Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Rob Konrad’s survival at sea is the stuff of legends

Former Miami Dolphins fullback Rob Konrad talks about his ordeal at sea during a news conference in Plantation on Monday, Jan. 12, 2015.
Former Miami Dolphins fullback Rob Konrad talks about his ordeal at sea during a news conference in Plantation on Monday, Jan. 12, 2015. Sun Sentinel

The man who should have drowned in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, alone, walked very slowly into the room Monday, with the woman who should be his widow beside him. They held hands tightly. A friend helped him climb a two-step riser onto a small dais, and he took his seat with great care.

“Happy to be here,” is how Rob Konrad began.

Before long the telling of the tale, publicly, for the first time, overwhelmed the former Miami Dolphins fullback turned Miracle Man.

“I shouldn’t be here,” he said softly.

He said it again, but the second time his voice broke and the words dissolved into emotion as he bowed his head and fought to regain his composure, wife Tammy doing the same.

Do you believe in miracles?

Broadcaster Al Michaels once famously asked, “Do you believe in miracles?” but we have a broader context now. We have a new definition.

A big upset in Olympic hockey is not a miracle.

But this is.

Konrad being alive, his girls ages 10 and 8 still having a dad – that feels very much like a miracle today.

“He had two angels on his back,” said Tammy, meaning the young daughters who helped Konrad keep swimming, hoping, praying, believing.

What is terror to you? What is the worst thing imaginable?

It’s a question none of us wants to even consider, but I’d suggest what Konrad went through late last week would rank near the top of anyone’s list of darkest fears.

You are suddenly alone in the middle of the ocean, helplessly watching as the boat from which you fell overboard while fishing by yourself motors away from you on autopilot.

The boat’s GPS tracking system had given you a rough idea where you were.

You look around and see no one, nothing.

You are nine miles from shore.

Nine miles. (That’s almost four times the 2.4 miles Ironman Triathletes are required to swim).

Konrad, a Dolphin in 1999-2004 and now retired and a financial adviser at age 38, had gone fishing off Hillsboro Inlet last Wednesday. He had stopped to buy bait, frozen ballyhoo. He had planned to get a few hours fishing in before he dropped the boat off in Riviera Beach at 3:30 p.m. for routine servicing.

He set the autopilot on trolling speed, about 5 mph. He had four lines water. One was being tugged.

“I had a big fish on the line. I ran over to tend to the rod and move it to a swivel-rod holder,” Konrad recalled Monday in a meeting room at a Plantation hotel where a brief press conference was held. “Right when that happened I had an unusually large wave hit the boat and the combination of the wave and the fish pulling on the rod ejected me from the boat.”

He surfaced to see his 31-foot Grady-White sport fishing boat, named the Compass Square, moving steadily from him, already too far to catch.

“I have operated and owned boats my whole life, and I ended up in a boater’s nightmare,” he said. “After panicking for a minute, I realized I was in some real trouble. There was no chance to give an S.O.S. I did not have a personal flotation device. There were no boats in sight. I quickly realized I was in a real bad situation.”

Konrad had gone overboard around 1 p.m. Wednesday and would eventually reach shore in Palm Beach County just before 5 a.m. Thursday, legs too weak to stand, body shaking uncontrollably.

He had been in the water some 16 hours, finding land some 27 miles from where he’d been separated from his boat. (The runaway boat was found on Dead Man’s Reef, Grand Bahama).

It is our human nature to be skeptical, so there may be some who doubt parts of this tale simply because they cannot fathom 16 hours alone at sea.

Me, I hope I am never so cynical that I stop believing in man’s capacity for heroism.

There is a reality-TV show called Survivor. Its participants don’t do the word justice. But Konrad does. His ordeal and its happy ending will bring a movie or book deal as sure as you are reading this.

Alone, he had started swimming west toward shore, following the sun, then, at night, following the faintly visible lights on shore.

Along the way he sustained several jellyfish stings. At dusk, a shark circled him but swam away. Spells of delirium overtook him.

Everything the lifetime boater and outdoorsman knew and had read indicated to him that hypothermia or cramps would set in long before he would reach shore.

“I shouldn’t be here,” he said it again.

There had been two rescue possibilities along the way.

Once, in the pitch black, he saw what looked like a recreational fishing boat about 50 yards away and tried in vain to flag it down.

Later, he saw Coast Guard helicopters overhead.

“They had come right over the top of me, had their lights on me and kept going. Didn’t see me,” he said. “That was a difficult time. At that point I didn’t think I was going to get found.”

The alternative being death, Konrad swam on.

He peeled off his shirt to reduce weight and resistance, kept moving to keep his body warm.

Meanwhile, back at their home in Boynton Beach, wife Tammy knew something was very wrong when Rob hadn’t come home.

“He always tucked in the two girls,” she said. “They were asking, ‘Where’s Daddy?’ We’re still in shock. It was beyond terrifying. It was a miracle he made it home.”

Konrad’s NFL-forged physical conditioning helped save him. But not as much as his will to live did.

He would spend three days at Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach, suffering hypothermia, severe dehydration and rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle tissue caused in this case by extreme exertion.

“I’m not going to die tonight,” he kept saying to himself. “I’m going to make it to shore.”

In time the distant shore lights grew closer by degrees.

Eventually he heard the most wonderful sound ever – the sound of survival.

“I could start to hear the waves crashing on the shore,” he said, voice faltering again.

He swam toward the beautiful sound, his two angels, 10 and 8, still on his back.

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