Offshore sailors typically spend an exorbitant amount of time outfitting their boat with safety equipment: jacklines, life jackets, strobes, whistles, liferaft, emergency grab bags, flares. Blue water sailors are always prepared for the worst; they make huge investments in equipment that most likely will never be used. If the rest of them are like me, they’ve read just about every offshore disaster story and tried to learn something from it.
After spending the past two years sailing around the world as paid crew on six different boats, I thought I had at least read about almost every emergency situation there was to come across on a boat, but there was one I just wasn’t expecting. On a bright, sunny day in late March 2001 in the North Atlantic, I came across an abandoned sailboat. It had been dismasted, and as we approached, we could see its tattered sails still hanging limply over the side and dragging in the water.
I was skippering Tintinara, a Swan 57, to Antigua from Deltaville, Va., in the southern Chesapeake. My crew were two guys from Florida, Steve Lumbert, a full-time environmental scientist and part-time delivery crew and Patrick McIlwain, a 20-year veteran skipper who, if I played my cards right, was going to replace me as captain on Tintinara once we got to Antigua to meet the owners. The delivery was his transition time. I convinced Pat that a delivery to the Caribbean during the wrong time of year was the best way for him to get to know the boat that he was potentially going to work on.
The morning of the sighting, we were relieved to have calm conditions after a horrific passage to Bermuda - I should say typical, given the time of year - with 55 knots on the nose off of Cape Hatteras. We were slapped by one low-pressure system after another and, of course, everything broke. We made it far enough south to avoid the systems coming up the coast. The only reason I mention this is because my immediate assumption when we spotted the boat was that it had been hit by the same storm off of Hatteras and didn’t fare as well. “Thank God I’m on a Swan,” I thought as I looked at her mangled deck. Lesson number one was driven home: Don’t do a major passage south from the East Coast of the U.S. to the Caribbean in March without expecting to get beat up.
Our position was 28° 12.8’ N by 63° 08.8’ W, which put us about 300 miles south of Bermuda, 550 miles north of Antigua, and 1,100 miles east of Miami. The wind was clocking and was on the nose again but light, at 5 to 8 knots. The 85-hp Perkins had been humming for a few hours and we were enjoying our first sunny morning with coffee and some great tunes bursting from the stereo. All were in a cheerful mood. We spotted a boat at 1000 about a quarter mile off our port bow; it was hard to see what we were looking at. From a distance, it looked like a small, square, white box. It would never have shown up on radar, and we could have easily run right into it. When you’re that far offshore, you are scanning the horizon mainly for ships. To see anything else is rare. My initial guess was that it was a piece of cargo fallen off a freighter. As we approached and upon closer inspection through binoculars, it was clear that we had a dismasted sailboat on our hands - with no sign of life.
The name on the transom was Sophia and the hailing port Nantes, France. It appeared to be about 45 feet with a center cockpit and an aft cabin. I’m not sure what make it was, but since the hailing port was French, I figured the boat was one of those weird-looking French designs. Regardless, the mast was completely gone. The only thing at the mast step was mangled stainless, which I assumed was a mast pulpit. The starboard life-lines were gone, which gave evidence that it lost the rig to starboard and the scratches on the starboard freeboard added to the theory that it rolled or the rig went down on the starboard side. Shredded sails were daggling in the water from the broken forestay on the bow, and half the boom was hanging off the stern. The waterline had brown stains on it. At the time we thought they were diesel or oil stains from a possible leak or malfunction. There was no sign of life on board from what we could see. We circled a number of times blasting the air-horn and hailing for anyone on board.
Pat and I looked at each other disconcertingly. “I don’t like this,” I said quietly. “Neither do I,” he replied. We both knew that we were obliged to board, but neither one of us really wanted to admit it. The conditions were ideal for such a maneuver, but fear of the unknown was such that we really didn’t want to follow through with it. There I was, in charge of my boat and my crew. What obligation did I really have to anything else? Isn’t that enough? Now I was faced with the decision of sending a crewmember off my boat and on to a boat that was obviously in peril.
So I started thinking about the what ifs: What if there were people on board, and what condition would they be in if their boat was as bad as this? Was I prepared for a major medical emergency? What if we found a body? How would I transport a body (or several) the next 550 miles to Antigua? Was I expected to perform a burial at sea in such an eventuality? What if there was no one on board? Would we salvage the boat? What if we all pretended we never saw it and just continued on and never told anyone about it?
My primary concern was the prospect of either life or death on board. I couldn’t think of anything else.
Boarding Sophia, even in ideal conditions, was no small feat. Being so far offshore you get some pretty serious swells, even on a relatively calm day. We probably had eight-foot rollers, which made coming alongside impossible. The only way to do it was to go bow-to at midship and have Pat jump from my bow pulpit onto the deck. Timing was crucial, as I had to have enough momentum to get him there, but as little speed as possible to throw it into reverse before we T-boned the boat and caused possible damage to my boat and, God forbid, Pat. The boat was lying beam to the sea, and we approached on the leeward side. We decided a VHF call was not necessary; since the sea was so calm, we could just shout across the water. Since neither one of us was really expecting anyone to be on board, Pat didn’t take the first aid kit. Plus, he needed both hands for the boarding maneuver. Luckily, the first approach was successful. He jumped on and immediately headed to the cockpit. It was kind of tricky, as he had nothing to hold onto on his way back to the cockpit: no mast, no shrouds, no lifelines. After a quick inspection of the deck and cockpit he gave a wave to say there was no one on board - at least not yet visible. You could say I was relieved.
Pat then disappeared down the main hatch. What if there were people on board and they were too incapacitated to come up the companionway to answer our calls? This meant they would have been in such bad shape that transporting them to my vessel was going to be nearly impossible. So I’d have to get my dinghy out and put them in the dinghy and then onto my boat safely. What if there was a body on board? Remember, we were 500 miles from nowhere at this point, so we’d have to wait hours for the U.S. Coast Guard to show up, that is, if we could have called the Coast Guard. As luck would have it, the SSB decided it was no longer going to transmit. It worked fine the day before, but now it was useless. Thankfully, my Inmarsat C system was working. Would the Coast Guard even come this far to retrieve a dead person?
On top of all the anxiety of potentially finding injured people, I added responsibility of my crewmember who was over there. As I mentioned, Pat is a long-time captain and definitely the most capable person I could send on a reconnaissance mission such as this, but with him off my boat, his safety was out of my control. The only thing I could do was take a deep breath and hope for the best. Pat soon popped his head out of the main hatch and signaled that there really was no one on board.
Now that I could check two things off the anxiety list, no injured people and no dead bodies, all I had to do was swing around and pick him up; he was sitting on the cabin top, waving impatiently like a bank robber looking for the getaway car. As I was positioning Tintinara to make a leeward approach midship to pick up Pat, he went below again, unexpectedly. With the anxiety level back up to where it was the last time he was below, I decided to continue on my final approach, knowing that he could hear me coming. He stayed down below for what seemed an eternity (probably five minutes) and ignored my calls for response. (At this point, the movie Dead Calm flashed through my mind, a film that did for ocean sailors what Jaws did for people who enjoy swimming off the beach.) My imagination was running wild, but he finally popped out of the hatch in the nick of time and jumped on the bow pulpit. He got on board and was obviously as shaken as we were.
He immediately announced that the reason he went back down below was to scuttle the boat. That option hadn’t even made it to my what-if list; I guess I simply hadn’t thought that far. Then again, I didn’t have 20 years of experience under my belt (or maybe just not enough testosterone). Nevertheless, I agreed whole-heartedly with the decision, as it certainly was a navigational hazard, especially at night. We were lucky to come across the vessel during daylight hours as we likely would have run right into the low-lying hull. Pat found a knife down below and cut the forward head and galley hoses. He said down below was a mess; it had obviously rolled around a lot, and all stores were strewn all over the cabin. Surprisingly, Sophia was fairly dry. There was water in the bilge, but not above the floorboards. All paper products had disintegrated, and he hadn’t seen a logbook.
None of us had ever seen a boat go down before, so we sat back and got ready for part two of this strange ordeal. It was only appropriate that, as sailors, we give the boat a proper burial at sea. We played Scottish bagpipe music and drank Irish whiskey from a flask as we circled for what seemed like an eternity, while it slowly filled with water and settled deeper in the water. Along with Amazing Grace on bagpipes, the CD player blasted every song on board that was remotely linked to sailing.
Now all we had was time to think about what may have happened to Sophia’s crew. There was no evidence of a liferaft on deck. Had the liferaft been deployed? Had it been washed away like everything else on deck? The primary winch still had three wraps from the jib sheet, and the handle was still in the winch. Whoever was on board had been sailing her to the end and most likely in good weather because both companionway hatches were open. The deflated dinghy was lashed to the stern. The dinghy outboard was still mounted to the transom.
We imagined lots of different scenarios in the three hours it took for Sophia to go down. She was taking so long to sink, that we jokingly started thinking that salvaging her should have been an option. We all wanted a good dry boat, and this one had proven itself. Steve was particularly envious of the roller furling system, the winches, the winch handles, the blocks. We knew that according to maritime law, you have certain salvage rights if you find an abandoned boat, but honestly, it just wasn’t the first thing that came to mind. Our mission was to ascertain if anyone was on board, dead or alive. After that, we really didn’t want to have anything to do with the boat. We all agreed that it would be bad karma to have taken anything. This was someone’s life. The spirit of the crew was still very much a part of this boat. Taking anything from the boat would have been stealing from a dead man. Towing her was not an option, as we were so far offshore. We had neither the fuel, nor the equipment to get her to safe port.
Sophia finally went down, dropping to the bottom through 17,000 feet of water. However, our saga still wasn’t over. At the time, we wondered if the boat was hit by the same storm we experienced before we got to Bermuda. This meant there was a very high probability that there was crew adrift in a liferaft nearby. There had been no EGC distress messages about this in the past week, which was strange because the boat was big enough and nice enough that it probably had Inmarsat C, although I don’t remember seeing an antenna, but it could have been swept away.
It was interesting to observe the crew’s reaction in the aftermath of the boat’s burial. Steve was convinced, almost obsessed, with the fact that we were going to come across the liferaft. It was a new moon and very overcast, so night watch was very dark, so dark that we could not see beyond our own bow. We were better off down below in front of the radar, but then how were we to spot a raft or even flares? Pat, the jaded two-time circumnavigator figured the probability of spotting Sophia in the first place was so unlikely that we wouldn’t see another thing until we got to Antigua. He was right.
An email from the Coast Guard the next day answered most questions for us. First, they thanked us for scuttling the boat (presumably because they didn’t have to). They also said they had contacted the French coast guard, and they had confirmed that the boat had been reported missing – over a year before. That’s all the information they gave. We were anxious to know if the crew was rescued, the liferaft deployed, had the family on shore been notified? After another 24 hours of speculation, I emailed the Coast Guard again asking for more info. They never responded.
Of course, the rest of the trip was spent trying to piece together the final moments of the crew of the ill-fated Sophia. After we got the email from the Coast Guard, a light flickered in Pat’s memory and his thoughts began racing. He said he remembered getting a barrage of EGC messages exactly a year before about a single-hander from France on a boat named Sophia who was headed to St. Lucia and never made it. Once he related this to us, I remembered that I had been in St. Lucia about the same time the previous year and saw missing person signs up about a guy who was supposed to have arrived there and never made it. This was the missing piece of the puzzle.
I still struggle with any real lesson learned or closure to this experience. Did I learn anything? Maybe. Since I suspect the guy went over in fair weather and no jacklines were rigged on the yacht, I now say with more conviction, “always hank on.” No matter how well you prepare, you never know what you’re going to be faced with on the open ocean. As I have always thought, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best is a pretty good credo.
? I still think about the single-handed sailor and wonder what he would have wanted me to do with his boat. If there had been survivors, and we did scuttle her, I would have felt a twinge of betrayal in not bringing their boat back to them. My gut, however, was telling me that Sophia was going to join her crew at the bottom of the sea. The only thing I still wish for is to know how to find the family so I could send the song list from our makeshift funeral and the pictures of the burial. Maybe it would mean something to them.
Carolyn Grant lives in Princeton, N.J.