Abandoned training vessel found on Pacific reef after long drift

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The 66-foot ketch Bonaire, owned and operated by the sailing school program of Orange Coast College in Newport Beach, Calif., and abandoned last July after suffering a catastrophic mast failure, was recently found — washed up on a reef on the Pacific island of Nonouti. Nonouti is part of the Republic of Kiribati, formerly known as the Gilbert Islands. Bonaire had been adrift for nine months and traveled some 3,000 miles, circulating in the trade winds and currents of the North Pacific. Bonaire was discovered by islanders, who stripped the vessel of electronics and other equipment. The vessel had already been considered lost by the school’s insurance company, which had already paid the school for the insured amount and reported it had no interest in salvage. The vessel reportedly broke up and sank on the reef, approximately 200 yards from the beach, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times that included an interview with an American Peace Corps volunteer who had visited the site.

Orange Coast Colleges other training vessel, Alaska Eagle, recently returned from a voyage to Antarctica.

The three professional crew and five students ditched the ketch, a 24-year-old, fiberglass Moody donated to the college in November 2000, approximately 800 miles from Hawaii (after successfully completing that year's Transpac Race). During a spate of rough weather, the base of the vessel's 70-foot mast had torn loose from its step in the keelson, according to Brad Avery, director of the school's offshore sailing program and one of several of the school's offshore captains. (The program also operates the 85,000-lb aluminum Royal Huisman yacht Alaska Eagle — see the photo above — on offshore training voyages. The vessel returned from a one-year, 26,000-mile voyage around Antarctica in July 2002.)

"The funny thing was, we had had the vessel's rig insured prior to the race, had it surveyed by two different people. This was a very strong boat by all appearances. But it goes to show you can't know everything about your boat no matter how thorough you are," Avery said. (Most vessels inv– olved in races such as the Transpac have difficulty arranging rig insurance because of the high degree of risk to a rig in ocean racing.) "I suppose that if the surveyor had asked to have the mast pulled we may have found some corrosion in the bolts — maybe not — but he had no reason to believe they were bad. I don't blame the surveyor." The vessel was built to Lloyd's specifications, he said. Avery said investigations into the incident had not focused on fault; he believes the crew acted appropriately in their handling of the emergency.

After jumping from its base, the mast dropped 18 inches into the bilge, puncturing a water tank. As water filled the bilges, the crew initially believed the hull had been breached and instigated a mayday call to the Coast Guard. Exacerbating the situation, the rig was swaying uncontrollably in the 30-knot winds and steep seas, threatening to topple at any minute, according to the crew. The boat's five students and one of the crew were evacuated to a diverted ship shortly thereafter, and the captain and mate stayed aboard to attempt damage control. After several days of jury-rig repairs, the crew also abandoned the vessel to a merchant ship, leaving the vessel adrift.

"They did the right thing getting off. They both have young families," Avery said. "We supported their decision at the time and continue to believe, even now that the boat's been found, that it was the right thing."

Asked whether the incident changed the program's philosophy and operating procedures, Avery said the events had reinvigorated their belief in the need to examine safety procedures. He said they hadn't changed any aspect of their program in the wake of the incident — save for adding an Iridium phone to Alaska Eagle's equipment inventory, to be used to contact the home office in emergencies — but he said the school has examined every aspect of the offshore program.

"It gave all of us pause; it was a real blow to the administration, the public, the students. It further reinforced the responsibility we have when we take people offshore," Avery said. "You can be over the top with safety equipment. We're constantly evaluating new safety equipment as it comes out. For example, adding the Iridium phone will enable us to communicate directly with the home office if something like this happens again." The vessels, both Bonaire and Alaska Eagle, had been equipped with satellite email system and an SSB radio, but no satellite phone.

Orange Coast College is one of the nation's largest and most diverse public sailing programs, offering programs to 6,000 students annually. The Antarctica voyage aboard Alaska Eagle consisted of 19 legs and was sailed by 10 different crew on each leg.

By Ocean Navigator