It’s no surprise that Elmo Wortman’s incredible story hasn’t been made into a Hollywood blockbuster.
After all, a divorced 50-something disabled by rheumatism isn’t exactly leading-man material.
Yet Wortman was a hero in the truest sense of the word.
Hero: one who shows great courage, the central figure in an event
In the mid-70s, Elmo Wortman and his children moved to the remote coastline of southeast Alaska.
The kids were hardy and self-reliant – Elmo was both an authority figure and a role model, having worked as a commercial fisherman and serving in the US Marines.
In February 1979, the family was sailing back to Alaska in a home-built 33-foot boat (Elmo was also a skilled carpenter) when they were caught in a massive storm that left them shipwrecked on an uninhabited stretch of Canadian coastline.
They were miles from help and had no hope of rescue.
Caught in freezing mid-winter weather with almost no food, a sail as their only shelter, and a leaky dinghy that could only carry two people safely, the chance of survival was almost nonexistent.
But Elmo immediately took charge, and Cindy, 16, Randy, 15, and Jena, 12, had complete faith in him.
You listen to dad and you don’t question what he’s telling you to do beacuse it could mean the difference between life and death
Now, Elmo quickly realized that there was only one possibility of making it out alive – they had to paddle some 20 miles to a hut at Rose Inlet that was frequented by trappers during winter.
There was no plan B.
Elmo and the kids first patched up the dinghy so that it was up to the journey then, in a severely weakened state, they started paddling towards the hut.
It took them a full week to paddle just 14 miles.
At that point, all four agreed that Elmo and Randy should make one last Herculean effort to sprint for Rose Inlet after dropping the girls off on the shore.
As Elmo and Randy paddled away, they told Cindy and Jena that they would be back in three hours.
Both girls were relieved – after already being shipwrecked for 10 days, the end of their ordeal was finally in sight.
…we’re going to be warm, we’re going to be dry… by noon!
But in reality it hadn’t even started.
Meanwhile, Elmo and Randy kept making good progress towards the hut when things suddenly took a turn for the worse – the sea was covered in ice that was too thick to paddle through yet too thin to walk on.
They had no choice but to abandon the dinghy and continue on foot with what remained of their strength.
Frostbitten and exhausted, they finally arrived at the hut, expecting to find the help that would allow Cindy and Jena to be rescued.
But the hut was empty as the trappers had left just a few days before.
They found a radio and tried to call for help but were met with only static – the antenna was buried in snow and the area was in a notorious radio blackspot.
Elmo knew full well that heading back to the girls was suicide, and he and Randy had no choice but to stay in the hut and rebuild their strength before attempting a rescue.
They remained in the hut for 13 days.
By now, both men were convinced that Cindy and Jena would both be dead after spending close to a month in freezing temperatures with only a sail for shelter, and almost no food.
After coming across a fiberglass boat on the shore now that the snow had melted, they rowed back to where they had left the girls almost two weeks before, telling them that they would only be three hours.
Once they got there, Elmo told Randy to stay next to the boat while he approached the two forms lying covered by the sail.
He called out their names.
“Of course! What else would we be?”
All four headed back to the hut to find that the owners had returned, and they were rescued just a few hours later.
Their survival defied medical science.
We had the coastguard, the search and rescue, the doctors coming in and shaking their heads, saying ‘That just doesn’t happen’, but it does
So, what saved Cindy and Jena’s lives?
Well, according to Colonel Bruce Jessen, U.S. Forces psychologist, “optimism is critical – if a person is realistically optimistic that they can get through the situation, almost invariably, they will”
Cindy and Jena had complete and unwavering faith in Elmo, and unquestioning belief that he and Randy would return.
As Colonel Jessen put it, “A discouragement is what changes the potential to survive to the probability that you won’t”
Ultimately, what saved Cindy and Jena was their mindset.
We tend to focus on what the limits are instead of thinking we don’t know what the limits are
It makes you wonder what latent potential we all have lying untapped, just waiting to be unleashed by a big enough “why”
As Nietzsche put it, he who has a strong enough “why” can bear almost any “how”.
Cindy and Jena Wortman are perfect examples of that.
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