Lauren Conner laughed when she first slipped off the boat.

She, her boyfriend and another couple had spent last Sunday local time drinking in sunshine and cold beer on the Sassafras River on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

They began heading home, across the Chesapeake Bay, shortly before nightfall, but as the 6.5m Yamaha motored north into the bay at 65km/h, the hull struck a wake so hard that Conner fell off the stern.

She immediately popped to the surface, unharmed but embarrassed that perhaps she'd drunk a few too many bottles of Flying Dog lager. Conner, 32, expected some teasing from her companions as she watched the boat stop and turn back towards her. At any moment, she was sure, they'd find her.

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No more than 40m away, she screamed through the stiff wind. When that didn't work, she stripped off her white shorts and waved them.

Her boyfriend, Scott Johnson, frantically scanned the surface, but the fading sun betrayed him. The low light flashed across every wave, creating a kaleidoscope of false hope. Minutes passed, and he began to fear that she'd hit her head and sunk. Johnson called 911 and remained on the phone to navigate rescuers toward his position. He lit a flare and held it up as clumps of the fiery red substance dripped off, scorching his hand and head.

Conner, now aware she was in serious danger, eyed a wide yellow buoy and swam towards it, hoping she could cling to the sides until help arrived.

Just as Conner realised that its shell was too slick to grip, the rescue boats drew near. She could see their blue lights flickering in the distance, so she pulled off her maroon tank top to flap in the air.

By then, though, it was too late. Darkness surrounded her.

With a dozen boats and a helicopter unable to find his girlfriend, Johnson began to fear he'd never see her again - and he blamed himself.

"What," he thought, "am I going to tell her kids?"

In so many ways, though, the life she'd endured - one consumed by chaos and death - had prepared Conner for the most harrowing night of her life.

Her will, she knew, wouldn't easily break.

Lauren Conner is a survivor.

She faced a choice: Tread water and hope she'd be rescued, or swim towards a strip of green on the horizon.

Conner still held the tank top from her CrossFit gym in her hand. An image of a warrior appeared on the back. The shirt was her favourite.

She let it go.

"Lauren," she said aloud, "you are not going to die out here."

Conner, now only in a bikini, headed for land, helped by a current that was drawing her toward it. Still, she had no idea that the beach was about 3.2km away - or whether her legs would give out before she reached it.

She recalled what she'd long told her children in moments of fear: "As long as you can float, you won't drown."

So, she rolled onto her back and started to kick.

Few things were consistent in her youth, other than the water. Both of her parents struggled with addiction, and her mother spent many nights in jail because of it. Not long ago, Conner tried to remember how many different places she had lived as a kid. She quit counting around 40.

One of six children, Conner slept at times in cars, foster homes, her dad's office. Always, though, she would find her way to a pool or a river, a lake or a bay.

Her twin sister, Stefanie, thought of that, too, as she consoled Conner's 11-year-old son, Ethan Simpson. Much of the family had gathered after word spread about Lauren's disappearance. Stefanie had vomited when she first got the call but knew she couldn't let Ethan see her break down.

"Mommy is a fighter," she told him. "Your mommy is a mermaid."

She reminded him what Conner always said - just keep floating.

"What if she's not floating?" he asked her. "What if she's under the water and they can't see her?"

Beneath a deep purple sky, Conner sang a tune from Finding Nemo - "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming" - because it helped her focus on one stroke at a time. She joked to herself about how absurd the situation was, because jokes had always provided comfort in the worst times. She pleaded with Jesus to save her, because she believed he was listening.

Mostly, she thought about the four kids she calls her own: Ethan and his 15-year-old sister, her 17-year-old stepdaughter and Johnson's 5-year-old girl.

"I cannot let these kids down," Conner told herself, because she knew what it felt like to be let down.

She'd raised hell in her childhood, often because no one was around to stop her. But she changed as adulthood approached.

At 15 - a year before she had her first child - Conner's father was walking home from a bar in Baltimore when he fell from a train track and broke his neck.

At 18 - soon after Conner had taken custody of her two younger siblings - her mother overdosed on heroin.

Conner didn't give up, even when people expected her to, because she couldn't let her kids down.

She went to cosmetology school and, in 2007, became a hair stylist. For the past seven years, she's worked for herself and now runs her own chair at a salon in Bel Air, Maryland.

"You just do what you have to do to survive," Stefanie said. "That's just the attitude we've always had."

But there were moments on the water, Conner said, when survival felt unlikely.

Her energy waning, she turned over at one point to see how far she was from land.

"I'm not even close," she thought.

As Conner paddled on, the waves grew, pushing her head beneath the surface and forcing water into her mouth. In brief moments, Conner sensed that she was drowning.

Then, suddenly, the tips of her left foot's toes felt something.

Mud.

Lauren Conner, boyfriend, Scott Johnson, and his 3-year-old daughter, Juliet. Photo / Washington Post
Lauren Conner, boyfriend, Scott Johnson, and his 3-year-old daughter, Juliet. Photo / Washington Post

Around midnight, Johnson said, Maryland Natural Resources Police brought him on shore, where he filled out an incident report.

About an hour later, he said, officers sent him home. By that point, at least four agencies were searching for Conner.

When he pulled up to their house in Aberdeen, Maryland, the lights were still on. He sat in his truck for 20 minutes, unaware that Stefanie had already picked Ethan up. Johnson couldn't bear to face him.

He knew, too, that Conner's family was struggling to understand his explanation about what had happened.

How, if she'd just fallen off, had no one found her?

"This is on me," he thought. "One hundred percent, this is on me."

He spent a sleepless night in their bedroom - her photo on the night table, her painted coconut from their trip to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic nearby, her Jeep Compass in the driveway outside his window.

Johnson answered every call from a number he didn't know, expecting to hear a voice tell him that Conner's body had been found.

About 8km away, Stefanie sat in the driveway of a friend's house and smoked a menthol 100. She typed out a text that she'd begun to doubt her sibling would ever read.

"Lauren. Sister," she wrote. "My twinny. My inspiration. My best friend. I love you."

She couldn't recall ever being more distraught.

"We lost our mom. We lost our dad," Stefanie said later. "That was nothing compared to this."

Conner had reached Spesutie Island's beach overwhelmed with relief but still unsure of her fate. Rusted white signs warned that the area, which is part of the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, is used to test weapons.

Hoping to find someone, she walked north, climbing barefoot over rocks and fighting off swarms of horseflies. Exhausted, she made a bed of leaves - her "bird's nest" - on a concrete slab. Conner shivered so violently that her jaw hurt.

The moment reminded her of a winter in Baltimore when, around age 14, she slept one night in an abandoned building.

At sunrise, she walked back toward the beach. With no boats in view, Conner was heading into the brush when she spotted a raspberry bush. It was a good omen, she thought. One of her favorite childhood memories was picking them at her grandmother's home in Pennsylvania.

Conner trudged further inland, finally reaching a path that led to a road. Certain that her family believed she had died, Conner was desperate to reach them.

Minutes later, she spotted an orange truck driving toward her.

Then, the tears came.

Candy Thomson, spokeswoman for the Maryland Natural Resources Police, had been up for about an hour by then. As she made her coffee, Thomson formulated in her mind how she would announce the news of the year's sixth boating fatality.

Then a text from an investigator arrived.

"Girl found," the message said. "Can u believe it?"