “Some say I’m bitter, more bitter than when I left. Many say I was spared for a reason, that I have something yet to do. Some say I haven’t changed. Others say this experience has had a major impact upon me, and maybe I’m even a little lost. Very honestly I’m still trying to sort it all out.”

One thing is certain and clear to Sherman. He will make his way back to the open water.

“I’m not done sailing,” he said. “Someday I will return to deep water, offshore sailing.”

2 thoughts on “Defying death

  1. Jerry Wirth says:

    An amazing story; one I can’t imagine. One thing you are not doing, is living a life of quiet desperation. good on ya. Jerry Wirth, ’88

  2. Pam M. says:

    Hi Leo,
    Remember me, old friend? I’m living in retirement from ISU in good old Covell–of all places.

    You certainly have accomplished a lot of great things. Glad you survived!!! You’ve got a guardian angel perched on your shoulder.