For 17 hours, Michael Diaz floated across the Long Island Sound after his kayak capsized Saturday, drifting between the North Shore and the Connecticut coast and eventually reaching a Norwalk lighthouse.
He recalled alternately treading water and swimming, using his baseball cap to propel him through the chop.
It almost wasn’t enough. High waves, strong winds and unrelenting currents carried him for miles — with no boats around to hear his emergency whistle.
“You start doing the math for hypothermia and dehydration,” Diaz, 56, of Huntington said. “I knew the weather wasn’t in my favor. But after doing the math, I was wondering, ‘If I’m not found today, could I do another day?’”
But he was found, shortly before noon Sunday, lying on a dock below the Greens Ledge Light, a lighthouse about a mile from Norwalk, Conn.
In a telephone interview from his bed at Norwalk Hospital, Diaz said Sunday night that he felt “relief, appreciation, gratefulness” for his survival and his rescuers.
“I’m warm, my family’s around and I’m not bouncing up and down,” he said. “There’s no question that this could have gone incredibly bad. . . . I’m still trying to digest all the people who got involved. All the people who don’t even know me.”
Diaz had been fishing near Caumsett State Historic Park in Lloyd Harbor, hoping to catch stripers but instead hooking four porgies that he’d planned to eat as ceviche.
He was paddling in his treasured kayak — a Christmas gift from his wife more than 10 years ago — when waves began crashing over its top. The kayak took on too much water and flipped over around 6:30 p.m. Diaz was about 100 feet from safety.
“Nature wasn’t going to let me swim back to shore,” the married father of two sons said. “I could see the pebbles on the beach. It was a little maddening.” Wearing his life jacket, he tried to swim and paddle but the current kept pulling him into the middle of the Sound, taking him between Long Island and Connecticut.
By dawn, he figured the odds of surviving would be better. A search should be underway, he thought, before realizing that he’d floated far beyond where anyone would be searching.
Then he spotted a lighthouse.
“I already concluded that I had to find a way to save myself,” he said. “I just put my head down, took my baseball cap off and using the cap as a sort of leverage . . . little bit by little bit, I kept inching closer and closer. And then there was this moment that I realized I was going to make it.”
He put his hand on the rung of the lighthouse’s ladder at 11:34 a.m., he said, and signaled a passing boat. Twenty minutes later, he was being pulled onto Suffolk County Police’s Marine Delta boat and headed for the hospital.
Diaz was being treated Sunday night at Norwalk Hospital for hypothermia and sunburn. He was kept overnight for observation and hoped to be released shortly to celebrate his son’s 21st birthday later in the week. With his kayak sunk, he’s not sure whether he’ll return to the Sound.
Still, Diaz credited his life jacket — worn out of a lifelong respect for the water — along with his baseball cap with helping him survive until he could be rescued.
“I don’t know if it’s my lucky hat or my unlucky hat,” he joked.