California ghost boat returns to duty

When Tom and Linda Camp took a group of resident biologists aboard their 50-foot steel ketch Just Imagine out to the rugged Farallon Islands off San Francisco early this September, it was a trip of both closure and celebration. Nearly a year earlier, Just Imagine had broken loose from an anchorage in the Farallons and drifted off into the vastness of the Pacific with no one aboard, leaving the owners to wonder if they would ever again see their vessel.

In the fall of 2003, Just Imagine had been doing duty as part of the Farallon Patrol, a group of some 50 volunteer boats supporting researchers of the Shark Project, studying sea life in the waters off the Farallon Islands, 26 miles west of the mouth of the Golden Gate. The boat was anchored on a 110-lb Bruce and 300 feet of chain. Conditions deteriorated, eventually becoming too rough for the lone crewmember aboard, who abandoned the boat for shore in the dinghy. Around 11 p.m., those ashore could do little but watch as the anchor light receded into the darkness. With no one onboard, the Coast Guard declined to go after the boat; Just Imagine was on its own.

The next day, the Camps hired a salvage company, which chartered a plane to perform an air search — to no avail. The Camps and friends also flew, covering hundreds of miles with the same results. Days stretched into weeks, and it began to look like another sad mystery with an ending lost in the Pacific.

On Nov. 6, 28 nerve-wracking days later, the Coast Guard called. The boat had apparently drifted down the coast of California, around Point Conception and into a U.S. Navy area off Santa Cruz, part of the Channel Islands, some 350 miles south of its departure point. A Navy helicopter crew had tried to contact the boat, and when no one responded, they called the Coast Guard. The vessel was towed into Ventura Harbor.

At first glance, the damage seemed minimal. A fishing pole left on deck was still there, as was a six-pack of Coke in the cockpit. The bilges were dry, though the batteries were dead. The radar had shaken loose from its mount on the mast and was hanging by a bundle of wires. A closer examination revealed the rigging was loose, the rudder had been damaged, and that water had made its way into the engine’s cylinders, meaning a serious engine overhaul was in the cards.

Initially, it was thought that the boat had simply dragged its anchor. The recovery revealed the 3/8-inch chain had parted several feet above the waterline.

“That was surprising to me,” Tom Camp said. “But the insurance company said they had seen this kind of thing before. The chain had been regalvinized, and if there’s a lesson here, perhaps that’s it.” Camp estimates the boat made about half a knot of direct progress over its route.

The boat was out of commission from Nov. 6, 2003, to May 1, 2004. Since then it has returned to its Bay Area berth, cruised back down to the Channel Islands and returned home.

“It’s been quite a year, but at least the boat is back in the water,” said Camp, who looks forward to resuming work with the Farallon Patrol, and whose next adventure will be sailing to Hawaii in the summer of 2005.

By Ocean Navigator