Orphaned on the Ocean: The Terry Jo Dupperault Story

It’s rare to hear about people stranded at sea, so this story stands out because of the bizarre circumstances surrounding it. The story begins with a man in a boat and a little girl on a raft. In 1961, a tanker in the Bahamas crossed paths with a dinghy towing a life raft. The man in the dinghy said he was the captain of the Bluebelle, and a tragedy had occurred onboard.

Magazine Cover / Terry Jo Duperrault / Tere Duperrault.
Source: Wikipedia

The captain said the ship caught fire and everyone onboard died, but he found the body of Terry Jo Duperrault floating in the water. It was a horrific tale that he would tell investigators, but there was one problem; the real Terry Jo was several miles away clinging to life on a small raft under the tropical sun. This is what really happened on the Bluebelle and the survival story of Terry Jo Duperrault.

A Vacation Worth Waiting For

Arthur Duperrault always wanted to take his family on a cruise or rent a boat for a family vacation. As an ophthalmologist, he was able to save enough money by 1961 to take his whole family on a well-deserved trip. The Duperraults lived in Wisconsin, so they wanted to travel somewhere warm for a change. They decided to head to the Bahamas on a boat.

Terry Jo Duperrault adrift.
Source: Wikipedia

Arthur, his wife, son, and two daughters went to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where they met up with Julian Harvey (an old friend of his) and his wife Mary Dene, who joined them for their cruise. The Duperraults chartered a boat, and Julian was the captain because he had skipper experience from WWII. The family set sail on a ship named Bluebelle on November 8, 1961.

The Trip Was a Trial Run Before a Much Longer Vacation

Arthur planned the week on the Bluebelle as a trial run for a months-long vacation around the world. As an accomplished sailor in his own right, Arthur wanted to take his family on a more ambitious trip if they could handle being at sea for a week. Everything was going great, and the family was having a lovely time aboard the ship.

A family portrait during the holidays.
Source: Tumblr

The family spent the week snorkeling, spearfishing through crystal waters, exploring uninhabited islands, and dining on fresh seafood with locals. The vacation seemed like it would be the best, even if it were just a preview of a grander adventure. After lots of fun and sun, the Bluebelle began its journey back to Florida on November 12.

A Night of Murder

As the ship headed back to Florida, Terry Jo headed down to her cabin below deck that she shared with her sister. The rest of the family stayed upstairs, the children napping, the adults enjoying the last moments of their vacation. After a few hours, Terry Jo woke up from her sleep to her brother screaming, “Help, Daddy, Help!”

A ship in the open sea.
Source: Tumblr

There were sounds of people running, and Terry Jo was too afraid to move. She stayed in her bed till she worked up the courage to see what was happening. As soon as she opened the door, she saw her mother and brother dead in a pool of blood. Terry Jo was in a state of shock and headed to the deck where the boat’s lights illuminated her father’s friend, Julian Harvey, walking towards her.

The Horror Continued

As Harvey approached her, Terry Jo asked what happened. He angrily shoved her back down the stairs, but Terry had enough time to notice that nothing was wrong with the boat. The rigs were standing, and the masts were intact. Even the water was calm that evening. As Harvey pushed Terry Jo back to the cabin, she huddled on her bed in fear.

A portrait of Harvey.
Source: Tumblr

Soon, oily water started to fill the cabin, and Harvey appeared in the doorway. It looked like he had a rifle in his hands, and he stood there for a while. Terry Jo held her breath and closed her eyes, preparing for what would happen next, but Harvey turned around and went back to the deck. She remained in her bed until the water was as high as the bed and realized the ship was sinking.

“Is the Ship Sinking?”

Terry Jo made her way through the dirty water hoping she wouldn’t bump into a floating body. When she made it to the deck, she saw Harvey putting the dinghy and life raft into the water and she asked him, “Is the ship sinking?” He said it was and gave the dinghy line to her, but it slipped through her hands.

A view of the ship in the sea.
Source: Tumblr

As the dinghy floated away, Harvey dove into the water and took off without Terry Jo. She was left alone to die in the dark as the boat sank, which is why he spared her life. Harvey must have assumed she would die, and there wouldn’t be a witness to his crimes. Terry Jo had to think quickly if she wanted to survive, but she was just 11 years old and still in shock.

Harvey’s Eerie Past

Julian Harvey’s life was muddled with troubling facts. Despite his jet pilot coordination, Harvey was unusually accident-prone. In one instance, he lost a wheel on a convertible and turned it over as a teenager. He also had a checkered history with women, having been married upwards of five times before marrying Mary Dene Smith.

View of an air force plane.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of Harvey’s wives died in a mysterious accident when he was driving with his wife Joann and her mother. The car somehow crashed through a railing and plunged into the bayou. Harvey got out, but the women drown. His stories never quite added up, but there was no evidence to prove he ever did anything wrong to his previous wives.

Bluebelle Wasn’t the First Boat to Sink Under Harvey’s Watch

Twice before the Bluebelle tragedy, Harvey filed insurance claims for destroyed boats. Both cases were suspicious, but they decided in his favor. Later, Harvey’s friends said he swerved into an obstacle on purpose in the first wreck and admitted to setting the second boat on fire.

An air force portrait of Julian Harvey and his former comrades.
Source: Tumblr

However, Harvey’s suspicious past wasn’t known by the Coast Guard investigators who interviewed him three days after the rescue. He repeated what he told the tanker crew who found him, but they realized there were holes in his story, and something was amiss.

What Did Harvey Tell the Tanker Crew Who Found Him?

When Harvey came upon the Gulf Lion tanker plying the waters in the Bahamas, he called up to an officer on deck and identified himself as the captain of the Bluebelle. He said the litter girl on the raft was Terry Jo Dupperault, and she was dead. Harvey described his version of the story in great detail to the Coast Guard three days later.

A picture of Julian Harvey in the ship.
Source: Wikipedia

In the interview with the Coast Guard, Harvey said the Bluebelle hit some rough waters that damaged the boat’s mainmast so severely that it plunged through the cabin and hull. He added that it ruptured the gas line in the engine room, and a fire started. Harvey told them that the passengers either jumped overboard or were trapped on the boat.

Everything Wrong With Harvey’s Story

First, the idea of a mast going straight through the deck is improbable because broken masts tip over rather than fall straight down. Harvey also said he asked Arthur Duperrault to steer while he found cable cutters to cut the down rig. When the fire broke out, he claimed that Dupperault kept steering in the same direction rather than into the wind.

An illustration depicting Terry Jo’s interaction with Harvey.
Photo by Isa Barnett

This statement made no sense because Duperrault was an experienced sailor and Navy veteran. Harvey couldn’t explain why the lighthouse on the nearby island didn’t see the fire, nor did Harvey try to make it to the island when he found the body of Terry Jo, which was actually her younger sister Rene.

The Details Were Different Every Time He Told the Story

People started to notice that there were discrepancies in Harvey’s accounts of the evening. He told his friend Boozer that the engine was running at the time of the disaster. He told the Bluebelle’s owner it was not running. Also, he told Coast Guard he didn’t know how the fire started.

An illustration of a boat about to explode.
Photo by George Lipman/Fairfax Media/Getty Images.

When he got to Nassau, Harvey said the fire was caused by the auxiliary engine blowing up. He kept changing the story, and investigators concluded that he wasn’t telling the truth. Harvey couldn’t keep the story straight, but one person could help everyone learn the truth.

“We Found a Survivor”

As the Coast Guard questioned Harvey on why he didn’t look for flares in the dinghy’s emergency kit during his hours of drifting, a captain ran into the room and said, “There’s a survivor.” Panic set in for Harvey when he heard the word “survivor,” but he had to remain calm so they wouldn’t suspect him.

A Coast Guard is looking through a window with the telescope.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Harvey said, “Oh, my God! That’s wonderful.” However, he was thinking about how he could possibly get away with his crime. The only person who could ruin his chance of walking free was just found alive, and things were not looking good for Harvey.

Terry Jo Was Hours From Death

As the boat started to sink and the life raft and dinghy were gone, Terry Jo managed to find, launch, and hold onto a small cork and rope life raft as the Bluebelle sank. After three and a half days of floating on the ocean, Terry Jo was picked up by a Greek freighter.

The Greek freighter takes care of Terry Jo.
Source: Tumblr

Although she was severely dehydrated, badly sunburnt, and basically unconscious, Terry Jo was able to tell the crew her name. It was a miracle because her body was shutting down. She was rushed to the hospital and remained in a coma for a few days as doctors treated her dehydration and burn wounds.

“I’m a Nervous Wreck and Just Can’t Continue”

Harvey knew that once Terry Jo recovered, she would confess everything, and he would spend his life behind bars. As soon as he regained his composure in front of the Coast Guard investigators, he abruptly left the room, puzzling everyone. The next day, the manager at the Sandman Motel in Miami called the police.

The Coast Guards rush to take Terry Jo to the hospital.
Source: Wikipedia

Harvey committed suicide in his hotel room and left a note for his friend James Boozer. It said, “I’m a nervous wreck and just can’t continue. I’m going now. I guess I either don’t like life or don’t know what to do with it.” He also asked for his son to be adopted and to be buried at sea.

He Couldn’t Even Tell His Friend the Truth

The most significant bits of evidence emerged from Harvey’s friend Boozer. The two hung out two nights before Harvey’s suicide, and Boozer remembers that he took two sleeping pills. He asked Harvey to tell him what happened on the boat, and Harvey made him take a vow not to tell anyone.

Terry Jo lays in a coma in a hospital bed.
Source: Wikipedia

Harvey said, “The mainmast broke and pulled down the mizzen mast. It hit them when it fell and swept Mary Dene and the doctor off the deck. There were blood and guts all over the place. I lost my nerve and dove over. Next thing I knew, I was picking up the baby.” He couldn’t even confess to his best friend.

Recounting the Events of the Tragic Disaster

After a few days, Terry Jo came out of her coma and started to tell investigators her version of the disaster. The details were dramatically different from Harvey’s, but he was already dead. She told the investigators that there were no flames, and the masts were still standing tall when she last saw them.

A doctor and a nurse are checking up on Terry Jo.
Source: Tumblr

Investigators also learned that Harvey was having money trouble and had taken out a $20,000 double-indemnity policy on his new wife, Dene. Everything Terry Jo said, including the details of Harvey’s life, pointed to mass murder, but he became his own killer.

Floating Into the Darkness

As Terry Jo climbed onto the float, one of the lines snagged on the sinking ship, and she was pulled underwater for a moment until the line came free. The float popped back to the surface, and she huddled low in fear of Harvey waiting for her in the dark.

A view of the raft that saved Terry Jo’s life.
Source: Wikipedia

She had no food, no water, and her thin white shirt and pink pants couldn’t protect her from the chilly night. The moon set, and she was left in complete darkness. Waves broke without warning, and saltwater stung her eyes. She was cold and wet and wondered where her father was.

She Realized She Was in Great Danger

As the sun rose the following day, Terry Jo began to warm up, but she realized she was in danger without protection from the sun. The flimsy raft started to disintegrate, exposing her legs and feet to the sharp teeth of parrotfish.

Rays of sunlight over the sea.
Photo by David McNew/Newsmakers/Getty Images

With each passing hour, Terry Jo’s mouth got drier, and her throat was more parched. However, she had no appetite, and she wasn’t thirsty. She was worried about the coming night because she wouldn’t be able to see again, and she missed her family dearly.

A Plane Circles Overhead

On the second day of floating, Terry Jo spotted a small red plane circling overhead. She watched and waved at it for a long time with her shirt. At one point, it dove in her direction, so she waved frantically in the hope that someone would rescue her.

A view of a Coast Guard plane.
Photo by Museum of Flight/CORBIS/Getty Images

Unfortunately, the plane passed directly over her, close enough so she could see the details of its underside, but the pilot couldn’t see her. She was losing hope because she knew it would be nearly impossible for a plane or passing ship to see her. She looked like another whitecap, with her blonde hair and white shirt.

She Couldn’t Have Been More Afraid

Early in the afternoon, Terry Jo saw ghostly shapes approaching the float from 30 yards away. Her heart started racing as she prepared for the worst. However, as the figures came closer, she realized they were porpoises that stayed around for a few hours.

Porpoises jump through the sea.
Photo by International Game Fish Association/Getty Images

As the sun came through the clouds, she thought about Wisconsin and the cool waters of Green Bay. They seemed so far away. As the sun began to set, it was a relief to her skin. That night, Terry Jo dreamt about her dad talking to her. The float was so small that she had to sit upright the whole time.

The Third Day at Sea

It was Wednesday by that point, and Terry Jo had been on the raft since Sunday night. The sun was hotter than ever, and it caused her eyes severe pain. All her muscles ached. Her skin felt like it was on fire, and her lips were swollen and dry.

An aerial view of the sea.
Source: Reddit

Terry Jo had to balance rigidly because the float was falling apart. She started to hallucinate more as her body was shutting down. She later recalled seeing a desert island with a palm tree, and she tried to paddle towards it. However, she fell unconscious in the process.

“Will Anyone Ever Find Me?”

On her fourth day, Terry Jo didn’t feel the burning sun because she was barely conscious. Her raft was lifted over large waves, and water splashed over her. By midmorning, she could open her eyes slightly, but she saw a massive shadow over her.

Terry Jo holds a doll as she lays in the hospital bed.
Source: Wikipedia

She thought it was a beast as it rumbled and made her heart race. When she looked up, Terry Jo saw heads and waving arms. She could barely hear their voices, but she felt herself being pulled up and lifted out of the water as she passed out.

“Stop the Engines”

On board the Greek freighter, Captain Theo was scanning the waters when he noticed something strange in the distance. He thought it was a fishing dinghy at first, and as it got closer, he was shocked to see a little girl sitting and waving at him. The captain called out to stop the engines so they could get a rescue boat in the water.

A freighter on the open sea.
Photo by Camerique/Getty Images

They didn’t want to knock her into the water because the raft was so flimsy, so they made a makeshift rescue raft. The captain ordered them to hurry because sharks were approaching due to the commotion. Terry Jo went limp in the crewmember’s arms.

Making the Cover of LIFE Magazine

Within a month of being found floating on the ocean, a picture of Terry Jo, surrounded by vast blue water, was the cover of LIFE magazine. One of the crew members on the Greek ship that rescued her snapped the picture, and her story was the feature spread alongside the news of Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance.

Titled ‘Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean’ Terry Jo appears on a magazine cover.
Source: Titletown Publishing LLC

People from all over the world read about her harrowing tale of survival and the tragedy she witnessed on the Bluebelle. No one could believe how this girl survived for so long alone at such a young age on the open waters. It was a tragedy people had never heard of before.

Why Did Harvey Do It?

One investigator believes Harvey planned to kill his wife for the insurance money and make it look like an accident. However, Arthur Duperrault probably heard a commotion in Harvey’s cabin and witnessed him killing Dene. Harvey then stabbed Arthur and killed his wife and son.

A close-up on Terry Jo as Coast Guards take her to the hospital.
Source: Wikipedia

Some people believe Rene most likely drowned by being thrown overboard or held underwater by Harvey before he dragged her onto the life raft. It is also thought that Harvey didn’t kill Terry Jo when he had the chance because he assumed she would go down with the boat.

Going Back to Wisconsin

About a month after being rescued from the water, Terry Jo moved home with her aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandmother. They wanted to give her some sense of normalcy, but it would be a long time before she was able to talk about what happened to anyone other than the investigators from the hospital.

A newspaper clipping titled ‘Captain Kills Himself, Now Only Child Is Left.’
Source: Tumblr

People from all over shared their support for Terry Jo because she lost her whole family within a few hours, and their bodies were lost at sea. She never got to say goodbye, and no one could imagine how they would feel in the situation or how they would have survived on the raft.

A Year After the Tragedy

After trying to find some normalcy in her life, Terry Jo decided to change her name to Tere to forget some of the tragedies that happened the year before. It took many years to overcome what she had witnessed on the Bluebelle.

A newspaper clipping on Terry Jo’s survival story.
Source: Tumblr

She started seeing a psychiatrist, but they just kept focusing on the murder. However, she never saw a murder; Terry Jo only saw her dead mother and brother. She never saw her sister, father, or Mrs. Harvey. Years later, they finally got to the root of the problem: the loss she suffered.

She Believed Her Dad Was Still Alive

For years, Terry Jo believed her dad was still alive because she never saw his body. She said she would drive to South Carolina or Florida to be by the coast, thinking he would show up. She never wanted to believe that he was really gone.

Terry Jo holds her doll while lying in bed.
Source: Wikipedia

It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that she finally accepted his death. Before the tragedy, she was close with her dad because they liked the same things. She loved the outdoors and adventure, so Terry Jo looked up to him growing up.

It Took Her 50 Years to Share Her Story

In her first interview about the tragedy, Terry Jo said she believed she was saved for a reason. It took her 50 years to gain the strength to give other people hope with her story. Terry Jo added that if one person could heal from a tragedy, her journey would be worth it.

A current picture of Tere.
Source: YouTube

Terry Jo is a survivor, and she gave the exclusive interview to reach other survivors. It took her so long to heal, understandably, and she said there is no timeline with healing, but it is never too late to move forward. It takes a lot of bravery to get through what she did.

She Did a Sodium Amytal (Truth Serum) Interview in Her 40s

When she wrote a book detailing the tragic events of the Bluebelle and her survival, her co-author, Richard Logan, suggested she try truth serum to help clarify her memories. Logan had been Terry’s university professor, and he was an expert on lone survivors.

A view of Tere’s book cover.
Source: Tumblr

Logan felt his experience would give Terry Jo the confidence to believe in herself about what she saw and heard that night in 1961. She remembered seeing a bloody knife on the deck. She also remembered seeing her mother and brother floating in the water and blood, but she never saw her father or sister.

She Made a Life for Herself

Terry Jo, now known as Tere Duperrault Fassbender, made a life for herself after the tragedy. Her aunt and uncle tried to make her life as normal as possible without forgetting her parents. She went through many ups and downs, but her strong will helped her survive.

A portrait of Tere.
Source: Wikipedia

She got married, had two children, and still lives in Wisconsin. It took her a long time to be able to talk about her horrific experience, but against all odds, she overcame her grief. Terry Jo believes she was saved for a reason and wants her story to help others dealing with trauma.

Her Work Brought Her Back to the Sea

Despite all the tragedy she went through, Terry Jo grew up to work close to the water. When Julian Harvey left her on the boat, he thought the ocean would swallow her up, but the experience created a bond between Terry Jo and the sea. She was dependent on the water for four days and wrote about the ocean life around her.

A picture of Tere Duperrault on her boat.
Source: YouTube

After the tragedy, Terry Jo was drawn to the water. She applied for a position with the Department of Natural Resources to work with fisheries on the water. Later in life, she worked in Water Resources and Water Regulation and Zoning. Terry Jo wanted to protect the water because it saved her as a child. It also makes her feel closer to her lost family.

The Ordeal Led to a Change in Coast Guard Regulations

For four days, Terry Jo floated on the water in a broken white raft that started to disintegrate within minutes after her rescue. The raft was white and blended in with the white caps of the waves, preventing search and rescue planes from locating her.

Waves in the ocean.
Photo by Daniele Orsi/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

After hearing about this, the Coast Guard changed boating regulations, which is why they are now bright orange instead of white. This was recommended a year after Terry Jo was rescued. She is humbled to know her rescue led to change followed all over the world.

She Wasn’t Able to Talk About the Tragedy for 20 Years

When Terry Jo returned home to Wisconsin after the incident, she wasn’t able to ask questions or speak to anyone about her feelings. She went to school, and everyone was aware of her loss, but they could not reach out to her. It was hard for anyone to understand.

Tere speaks in a televised interview.
Source: YouTube

People who saw her years later apologized for not being able to talk to her or help. People were told to pretend like it never happened, and Terry Jo learned to stay quiet. She didn’t like attending large gatherings because she felt awkward in crowds, knowing everyone knew who she was.

Terry Jo Never Doubted Her Memory of the Events

When asked if she ever doubted her memory of the events from the Bluebelle, Terry Jo said she didn’t. She was 11 years old in 1961, so she was old enough to understand her family had been taken from her but not old enough to process why Harvey would have killed them.

Tere gazes at the sea.
Source: YouTube

She also couldn’t understand why he left her to drown in the middle of the ocean. Even if she couldn’t understand why, she knew these events happened and was able to tell the investigators the truth. Without her, people would never know what happened to the Duperrault family.

Oprah Reunited Her With the Captain Who Saved Her Life

In 1988, Oprah brought Terry Jo and Captain Theo on her show to reunite them after 27 years. He was the captain who spotted her floating in the water and alerted the crew to stop the boat so they could rescue her.

Tere speaks during an interview.
Source: YouTube

Without his help, she probably would have died because she was barely conscious when they found her. The reunion was emotional for both of them, but Terry Jo was grateful that she got to thank him once again. No one would have known her side of the story if she was lost at sea forever.

Her Life Challenges Aren’t Obvious

In her interview, Terry Jo said she was always a trusting person even after what happened. When her entire family was taken from her without warning, she had no choice but to completely trust the people around her. This unwavering trust made for many relationship struggles.

A picture of Tere and her daughter.
Blaire Hill-Morois. Source: YouTube

She hoped that those who read her book will learn from her experiences. After 50 years, she learned to have a healthy relationship with trusting people. Terry Jo finally came to a point in her life where she was at peace.

She Had to Heal Herself

Because Terry Jo wasn’t allowed to talk about her loss for 20 years, she didn’t run away from boats or the water. She decided to keep being adventurous, and writing the book gave her the closure she needed to help her fully heal. People who reached out after she released her book also helped.

An old picture of Tere and her father.
Source: YouTube

People reached out to tell her that their parents named them after Terry because she was a survivor, and their parents wanted the name to mean something. In the book, Terry wrote the dedication page to her parents, and it was the first time she wrote “mom” and “dad” since their murder.

She Almost Worked in a Hospital

Terry Jo studied X-ray technology as a young woman, but she realized she couldn’t deal with emergency room trauma. It would have been too much to handle after what she went through as a child. Instead, she studied cultural geography and received her bachelor’s degree.

A portrait of Tere.
Source: YouTube

When she looks back on it, she can’t imagine how different her life would be if she worked in a hospital. Today, she is retired from her work with the Department of Natural Resources. She lives with her husband Ron Fassbender, and they have six children from previous marriages and five grandchildren.