Surviving on faith and fish, a free spirit from Conway is rescued after 66 days at sea

Louis Jordan (right) walks from the Coast Guard helicopter to the Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in Norfolk, Va., after being found off the North Carolina coast Thursday. His family says he sailed out of a marina in Conway on Jan. 23 and hadn't been heard from since.

Jan. 23 was a rotten day to sail out of Bucksport Marina & RV Resort. An inch of rain would soon drench the swamps and rivers between Garden City and Murrell's Inlet. The next day's forecast wasn't much better: thunderstorms and gale-force gusts, conditions that would turn the Atlantic into a cold green froth.

Undaunted by the weather that weekend, Louis Jordan steered his 35-foot sailboat “Angel” into the Waccamaw River. He followed the river north as it snaked through the piney lowlands of the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge. Hoping to catch some fish, he took the Intracoastal Waterway to the Atlantic, heading north, toward the Gulf Stream.

Not long into his trip, Jordan was sleeping when a wave hit the Angel like a cannonball and turned the boat upside down. He somersaulted from one side of the cabin to the other. Suddenly, the floor was the ceiling, and the ceiling was the floor. His mast was wrecked; the Angel was adrift. He'd broken his collarbone, but he was alive.

For now.

Louis Jordan was 37 years old the day he left Bucksport Marina. He was about 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds — “a gentle giant,” according to friends and family. In a Facebook post, Jordan once described his arms as “those of a big hairy butter & egg man” and that the “Earth doesn't quite suit/fit me anymore.”

He'd long led an untethered life. He was born overseas, and had driven trucks for a living. He shared his father's Baha'i faith. “I've been everywhere man,” he wrote in another Facebook post in August.

“I've hauled a 53' trailer in every state of the continental US, took a ferry to AK, flew to Klawock to live w/ the natives & Inuit, rode to Anchorage & Sitka, flew to Iceland, Germany, France, the UK (Got kicked out of the UK), & Romania, & also drove to Poza Rica, Mexico w/ a horse trailer, sunk a boat in Texas, & am now floating on #2 back in Bucksport, SC. I was born in Suriname. Well, it's not much, but, who would have imagined?”

Jordan sailed to Bucksport Marina early last summer in his 1950s-era Pearson Alberg 35 sailboat. The marina was on an isolated elbow of the Waccamaw River. Soon after he arrived, he nicknamed it Bugsport Marina. “Visit me if you're nearby,” he wrote. “Not sure how long I'll be here, but plan on staying for today at least.

He stayed for months. He was “a spiritual kind of guy,” said Derriel Morris, who lived in a houseboat next to Jordan's boat. Sometimes, he fasted to clean himself out. He worked hard. Morris recalled how his friend crept into the dinghy to sand the hull eight, 10, 12 hours per day. He turned down offers of electric sanders. He wanted to do it himself, by hand.

The boat was a little rough when it arrived last summer, but by January, it had fresh paint and shiny chrome, said marina manager Jeff Weeks. “He had always had a dream of going (offshore) fishing.” Weeks said that Jordan did jobs for him — repairs, computer work, landscaping. Jordan was friendly and polite. He helped dockmates carry their trash bags.

At night, Jordan would sit with Morris in Morris' houseboat, watching cable TV channels and waiting for a bell on one of their fishing lines to ring.

Morris said that Jordan seemed to be preparing both the boat and himself for survival. Jordan mostly ate rice and fish he caught himself. He had no car. He didn't drink alcohol. The only water he drank was rainwater that collected in his dinghy and the dinghies of his neighbors. He mounted solar panels and a windmill to power his boat.

Sometimes, he took Angel on short trips to Georgetown and other places along the Intracoastal Waterway. Like his boat, his mind seemed to float elsewhere. Last November, he wrote: “Seems like all we do in this orbit is spin, & then spin inside of spin inside of even bigger spinning things. I'd rather have it straight. Perhaps my celestial family will beam me back home one of these days.”

The force of the wave ripped up his mast and rudder. The boat eventually righted itself, but the cabin filled with water. His stove was ripped from its fasteners.

With his broken collarbone, he couldn't make repairs to the mast. His GPS and other electronics were toast. It's unclear whether he had an EPIRB, a satellite beacon that automatically sends a distress signal to search-and-rescue teams.

He was dead in the water, steadily drifting farther into the Atlantic.

Jordan had left the marina without the coffee creamer, Morris recalled. Jordan had spent several minutes describing what he wanted: pure cream, the carton shape and color, the quart size. Morris went to the store to get the creamer, but when he returned an hour later, Jordan was gone.

Weeks, the marina manager, also visited Jordan's slip soon after he left. He noticed an orange life jacket in the water and tied to the dock post. Thinking it was some safe voyage luck totem, Weeks left it fastened there, and it's still there today.

Family and friends weren't surprised that they hadn't heard from Jordan for days.

“If you know Louis, you know it isn't out of character for him to up and leave without telling anyone,” his sister, Emily Keller, wrote in a Facebook post early last February, when the days had become weeks. “He could be perfectly happy off grid somewhere. He could have just needed a break from society … All we know is that he went out to 'catch some fish' and didn't come back.”

For a few days, his father, Frank Jordan, also wasn't worried. But after a week, he decided to call the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard issued alerts along the Atlantic Coast. More days passed without word. On Feb. 8, the Coast Guard officially launched a search.

Frank Jordan, a retired teacher and experienced sailor, remained optimistic that his son would turn up.

“With God, all things are possible,” he told friends and family three days later on Facebook. “The Pearson 35 is an awesome boat that can ride out all kinds of conditions. Louis may have been blown out to sea by the nor'easter 10 days ago, and he may be making his way back now. I pray that is the case.”

Weeks and Morris and others at the marina also feared the worst. A nor'easter had blown in, and offshore winds were 60 mph or 70 mph. Jordan's sailboat was in good condition, but it was still tough to sail in weather. You had to steer from a tiller in the aft, with no protection from the elements. The door to the cabin wasn't watertight.

“There would have been insurmountable swells,” Weeks said. Jordan didn't have much offshore experience, and “even an experienced (offshore) sailor would have a hard time surviving.”

Inside the drifting Angel, Louis Jordan waded in water up to his thighs. He bailed what water he could.

Some days it rained non-stop, and everything he owned and wore was wet. Other times, he had almost no water at all. He had some supplies left, and for a time fried flour in oil to make pancakes. But soon his provisions ran out.

One day, after he put his clothes in the sea to rinse them, he noticed fish following them. He found it easy to scoop them with a hand net. Water temperatures were just above 60 degrees but he was able to hunker down in his cabin when conditions grew too fierce outside.

Over time, he was able to jury rig a mast and sail, but it wasn't robust enough to power him back to shore. His boat capsized two more times. He drifted north, farther away from South Carolina, farther into the Atlantic.

After 10 days, the Coast Guard ended its search.

Several sailors claimed to have spotted Jordan's sailboat, but there wasn't enough concrete information to narrow down his whereabouts, the Coast Guard told the AP.

Marilyn Fajardo, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard's 7th District, told reporters that officials also searched financial data to determine whether Jordan had come ashore without being noticed, but found no indication that he had.

At the marina, Jordan's dockmates held a prayer vigil. He has what it takes to survive, they told themselves. But after a few weeks they weren't hopeful.

Frank Jordan poured out his fears in a post on Feb. 16: “When your son disappears and the weeks wear on, and the weather is cold and the Atlantic is stormy and wild, many horrible thoughts begin to go through your mind, and you begin to unravel,” he wrote later that day. “Your life becomes a muddled jumble of prayers and tears and doubts.”

In early March, Jordan's thoughts about his son grew darker. “Now it appears that Louis may be gone. God only knows when I will join him and the others, you know, the ones who have left us. The ones who played their parts on this stage of life and then exited to make room for others” Then, three weeks ago: “You don't know whether to mourn or what. When they're lost at sea, only God knows where they are.”

Wednesday at about 3 a.m., a container ship called the Houston Express left the Wando Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant. It sailed under the Ravenel Bridge and out of the Port of Charleston, bound for Le Havre, France.

Operated by Hapag-Lloyd, the Houston Express was more than 1,000 feet long and capable of carrying more than 8,000 20-foot shipping containers.

Plowing through the Atlantic, it was about 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina on Thursday when the crew spotted Jordan's sailboat.

At first, Jordan didn't think the container ship was real, he would later tell reporters. He said the ship's crew did not see him until he began waving his arms.

“I waved my hands real slowly, and that's the signal 'I'm in distress help me,' ” he told WAVY-TV in Hampton Roads, Va. “I blew my whistles. I had three whistles. They never heard them. I turned my American flag upside down and put that up. That says, 'rescue me.'” In another interview, he said, “They saw me on front of boat standing up there waving my arms, and they turned that huge skyscraper around.”

Jordan said that he thanked the German crew for saving him and offered to do whatever work they wanted. They told him to rest and take a shower.

Meantime, the Coast Guard had launched a Jayhawk helicopter, which would scoop him up with a cage and take him to a hospital in Norfolk. Before that, however, the Coast Guard connected him by phone to his father, who was driving to Virginia.

“I'm doing fine now,” he told his father. “I couldn't fix it. I couldn't sail back with my boat. I'm so sorry. It's such a big loss …”

“Hey Louis, you're fine, son. I'm so glad you're alive. We prayed and prayed and we hoped you were still alive. So that's all the matters.”

“I was praying about you. I was afraid that you guys were crying and sad that I was dead and wasn't dead.”

“We were, and I thought I lost you.”

Jordan was thinner but looked remarkably good for someone who had been adrift for 66 days. He was able to walk without assistance. His face wasn't badly sunburned. He was quickly released from the hospital, where reporters gathered to hear more details about his survival.

The wave that capsized his boat hit “all of a sudden with no warning, BOOM!” he told TV reporters.

As the days passed, he told them, he rationed food and also found floating seaweed with little crabs in it. “They tasted dang good.”

His water supplies ran dangerously low.

“I rationed my water to where I had drunk about a pint a day, he told reporters. “For such a long a time I was so thirsty. And I was almost out of water, and every day I was like 'please God send me some rain, send me some water.' Begging God, please. And finally right before I ran out of water, finally the conditions were perfect.” He told “The Today Show” that he craved barbecue and organic ice cream, but that the rainwater he captured was sweet, like coconut milk.

His captain's log was lost in the water, along with his books, rice and most of his supplies. He survived with “lots of prayer” and read the Bible “front to back.”

After 66 days adrift and one day in the limelight, he said, “I feel blessed and full of love. I feel grateful for the chance to produce some sort of fruit in my life. Something valuable. Something to make the world a better place.”

This story is based on reporting by The Post and Courier, The Associated Press, Coast Guard records, TV broadcasts and social media sites.