The guys in the Dirty Dozen suspected something was wrong when
Adam Ales failed to show up for free beers. At the awards
banquet for last month's Expedition BVI adventure race, held in
the British Virgin Islands, Ales's buddies wondered where he
was. "They figured I'd met an island girl," Ales says, "and that
I was off somewhere getting to know her better."
Ales was off somewhere, all right. He was off on a desert isle,
shivering in his lean-to, Tom Hanks without the volleyball.
Ales's main source of company was neither an island lass nor a
Wilson sporting good, but rather the hermit crabs he killed and
ate raw to survive his four days and nights as a real-life
Ales is a 20-year-old rock climber from Amherst, Va. He supports
his climbing habit by sanding cars at the local Maaco. He's a
member of the Dirty Dozen, a confederation of Virginia-based
rock jockeys hired to set up ropes and riggings for adventure
races. At 2 p.m. on Dec. 10, the first day of the Expedition BVI
race, Ales was piloting a dinghy from the headquarters boat to
the rappel site on Jost Van Dyke Island when the engine conked
out. He tinkered with the motor. He waved his arms and hollered
for help. He tried to paddle. "But the current and the wind were
carrying me away from Jost Van Dyke," he says. With two hours of
sunlight left, he spied a distant island and began paddling for
At sunset he made landfall on what he presumed to be Tortola,
thinking he'd hitch a ride to a hotel. He'd actually come ashore
on Great Tobago, an uninhabited apostrophe of earth three miles
due west of Jost Van Dyke. (The next landfall, had he missed
this island, was Puerto Rico, 60 miles west.) Ales spent the
night under a tree.
What happened over the next four days is testament to the
virtues of patience and courage, the resilience of youth and the
trustworthy training of the Boy Scouts of America. Like his
father, Matthew, and his brother, Andrew, Adam is an Eagle
Scout. "All the things that got me through the ordeal were
things I learned in Scouting," he says.
Day 1: On a beach on the northwest side of the island he found
some trees, "six, seven feet tall, bent over from the wind."
Using additional branches, he made a lean-to. On the hillside
near the beach, he spelled out SOS with driftwood.
Day 2: From studying for his Wilderness Survival merit badge,
Ales knew that he could go two to three weeks without food but
only a few days without water. He slaked his thirst with
rainwater from puddles. Dining was a dodgier proposition. "I
found a small hermit crab, cracked it open and ate that, no
problem," says Ales, who describes hermit crab innards as having
roughly the consistency of "a loogie." When he tried to choke
down a chunk of a larger hermit crab, he retched repeatedly. "It
had guts dripping off it. I just couldn't get it down."
Day 3: Since they haven't found me by now, thought Ales (not
comprehending that they hadn't yet realized he was missing), I'd
better build a shelter for the long run. Every day that he was
on the island, he obeyed the powerful male call to fortify his
shelter, a biological imperative known to scientists as the
"Home Depot reflex." On this day, with a pocket knife, rocks,
rope and more scavenged wood he "built a little bit of a roof."
That added overhang came in handy: It rained all night.
Day 4: At 6 a.m. on the morning after the awards banquet, race
officials realized that Ales was missing. A BVI police detective
was called in. A search-and-rescue helicopter was dispatched.
Five hours into the search the detective was overheard telling
searchers, "We're probably looking for a body."
Three hours later Ales heard a helicopter and sprinted out of
his shelter. The big bird saw Ales and landed on his beach, and
he was taken to the hospital on Tortola. "You're fine," said the
doctors who examined him. When he walked into the waiting room
afterward, a dozen friends, racers and race workers cheered him.
Ales is back at Maaco--sanding cars, trying to save money,
climbing when he can. Has the experience changed him? "Yeah," he
says. "I don't take little things for granted."
Anything else? "I'm grateful that I was an Eagle Scout. I'd
definitely encourage more people to join the Scouts." He would
also encourage them to just say no to raw hermit crab.
The next SI ADVENTURE will appear in the Feb. 18 issue
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT K. BROWN He was off on a desert isle, shivering in his lean-to, Tom Hanks without the volleyball.