Flung off his personal watercraft and into the Great South Bay by a rogue wave, William Sullivan swam at night for two hours without reaching land. Exhausted and cold, Sullivan said he started dog-paddling and waited to die. Then his feet touched sand.
But the Bayport resident's ordeal, which started after he had gone to the bay for a leisurely spin and led to a massive emergency search, was far from finished. Once Sullivan's toes touched the sands off Fire Island, he swam toward the closest house but found it surrounded by a retaining wall with a ladder too high for him to reach. House after house, Sullivan said, he tried but failed to breach their retaining walls.
"Really Lord?" Sullivan said, recalling his thoughts as he made one futile attempt after another Tuesday night. "Did you actually let me swim two and a half hours and not let me out of the bay?"
On Thursday, Sullivan, 52, a matrimonial attorney, chuckled about how he — a man who'd ridden water scooters for 20 years — had learned a lesson.
"I went out there thinking nothing of the day," he said. "It's no big deal. It's a walk in the park. I will never, ever do that again. … No matter what it's like outside, take it seriously. You have to realize that things can go very wrong very quickly."
Eventually, after spending about two and a half hours in the chilly bay, Sullivan said he came upon a house with a ladder low enough for him to climb. He made his way to a sandy path ending at the water's edge almost two miles from where the wave tossed him into the bay. Sullivan called 911, sat on a bench and waited for help.
"He apologized for getting everybody out looking for him," said Suffolk Police Marine Bureau Lt. Rocco Baudo, who helped lead the search. "Then he said, 'God bless you all.' "
Sullivan said that when he jumped on his water scooter about 7 p.m. in a canal by his house, he joked to his wife, Leslie, that if didn't return in a half-hour, she'd better call 911.
About a mile north of Fire Island's Barrett Beach, the large wave hit from his "blind spot" — an eye blinded by cancer, Sullivan said. The wind and currents pulled him away from his Yamaha watercraft so fast that he knew he couldn't swim back to it. Sullivan said he was wearing a life jacket as the current pulled him toward Fire Island.
After he didn't return home, Sullivan's wife sent him several frantic texts that went unanswered so she took his earlier advice to heart and dialed 911. The call set off a search by about 30 first responders from the police Marine Bureau, three fire departments, and the Coast Guard. Rescuers discovered Sullivan's Yamaha at 8:11 p.m. but found no sign of him.
"He saw us looking for him, but we couldn't find him," Baudo said. "He was blowing his whistle, but with that wind blowing and that helicopter above, no one was going to hear it."
Police called Sullivan's cellphone several times, but service kept cutting out in the bay. Sullivan could see his wife's frantic texts through the waterproof plastic bag: "Where are you?" He delayed opening the case to respond or call for help, Sullivan said, hoping to keep his cellphone dry for use if he ever reached land.
Two hours into the search, the cellphone service held for the briefest of calls.
"It was very difficult to hear him, but it was basically, 'Help, I'm in the water,' " Baudo said.
The lieutenant recalled that he broke into a smile. That extremely short call told searchers they were looking for a live victim.
Sullivan, meanwhile, figured he was "cashing in" just before he realized he'd survive.
"At the moment where I was like, 'All right Lord, take me now,' I hit sandy bottom," he said. "That was lifesaving because my muscles were locking up and my body was shaking."
He hit the shallows of Fire Island Pines just before 10 p.m. The first house, which was lit up and served as his beacon toward land, was practically impenetrable. He kept swimming west, shouting, "Anybody there?" at each house but no one was because much of Fire Island is devoid of residents until the summer.
At the end of his ordeal, Sullivan said, his two daughters sent him loving text messages.
"I always try to express to everybody how important they are to us and how much we love them," Sullivan said. "Now more than ever, I will."