The Incredible True Story of the Young Girl Who Was Orphaned at Sea
The Incredible True Story of the Young Girl Who Was Orphaned at Sea

The Incredible True Story of the Young Girl Who Was Orphaned at Sea

Wyatt Redd - September 18, 2017

Throughout history, people have had a fascination with the sea. The infinite power of the ocean inspires a mixture of fear and longing that is as familiar to as many today as in the days when mariners believed its depths held mysterious creatures, from terrifying leviathans to alluring mermaids. And the sea has always been a source of commerce and pleasure, plied by merchant fleets and pleasure cruisers alike. And why not? Who wouldn’t dream of sailing a boat across the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean?

The idea fills our heads with images of azure waves and longing for the sensation of dipping our feet into the warm salt water as the tropical breeze blows through our hair. But for all its beauty and allure, the sea can also be a source of terror. And some of the most horrific stories of murder and survival have happened on isolated ships in the middle of the ocean. But stories of survival at sea can also offer hope and redemption- examples of people who fought against all the strength of nature and lived. And in 1961, a young girl named Terry Jo Duperrault found herself at the center of just such a story.

The Incredible True Story of the Young Girl Who Was Orphaned at Sea
Julian Harvey.

Terry’s story began with her father, Arthur, an optometrist from Green Bay, Wisconsin, whose youth serving in the Navy during World War II left him with a life-long dream to escape the frigid climate of the Great Lakes and sail the tropical waters of the Caribbean. In November 1961, Arthur gathered his wife Jean, his son Brian, and his two young daughters, Terry Jo and René, and drove down to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There he planned to rent a sailboat and spend the winter in the Bahamas, where he and his family would sail from island to island, snorkeling and gathering seashells rather than bundled up against the frozen winds of Green Bay.

Arthur soon found the perfect boat, a sixty-foot, two-mast craft called the Bluebelle. The Bluebelle seemed a perfect home for his family for the next few months, so Arthur closed the deal and began looking for a captain to pilot her. And he soon came upon the perfect candidate, decorated pilot Julian Harvey who had served and won medals in World War II and Korea. Along for the ride was Harvey’s new wife Mary Dene.

Together the Harvey’s and Duperrault’s weighed anchor and set off for what Arthur Harvey described to a customs official when they called into port at the Bahamas as “a once in a lifetime vacation.”

Over the next few days, the Bluebelle sailed along the island chain of Bimini, stopping at tiny villages and taking in the sun and the water. That Sunday night, the boat pulled to a stop near a place called Sandy Point, where the family enjoyed a meal of chicken cacciatore and turned in early, planning a return to the States the next day. And for 11-year-old Terry, it would be a night that changed her life forever.

The Incredible True Story of the Young Girl Who Was Orphaned at Sea
Terry Jo In Hospital.

As the sun settled into the gathering clouds that night, Terry left her family on the deck of the ship and moved towards her sleeping quarters in the back of the ship. She drifted off early, rocked by the motion of the waves against the ship. But after a few hours, she was jolted awake by the sound of her brother Brian. Brian was screaming for help from his father.

Terry slid out of her bunk and moved up towards the deck. As she passed through the kitchen, she witnessed a sight that chilled her to the bone. Her mother was lying on the floor in a rapidly expanding pool of her own blood. Nearby, in the main cabin, she found the body of her father and brother. Both had been slashed repeatedly with a knife and Terry could tell that they were dead as well.

But before she could call out for help, she heard the sound of the engine sputtering, and her nose caught the scent of gasoline as it poured into the engine compartment. And she could hear the seawater rapidly rushing into the ship. On the deck, she could make out the dark shape of a man silhouetted against the night sky. It was Captain Harvey, and Terry Jo could tell that he was carrying his brother’s rifle.

Her heart beat furiously against her ribs as Harvey studied her in the darkness. Harvey’s arm rose, but rather than shooting Terry, he threw her the rope to the ship’s lifeboat and told her to hold on.

The saltwater filling her cabin and her fear made Terry Jo’s hands numb and the line slipped through her fingers. The lifeboat began to drift away in the swift current of the Gulf Stream, and Harvey quickly dove in after it, leaving Terry Jo on the sinking vessel to drown. But thinking quickly, Terry Jo was able to untie a small cork float from the wall of the ship and rode it off of the ship. As the boat disappeared beneath the water and the sun rose slowly over the horizon, Terry Jo found herself completely alone, surrounded by hundreds of miles of open ocean.

And as the sun drove away the night chill, Terry Jo soon discovered the scorching rays were burning her skin and leaving her lips cracked and dry.

As her feet dangled in the water, parrotfish began to nibble at the vulnerable skin of her legs. Terry Jo could feel the moisture leaving her body with each passing hour and she began to hallucinate. She saw her family and heard their beckoning voices. Dark shapes began to appear in the water. At first, she feared they might be sharks, but as they broke the surface, she could see that they were porpoises, guarding the young girl as she drifted across the waves. She would need her help to weather the trying days to come.

The Incredible True Story of the Young Girl Who Was Orphaned at Sea
Terry Jo Duperrault Moments Before Her Rescue. History In Orbit

Over the next few days, Terry Jo endured the blazing sun and the freezing winds at night. Even during the day, the pleasant breeze of the Caribbean became a source of unbearable pain to Terry Jo as it blew across her parched eyes. She had had nothing to eat or drink for almost four days. And she began drifting in and out of consciousness. She was living in a dream world, where the line between her visions of being with her family became blurred with the harsh reality of her ordeal at sea.

The average person can only survive around three days without water, so by the time the sun rose on the fourth morning, and Terry Jo’s eyes fluttered awake, she was on the verge of death as her kidneys began to shut down. But that morning, as her eyes opened, she saw an enormous shape coming out of the haze on the horizon. In her extreme state, she thought it was a huge whale swimming towards her, but as it got closer and she could hear the hum of its engine, she realized she was saved. It was a Greek merchant vessel, plying the trade lanes in the Caribbean and there, at the end of her strength it had happened upon the young girl adrift at sea. Terry Jo’s story quickly made the papers and the photo of a ghostly little girl on a raft quickly spread across the nation.

But there was one person who wasn’t quite so happy to discover the girl had survived. Captain Harvey had been picked up on his lifeboat a few days earlier and according to the story he gave investigators, a tropical storm had blown down the mast of the Bluebell, tearing a hole through the boat and rupturing gas lines. Harvey had tried to save the passengers, but the ship had gone down too fast, and everyone on board had drowned. The authorities accepted Harvey’s explanation and let him go free. But when Harvey heard that Terry Jo had been rescued, he quietly checked into a hotel and slashed his wrists with a razor blade, bleeding to death shortly afterward.

Terry Jo’s account of the accident conflicted with Harvey’s and taken with his suicide, the police began looking into Harvey’s past. Harvey had been married six times and his last wife died in a mysterious car accident, which Harvey survived. Police noted that Harvey’s wife Diane had a twenty thousand dollar insurance policy. Thanks to Terry Jo’s account, they concluded that he murdered his wife for the insurance money and killed the rest of the passengers to keep his crime secret. Terry Jo returned to Wisconsin to live with her aunt and cousins.

Terry Jo has lived a mostly quiet life since then, trying to move past her ordeal. But she eventually penned an account of her experience in a book called Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean, allowing her story of heroic survival to serve as an inspiration to people all over the world.