Grabbing Onto The Blue Balloon

12 Feb 2006|Darrel Rhea

A good friend of mine is getting his 15 minutes of global fame this week. His recent story about his simple act of clumsiness has become so widespread internationally that if you were to Google his name, you’d get 868,000 options to learn about what he did and why people think it is meaningful.

The short version of the story is that Craig McCabe was single-handling his 65-foot yacht between Newport and the Catalina Islands off Southern California, and somehow fell off. The boat kept going, and he was there in the broad expanse of cold water by himself — without a life jacket.

At first a ship passed but didn’t see him, and a fishing boat motored by without hearing his increasingly desperate calls for help. He saw a buoy in the distance and swam toward it, but after several hours of effort, he began to fatigue and started to think about dying.

Then, as Craig tells it, “That’s when I started praying.” And what floated by first was a helium balloon, which he grabbed and stuffed in his jacket. Then later, after a few more hours passed and when the balloon finally deflated, a piece of wood appeared. He grabbed that and stuffed it in his jacket, which helped him float when he became unconscious from hypothermia.

In the meantime, his boat made it all the way to Catalina and beached itself, where the Coast Guard recognized it and called McCabe’s brother. His brother immediately organized a search party on his own and miraculously found Craig in the water just in time. (The odds of finding a lone swimmer in the middle of the ocean make lotto tickets look like a good investment.) Craig was blue from hypothermia and spent days in the hospital recovering.

The story gets even more interesting, as public response begins to unfold. Since the press first ran the story (you can read CNN’s article), hundreds of articles have been printed about it in all kinds of publications. A Christian network broadcast a video they made about it and many other TV stations broadcast video coverage as well. Craig told me that he is now getting thousands of emails from around the world, not just congratulating him for his escape but deluging him with requests for advice. As he explained, “I’m getting long emails from people sharing very personal stories, things they’ve never revealed to anyone else, looking for guidance and direction. And I’m completely unequipped to respond. I don’t have any qualifications to give advice to all those people.”

I’m deeply grateful that my friend is alive and well. But what fascinates me about the aftermath is how everyone is ascribing meaning to it in their own way. The circumstance just happened, but now many, many people are connecting it to things that reinforce their view of the world and the values they already ascribe to. They are using it to validate their own beliefs in a significant way. It’s a good example of how people generate meaning from their own values and experiences and project it onto someone or something else—such a helium balloon that happened to be blue with stars on it.

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