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Nathan Carman went fishing with his mom. A week later, he was found on a life raft—alone. Tragic accident or murder? Ocean sensors may point to the truth.

FROM THE DISTANT deck of the freighter, the yellow and red life raft looked almost like a misplaced toy, so small and bright atop the ocean’s heaving mass. As crew members of the Orient Lucky got a closer look, they saw a tall and lanky man, waving his arms in their direction.

It was September 25, 2016, a sparkling clear day on the ocean, and the Orient Lucky was roughly 100 nautical miles south of Martha’s Vineyard, headed to Boston. The captain, Zhao Hengdong, idled the black cargo ship, which was more than two football fields long, as chop pushed the raft toward it. A deckhand on the Orient Lucky flung down a life ring. The man, with a ragged bowl cut and scruffy beard, lunged for it. He hurled his body into the chilly ocean, sloshed through its undulating currents, and grabbed on.

The crew reeled him in, and as waves thrust him dangerously close to the ship, he used his free hand to fend off the hull. Two men climbed down a long, narrow staircase to water level and hauled him onto a small platform. He climbed up the stairs. Crew members then escorted the man to a lounge, where he sat on a couch and sipped soup from a white bowl. His name, he said, was Nathan Carman. He was 22 years old. Using the ship’s radio, he gave his account of what happened to a search and rescue controller with the US Coast Guard, Richard Arsenault.

“Mom and I—two people, myself and my mom—were fishing on Block Canyon, and there was a funny noise in the engine compartment,” Carman said, his words slow and deliberate. “I looked and saw a lot of water.” He explained that his small fishing boat, the Chicken Pox, quickly became inundated. Then, suddenly, the boat dropped out from beneath them.

Carman told Arsenault he climbed into a life raft and frantically began whistling and calling out for his mother, Linda. But he couldn’t find her. For the next seven days, he drifted on the open ocean.

The dramatic story ignited a media frenzy across New England. To many, the young man’s survival seemed nothing short of a miracle. After the rescue, the master of the Orient Lucky sent an email to the Coast Guard in which he commented on Carman’s condition. “His health looks like normal,” he wrote.

The open ocean is a dangerous place for recreational boaters—particularly the North Atlantic, where relentless winds, large swells, and frigid water temperatures are common. In 2016, the year Carman’s boat sank, the Coast Guard reported nearly 4,500 accidents at sea and more than 700 deaths in its annual Recreational Boating Statistics Report. Inexperienced boaters, rough weather, equipment malfunctions—the list of causes is long.

The report deliberately excludes any incidents known to involve assault, but out on the ocean, pinpointing what’s truly accidental is often impossible. Unlike the massive, always-on surveillance dragnet that our digital devices enable on land, the ocean is largely unmonitored. It’s a tricky place to police, particularly at night, when there’s nothing but empty darkness.

Aboard the freighter, Carman dried off and changed into a white jumpsuit. He didn’t need any medical attention. He asked Arsenault if anyone had found his mom yet. Arsenault replied that they had not. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. By the time of his rescue, the Coast Guard had spent five days looking for Carman and his mother over 62,000 square miles of ocean before calling off the search.

As Carman sat cupping his soup bowl on the freighter, the peculiar story of the Chicken Pox was only starting to unfold. Investigators quickly found out this wasn’t the only mystery surrounding Carman and his family. Then, as they tried to work out what happened to Linda, an unusual source of data emerged. An oceanographer had gotten involved in the case, and he knew that a special buoy was bobbing in the same waters where Carman said he had drifted. The buoy happened to be laden with scientific instruments that worked around the clock to collect data on the currents and the wind. The oceanographer realized that the ocean itself might know if Carman’s mother was lost, or murdered.

NATHAN JAMES CARMAN was born in 1994 and grew up on a hilly residential street in Middletown, Connecticut, an old sailing port turned college town. The only child of Linda and Clark Carman, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome—or autism spectrum disorder as it’s known today—when he was around 5. As a young kid, Carman struggled socially with other children his age. His parents tried to get him into group sports such as baseball and basketball, but “he never really got into it,” says Clark, a retired US Air Force avionics technician. Carman opted for more solitary activities instead.

His parents divorced when he was 10, and Carman went to live with his mother. As a teenager, Carman’s difficulty with social cues made him a target. “People picked on him in high school, even though he was over 6 feet tall,” Clark recalls. He says Carman got along better with adults, and he stood out as a bright kid who could converse on a wide range of topics. Clark, who says he remained on good terms with Linda, took Carman on fishing and hiking trips, where his son’s love for the outdoors blossomed.

Linda Carman, a stout, bespectacled woman with Greek features and graying auburn hair, worked as a nanny for kids with autism, among other jobs. She also received money from a trust fund set up by her parents late in their lives. Her father, John Chakalos, had made a fortune primarily as a real estate developer in New England, amassing an estate valued at more than $40 million.

Both Clark and a longtime friend of Linda’s, Sharon Hartstein, describe her as a giving person who regularly donated to charitable causes and did favors for people. But Carman and Linda’s home life was rocky at times. When the two went at it, Clark remembers Carman screaming before storming off. “But there were no attacks or violent behavior,” he says. Other family members alleged more concerning moments in his youth, such as an incident at school in which they told investigators that Carman held another child at knifepoint.

When Carman was 17, he ran away from home, making it all the way from Connecticut to Sussex County, Virginia. He was found several days later outside a convenience store. When he got home, he moved into an RV parked outside the house. He and Linda still saw each other for meals, according to Clark, but otherwise Carman kept his distance. “He was unsettled at that point,” Clark says.

Despite his troubles, Carman maintained a close relationship with his grandfather, John Chakalos. Chakalos doted on Carman. He bought him a cell phone and rented him an apartment so he could move out of the RV. He also gave Carman a Nissan Titan pickup truck and invited his grandson to tag along to meetings with his estate planning attorney.

According to Carman, Chakalos also gave him exclusive use of a credit card with a $5,000 limit and paid the bills off in full. Meanwhile, Carman picked up the popular and pricey sport of offshore fishing, and he started going on occasional excursions with his mother, who dabbled in recreational boating.

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