The sailor who died last year while the Coast Guard towed his vessel back to Hawaii had attached the towline to a “jury-rigged mast” that snapped while in transit, according to a Coast Guard accident report.
The 71-year-old captain of the 30-foot wooden-hulled Kolina went missing on Nov. 5, 2015, in the Alenuihaha Channel roughly 26 miles south of Maui. Search crews found his body under the vessel the next morning. Authorities determined the sailor, who was not identified, died from a traumatic head injury.
“Unbeknownst to the responding Coast Guard cutter’s crew, the mishap victim tethered himself to a jury-rigged mast while his vessel was under tow during 8- to 10-foot seas,” Lt. Donnie Brzuska said in a Coast Guard news release. “During the course of the tow the mast snapped, causing the fatal injury.”
In a separate investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board cited the sailor’s “failure to protect his personal safety” during the tow and his “decision to launch and operate a poorly maintained vessel” as key factors in the incident.
The sailor apparently lived on Kolina in the weeks leading up to the accident, during which time he had numerous interactions with local authorities. The captain was a seasoned sailor, and he told local agents he planned to sail Kolina across the Alenuihaha Channel to Molokai Island, west of Maui. The agents were surprised given the vessel’s poor condition.
Kolina was on dry land much of the time during its final three years. The wooden sailboat was originally built as a ketch, although on its final voyage the vessel had a mizzenmast and trysail in place of the main mast, the report said. Witnesses told authorities Kolina resembled more of a rowing vessel than a sailboat.
On the day of the incident, the captain requested Coast Guard assistance at about 1551 local time for a broken tiller. He had been adrift in the channel for two days after his anchor started dragging two days earlier on Nov. 3, pushing him out to sea.
At about 2100, the 110-foot Coast Guard cutter Kiska arrived at the sailboat’s location. Its crew passed a towline and a radio to the captain, who attached it to Kolina’s mizzenmast due to the lack of deck fittings, cleats and other strong points. The NTSB report noted the mizzenmast was not properly supported — a conclusion supported by the Coast Guard.
“Kolina lacked any deck fittings to attach the towline, so the mariner attached the towline to a jury-rigged mast improperly supported with polypropylene line in lieu of wire-rope standing rigging. This arrangement was insufficient to withstand the forces generated during the towing evolution and the jury-rigged mast snapped,” the Coast Guard said.
The tow began at about 2242 in 8- to 10-foot seas and 30-knot winds. Within about 15 minutes, crew lost radio contact with the captain, who was not wearing a life jacket. Coast Guard deck crew shortened the towline to about 100 feet and noticed the broken mizzenmast floating in the water. The sailor’s body was found the next morning after an air and water search.
“He was about 15 feet below the surface and close to the broken end of the mast,” the NTSB report said. “His left ankle was entangled in black line connected to a small cleat on a piece of wood that appeared to have broken off from the Kolina.”
Rescue crews cut the captain’s body free and carried it to Kiska. Conditions were too rough to tow the battered sailboat back to shore, so they marked it with a buoy and left it in the channel. Kolina sank within 12 hours.