Rescue at Sea
Part 1. Setting Off.
Like Ishmael, “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world,” and so for some unfathomable reason I accepted the invitation of an old friend to sail on the return leg of this year’s Marion (MA)–Bermuda race. I had never been on a small boat miles from land before, and I looked forward to the opportunity to get away, to learn whatever I might and to have, perhaps, a bit of an adventure.
It was hot and humid the morning of Sunday, June 28th, when five of us set sail on Restive, a lovely 49’ wooden boat, a rarity in an age of fiberglass. With a forecast of clear skies and a favorable southwest wind, we were bound for Newport, RI, 635 nautical miles away. (A nautical mile, I learned, is not a precise distance as humans measure, but a fraction of Earth’s circumference, which is divided into 360 degrees. Each degree is further divided into 60 minutes, and a nautical mile is equal to one minute of the Earth’s arc – approximately 1.1508 miles.)
We had just pulled away from the dock when I inexplicably tripped over the cockpit rail and found myself fully airborne and heading straight for the back of our unsuspecting captain, who was intently maneuvering us into Hamilton Harbor. It was a clean hit, and the full force of my body drove the startled skipper into the wheel and firmly wedged his Adam’s apple against one of its spokes, rendering him momentarily unable either to steer or to breathe.
We were off.
Part 2. At Sea
We were five aboard Restive as, with the captain recovered although still bewildered by exactly what had happened, we headed out of Hamilton Harbor and onto the open sea, destined for Newport with nothing between us but salt water. We had clear skies and a strong southwest wind, which, if it did not change, meant we could sail straight to Newport without turning – or, as we salts like to say, on a single port tack. It also meant high seas, which made stomachs dyspeptic and turned the simplest tasks into physical challenges. For example, instead of simple walking to the toilet (“head”), it was necessary to grab onto whatever was handy and haul yourself painfully forward. Once safely there, you faced a whole new set of challenges, and it wasn’t long before I was very tired of urinating down my pant leg.
A few days earlier, with a different crew (we were the B team), Restive had completed the Marion-to-Bermuda race. It had been quite a trip. Early on, the electronic mechanism that furls the jib had broken during a storm, which forced the crew to spend several perilous hours wrestling the huge sail onto the deck. Then the head broke.
But Restive sailed on undaunted, navigating only by the stars. She had won the celestial navigation class twice before, but his time, for some inexplicable reason she veered to the northeast and missed Bermuda entirely. This is not an insignificant miscalculation, as the island is a lonely collection of rocks in an otherwise empty ocean – Cape Hatteras, the nearest dry land, is 580 nautical miles away.
Glad I wasn’t on that trip.
Part 3. Evening Star
We sailed out into the Atlantic under sunny skies, watching the water change from the aquamarine of Bermuda’s coastline to a deep, rich blue. A strong wind blew out of the southwest, and in the first two days we covered 352.5 of our 635-nautical-mile trip, a record 48-hour distance for Restive.
Ocean sailing consists of long periods of boredom, accompanied by discomfort and interspersed with moments of terror, all taking place in a tiny capsule bobbing on an endless sea. There are those who love it – the hoisting and lowering of sails to adjust to changing winds, charting a course in an ocean without markers, scanning the skies for approaching storms and, my favorite, hanging out with friends, swapping stories.
For me, night was a special time – the sky filled with millions of distant lights as we sailed beneath the Big Dipper, the North Star directly above our mast. It was around the time of the Jupiter-Venus conjunction, when the tiny evening star seems to pull the fiery torch of Jupiter across the night sky.
After the first night we never saw another boat. There was nothing in any direction but water, all the way to the horizon. I thought of the prayer that reminds us that “a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”
It’s amazing to be at once so cut off from the world and so connected to the universe, “alone,” as the said “on a wide, wide sea.”
Part 4. Cast and Crew
As we set off, we little knew how critical these attributes would soon prove – especially the personal ones.
Part 5. “For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.”
It was a little past noon on the fourth day when the steering went. We were 142 nautical miles from shore, with only a distant line of squalls to get past, after which we expected clear sailing until we reached Newport the following afternoon. We had navigated through the Gulf Stream’s heavy weather and come out into this morning’s clear, sunny skies and the quietest seas we’d experienced so far. Near the end of my watch (no, I wasn’t allowed up there by myself), a pod of young dolphins swam exuberantly around the boat.
I had just gone below to get some sleep, leaving the others on deck to discuss lunch, when without warning, the wheel, which was on autopilot and holding steadily to our north-by-northwest course, began rotating wildly. All efforts to steer manually failed, and we found ourselves adrift on an empty sea – 140 miles from the closest dry land and several thousand feet above the ocean’s floor. We hadn’t seen another boat in 72 hours.
Restive proved her mettle by neatly heaving to into the wind, while the collective brainpower tried to figure out what to do. Clearly, the problem was the rudder, and so Dave descended into the bowels of the boat to have a look.
“I’ve found the problem,” he called up from below, and as he scrambled back on deck, the once-distant squalls were closing in, the waves had swelled to over eight feet, and the wind was now blowing 20-30 knots.
“We have,” Dave said, “a major structural failure.”
Part 6. The Rudder and Lunch
It’s not for nothing that they the rudder “the most important part of the ship.” A defective rudder renders a boat unsailable, and no matter how seaworthy its design, a boat without a working rudder is little more than debris bobbing among the waves. As Dave described what he had seen below, it was clear that Restive no longer had a working rudder.
Dry rot in the rudderpost had caused the upper bearing to fail. This made steering impossible because the rudder could no longer be controlled by the helmsman, but was being driven solely by the force of the waves. It was just a matter of time before the lower bearing failed, particularly in rough seas, and even I had figured out that when that happened, Restive would sink. But no one could predict when that would happen. An hour? A day? A month?
The seas were growing rougher. The once-distant line of squalls was now directly above us and seemed in no hurry to move on. Heavy rains fell, waves surged to 12 feet, and winds now gusted to 40 knots. George was on the radio trying to notify the Coast Guard and locate any nearby boats. David and Dave devised ever-more-ingenious engineering solutions to stabilize the rudder, all of which failed. Amid all the activity, the cook went below. Fifteen minutes later he reappeared with a platter of sandwiches.
“We might as well eat,” he said.
Part 7. “If I Only Had a Box of Deck Screws”
Looking back, the sandwiches Fred brought on deck seem more than just lunch. Amid the growing external chaos, they reveal the task-oriented calm that pervaded Restive. We were all now aware that we were in pretty deep stuff, and yet there was not a hint of panic. As with all things on a boat, the captain set the tone.
We initially had to radio the Coast Guard through a boat closer to shore; and after satisfying the bureaucratic requirements (Restive’s registration number, etc.), we were presented two alternatives: a boat, which could get to us in 10-12 hours, or a helicopter rescue, which would require us to jump into the sea and whose dangers the voice coming through the phone forcefully emphasized. Moreover, the voice continued, the rescuers would come to save the crew but would make no effort to save the boat. Informed that we were still trying to fix the problem, the voice said they would await further updates. George then put out a VHF call to all boats in the area. Three responded immediately, the closest being Sparky, a 42-foot sloop eight miles ahead. Her captain immediately reversed course and radioed they would be there in about an hour.
Meanwhile, David and Dave had the wheel off and were trying to stabilize the rudder directly, first using the emergency tiller, and when that failed, using ropes, hammering makeshift wedges – anything to keep the rudder from swinging wildly. The waves snapped every effort like a dry twig.
"If I only had a box of deck screws,” said Dave, “I could fix this thing"
Part 8. Waiting for Sparky
We were putting our faith in Sparky, the boat that, serendipitously, we had docked beside in Bermuda and that was now turning back into the wind. Of the two choices the Coast Guard had offered, the first (waiting 10-12 hours for a rescue boat) required us to stay afloat, of which there was no guarantee; the second involved all of us jumping into the water, where a rescue swimmer who had dropped from a helicopter, would put us one by one into a sling, which would then be hoisted to the hovering craft. There was one small downside: because we were five people 140 miles from shore in bad weather, the helicopter would probably not be able to haul us all up before having to return to base to refuel, leaving some of us in the water.
This was unwelcome news. I figured that both alphabetically and by seniority I should be first in line. But it dawned on me that the others were probably devising their own metrics: Baldest? Youngest? Richest? Smartest? In fact, we drew our strength from knowing that we were in this together. We weren’t leaving anyone behind. David, “the unenthusiastic swimmer,” told me later that if he had had to go into the water, he little doubted he wasn’t coming out.
He and Dave continued their resourceful, if increasingly Sisyphean efforts to stabilize the rudder. By now it was late afternoon, and we knew that whatever rescue plan we devised while we waited for Sparky needed to be executed before nightfall.
Part 9. Trump: An Interregnum
Little did I know, as we waited for Sparky’s mast to appear above the waves, that Donald Trump had that day ascended to Number 2 in the Republican presidential polls. One of the reasons for going to sea is to get away from – perhaps even get perspective on – the minutiae that threaten to engulf our daily lives. In hindsight, how trivial now seem the rantings of this ridiculous man.
And yet, even as the media insisted he was not a serious candidate, Trump continued to suck all the air from the public conversation, getting more headlines than he could ever have dreamed possible. He needs not merely to be ridiculed but condemned.
He is a compulsive dissembler (“I’m really a smart guy”), intimating that he graduated from Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business (“the best school in the country”), when in fact he spent two undistinguished years in Penn’s Wharton undergraduate program, a decidedly inferior brand – and from which he received, not an MBA, but, appropriately a BS. When Timothy O’Brien wrote that his wealth was a fraction of the billions he claimed, Trump sued him – and lost.
His candidacy has been likened to Hitler’s, but the more apt – and worrisome – comparison is Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, an earlier buffoon who did terrible damage to America and for whom the term McCarthyism* was coined.
*“Demagogic, reckless, and unsubstantiated accusations, as well as public attacks on the character or patriotism of political opponents."
Part 10. Decision Time
As we waited for Sparky to arrive, we knew we had come to decision time. All efforts to stabilize the rudder had failed, and we had, with difficulty, deployed a drogue to steer Restive downwind in an attempt to move the rudder fore and aft to a neutral position. It was now late afternoon. The weather wasn’t clearing, the Coast Guard wasn’t coming, and we needed to execute whatever plan we adopted before dark. Moreover, by turning back to help us, Sparky’s captain was putting his own crew at risk, and we had to be both decisive and ready when they appeared. The longer they had to wait for us, the more dangerous it would be for everybody.
We didn’t have a lot of good options. Sparky’s captain radioed that it was too dangerous to try to rescue us from the water, and the safest alternative was to try to get us from the life raft (which was attached to the stern, enclosed in an alarmingly small yellow case). As Sparky appeared out of the mist, bobbing like a toy boat in the waves, we gathered in the cockpit, where George asked us what we thought we should do. Each of the four of us said, emphatically, that the time had come to leave the boat. George listened quietly, clearly struggling with a decision that for the rest of us had become evident. Watching him, I suddenly understood how traumatic it is for a captain to abandon his ship.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s deploy the life raft.”
Part 11. Abandon Ship
It was hard at first to see Sparky through the rain, a ghostly mirage whose mast kept disappearing in the trough of a wave. As she hove to about 200 yards off our port side, her five-person crew readied themselves and waited. Dave climbed to the stern, opened the yellow casing, tossed us the ribbon-like red line, which we cleated amidship, and flung out the life raft. Although it is designed to inflate automatically on contact with water, none of us had ever done this before, and so we watched with some apprehension. (I’m told you can practice the maneuver in a swimming pool, but that just doesn’t seem the same.)
As soon as it hit the water, the amorphous blob of material began to inflate with a reassuring whoosh, and – like a carnival balloon that turns into a latex dog to the delight of small children – it gradually assumed the form of a circular raft, about eight feet in diameter and two feet deep. We struggled to haul the now-inflated raft to the middle of the boat for easy entry, but no matter what we tried, we could not pull it around Restive’s heaving stern. Our only option was to bring the raft as close as possible to the stern, keeping it always free of the boat, and then, when a wave had brought the raft to its nearest point, hurl ourselves one by one into it – a septuagenarian high dive, backwards and blind, into a small pool.
Fred went first.
Part 12. “A Total Leap of Faith”
“For me jumping into that raft was the most frightening part of the entire event. Not being able to jump without turning around and throwing myself backwards into where I hoped the raft was was terrifying. A total leap of faith.”
Fred not only hit the target; he didn’t go through its bottom. Reassured, the rest of us prepared to take our own leaps of faith. I’d like to report that we executed a series of graceful half-gainers, swan dives and cannonballs, but we too leaned as far off the stern as possible, waited for a wave to bring the raft to its closest point and leaped blindly backwards. The captain, as is traditional, went last. As we watched from below, George stepped over the railing, readied himself . . . and then hesitated, as if still uncertain about leaving the boat he loved. The wave passed on, and as we yelled encouragement from below, he timed the next wave and jumped.
With no points for style, but a perfect five for accuracy, we were all safely in the raft – although, we soon realized, still attached to Restive, whose stern rocked unnervingly above us. Dave handed David a knife recently honed by his Boy Scout son, and the latter cut the line and we drifted free . . . only to become immediately entangled in the drogue line. David, the unenthusiastic swimmer, legs held tightly by the rest of us, leaned far over the edge of the raft, and, with the élan of d’Artagnan, sliced through the line. We were adrift.
Part 13. Five Men in a Raft
What, you may be wondering, do men of a certain age and standing in life carry with them when they abandon ship?
Not much. In light of the Coast Guard’s bureaucracy fixation, I didn’t want to wash up on shore without my passport. I also brought my wallet, car keys, medications and in a nod to modernity, iPhone. We had a knife, water and other provisions in the red “everything bag,” which we had tossed into the raft. I looked back wistfully at the mixed case of good wines, which, because of rough weather and short watches, we hadn’t even touched.
We were amazed by the raft’s sturdiness. With a cover for bad weather and a pump for high water, we felt secure against the elements, becoming practically giddy with relief. David brought us back to reality. “All we have to do now,’ he said, pointing to Sparky a couple of hundred yards away, “is get from here to there and then figure out how to get on board. Before dark.”
Sparky, whose crew had practiced their rescue procedure three times in anticipation, circled to get downwind of us and as close as possible. “Too fast,” George thought, worried we would be caught by her bow. But the helmsman held his course, and the captain threw us a line, which landed almost beyond our reach. Fred reached over and hauled it in, and we struggled to hold on in the heavy seas. But we felt it pulling relentlessly from our hands, until we had to let go. Sparky circled again.
Part 14. Climbing to Safety
As Sparky approached us again, we watched her crew arrange themselves to haul us on board and vowed to hang on to the line this time. In the raft, the calm that had come over us from the time Dave discovered the compromised rudder bearings continued to prevail. I had become aware of two parallel tracks in my mind: on one, I knew there was a not insignificant chance I wouldn't survive; on the other, I was convinced that, whatever odds Vegas might be laying, I was going to make it. Somehow, that combination – neither denying the reality nor succumbing to the inevitable – kept me peaceful and focused. That was true for all of us. If we had not been, things might have turned out differently.
Sparky’s skipper again threw the line. Fred reached over and snared it, and each of us grabbed onto either the line or someone holding it, as Sparky’s crew hauled us slowly toward them, both vessels rocking vigorously in the sea. We came up amidships, and Fred, the closest, scrambled up the hull until Rob and Jack could grip him under both arms and haul him to safety. One by one we followed, waiting till a wave brought us close, then clambering up till we felt the grip of men who had come eight miles to rescue us.
The captain went last, hurling himself over the lifeline and landing on Jack, who pulled him over and onto his body. Safely on deck, George burst into tears.
Part 15. The Captain
“Why do you say, ‘Of course,’ George was the last off Restive?” my daughter, Annie, asked me.
“Well,” replied this deep-water ingénue turned grizzled old salt. “It’s a tradition on the high seas for the captain to be last. He is responsible not just for the ship but for the well-being of all her passengers and crew.”
“From what I read,” she countered, “it seems like the captain is among the first to get off.”
She has a point:
George is from an older school, for whom the decision to leave Restive was nothing less than traumatic. “After all I’ve read and experienced,” he said, “I never thought I’d abandon my boat.”
His tears on finally boarding Sparky were the release from hours of unrelenting tension that come with the responsibility a captain assumes. George continues to question his decision, but, as we shall see, it was unquestionably the right one (as, believe me, I knew all along).
Part 16. Eric’s Report: The Call
Eric Wasserman, a member of Sparky’s crew, submitted a report to the race committee, from which come the following excerpts:
“The 2015 Marion-Bermuda race had been a tough one for the captain and crew of the Hinckley Southwest 42, Sparky. The race had been largely on the wind, with Gulf Stream squalls, equipment failures and seasickness affecting several people. The return passage to Marion started with 48 hours of fast reaching in glorious conditions. Even the Gulf Stream cooperated initially, with the flattest water of the trip, the wind being almost directly with the current.
“On the third day, however, near the North Wall of the Stream, the surface kicked up with short seas of 6-10 feet, and winds increased from the teens to the mid- and upper-20s. At approximately noon, with about 140 nautical miles to go on the rhumb line, we overheard VHF communications between a nearby returning competitor and Restive, the ethereally beautiful, Helleberg-Alden designed, cold-molded, 48 footer, completed in 2006 by Brooklin Boatyard, and owned and captained by George Denny. We heard that Restive had developed a problem with her rudder, lost effective steerage, and was concerned about the structural integrity of the system and the risk of hull damage. They were hove to and attempting repairs. We immediately identified ourselves to Restive and diverted to her position under engine. We reached Restive’s position by 1400 hours and hove to. We placed one crewmember at the VHS and satellite phone to ensure continuity in our communications and to free the skipper for executive action.”
Part 17. Eric’s Report: Tough Choices
“Restive’s crew, we learned, had noticed an odd feel to her steering and inspection revealed disintegration and apparent rot in the wooden deck surrounding her upper rudder bearing. This allowed the stock of her deep spade rudder to pivot around the lower bearing, set in her hull, threatening to cause catastrophic damage. At this point, the rudder was also stuck athwartships. Restive’s damage-control efforts were directed at stabilizing the rudder stock with the blade fore-and-aft, so that an attempt could be made to sail or motor under an alternative steering method, (i.e., a drogue bridled to a pair of cockpit winches and towed astern). This technique had been recommended by the race officials and practiced by competitors before the race in the relative calm of inshore waters. In the current conditions, Restive’s crew were unable to steer her effectively and the added effort of immobilizing the rudder stock with the emergency tiller made sailing or motor the remaining distance appear entirely impracticable. In addition, the imminent possibility of a large rupture below the waterline remained.
“Restive’s choices now narrowed to ways of getting home without their boat. By now, both they and we had established satellite phone communications with the US Coast Guard’s First District Command Center in Boston, who had little to offer by way of immediate assistance. Restive, they said, was at the outer limit of rescue helicopter range, and the risks of taking men off a sailboat or from the sea were great. In any case, the wait for such assistance would be at least two hours. A commercial vessel could be diverted, but would not arrive for at least 12 hours. Rather than wait for either of these uncertain possibilities, Restive’s captain proposed to transfer himself and his crew to Sparky, either by swimming, an option which was quickly rejected, or via their life raft, which seemed the only practical choice.”
Part 18. Eric’s Report: The Plan
“Stepping down from a floating vessel to a life raft seems a prima facie violation of the doctrine many of us received in our survival training. However, there seemed to be no rational alternative in this case, whose contingencies were materially altered by the presence of a rescue boat. Our main concern was the task of getting five men of a certain age, slightly greater than our own sexagenarian average, from a pitching and possibly unstable raft, and over Sparky’s gunwale. The worst case would be someone falling into the sea and becoming separated from the raft, the wind and sea, making rescue, and even long survival, a tenuous proposition. We asked that all don harness and come with their tethers attached, as we envisioned having them clip onto our jack lines or lifelines as they prepared to come aboard. The plan was to approach the raft from windward and bring it to our midships lifeline gate, where the freeboard was relatively low and the heel induced by the wind would further reduce the difference in height between Restive’s raft and Sparky’s deck.
“The boarding plan was simple: to yank the men on board as rapidly as possible by any accessible appendage or suitable piece of gear. We stationed two crew at the lifeline gate, while another stood aft and assisted and a fourth was set to hustle the evacuees below and out of the way. We considered, but soon rejected, the use of a tackle as unnecessarily complex for lifting minimally clad and able-bodied personnel. In preparation for intercepting the raft, we went from hove to to sailing under small pieces of Sparky’s roller furling #3 jib and main. We deployed the centerboard to slow our rate of sideways drift, by which direction we hoped to approach the raft. The helmsman took advantage of the wait by practicing the approach. Simple as it was, we rehearsed the plan verbally several times and had ample time to discuss it in relative calm.”
Part 19. Eric’s Report: The Rescue
“Restive’s raft was stowed in a compartment in the stern, behind the cockpit and her crew deployed it over the stern. They realized immediately that this had been a mistake because the long overhang and greater angular motion at that location made entry difficult and intimidating. But they were managed to enter safely by falling backward into it. Before they could cast off from Restive, the raft became entangle with the drogue, which was still deployed off the stern.
“The crew of Restive looked oddly comfortable and unaccountably dry as the raft skidded around on the steep waves. Sparky’s approach was complicated by the need to stay clear of Restive, which was drifting in the same direction. However, we ultimately had a clear lane and made the attempt. Even our highly reduced sail area proved too fast once we were just slightly off the wind. Despite our reluctance to use the engine in the potential presence of trailing lines and people in the water, we rolled up the remaining sail and maneuvered under engine into a position to windward with the wind on our beam, shifted to neutral, and drifted down with the raft in our lee.
“We made fast at two points and held the raft snugly to Sparky’s side. The first man stood, extended his arms for our lifelines, and was instantly grabbed by both men at the gate and tumbled onto the deck. He sustained an ugly laceration and bruise to his shin in the process, the only notable injury suffered by anyone. The process was quickly repeated four times, as the seas brought the raft up, its circumferential tubes forming a remarkably reliable step. The boarders went not, as we had intended, below decks, but to the cabin top where they were able to assist. The entire boarding process could not have taken much over two minutes, and we then jettisoned the raft and set off on an uneventful sail to Marion.”
Part 20. Christine
As we huddled in Sparky’s now crowded cockpit, formally introducing ourselves to our new hosts, someone spotted a small plane flying in the distance.
“That’s probably Christine,” said David, “coming out to make sure we all made it on board.”
Christine is George’s indefatigable, talented and striking assistant of 15 years, who did everything from arranging our transportation down to monitoring our return on Yellow Brick tracking to checking in with our next of kin. To give you an idea of her value, let’s just say that George trusts her with his checkbook, while we only had to trust her with our lives.
It was Christine who noted that Restive had apparently stopped moving and turned sideways. It was she who reviewed the boat’s insurance policy and coordinated the dispatch of the salvage vessel, knowing instinctively how important the possibility of recovering the abandoned boat was to George.
“When I got her on the satellite phone,” said George, “I told her our location and state of affairs, and I asked her to get in touch with the Coast Guard and our families. She executed perfectly, never asked a question that was off task, never said, ‘Holy shit, you guys are in a pickle!’ I’m sure her calm demeanor helped me keep my cool as well.”
She called, remembers David’s wife, Susie, when the situation had stabilized – and instead of leading with the harrowing details, she said simply, “I have an update from Restive. Everyone is fine. They have had a problem with their steering and are now on another boat and heading to Marion.”
“She made my wife feel all was fine,” said Fred. “It was only the next day, when I broke down completely on the phone, that Katie realized how grim things had been.”
Part 21. Why Sparky Turned Back
Now safely on deck, we were embraced by Sparky’s welcoming crew, who described watching, with a combination of wonder and horror, the pantomime of five aged men leaping one by one into a circular yellow raft. Fred sustained the only visible wound, a deep and bloody gash on his shin, which would turn into a serious cellulitis infection. Providentially (like so much else about this rescue), a woman, who introduced herself as “Nurse Nancy,” appeared with bandages and disinfectant to bind Fred’s wound – after which she offered us all rum and cranberry juice.
Sparky had also been returning from Bermuda and was less than a day from her destination when she answered our call. She was already packed with a crew of five, who absorbed us seamlessly, insisting we take the bunks and get the first helpings of food, while they slept where they could (in one case, not sleeping at all) and ate what was left, as we set sail for land almost 24 hours away.
It’s hard to describe the intimacy you feel for people who have just saved your life, but this crowded boat abandoned all formalities and became an instant community of shared lives. Rob, the captain, set the tone, responding to our expressions of gratitude by invoking the camaraderie of those who sail offshore.
“When you do this kind of sailing,” he said, “you know the cavalry isn’t always coming. So when you get the chance, you try to be the cavalry.”
Part 22. Night Time
As we head for the Massachusetts coast 140 miles away, Restive rocks forlornly in the waves before disappearing into the evening gloom.
As night falls aboard Sparky, Fred, both injured and exhausted, is given the quarter berth, where he sleeps without moving – until he awakes eight hours later remembering he’d left two pieces of French toast in Restive’s oven. David and I squeeze among Sparky’s luggage in the forward bunk, listening to the waves beat loudly against the fiberglass sides, a discordant sound compared with Restive’s wooden hull. People come and go, getting dry clothes, telling stories. We feel like celebrities as they describe watching us jump into the raft. It’s a kind of theater – like being at a play, David says, where the actors come forward to interact briefly with the audience and then dissolve back onto the stage.
George can’t sleep. He gives his berth to Dave and goes up on deck, where “the full moon is almost dead astern, making a moon path along the water to Sparky – the seas churning, rough, wild, beautiful – as always . . . where I tell Rob that I am amused by myself – I have this sailing disease in a big way: I can love the ocean and the wind moments after abandoning Restive and being rescued from a life raft. Sick. He understands – he has the disease, too.”
At 02:30 that morning, Thursday, July 2nd, a salvage crew sets off from Hyannis, Massachusetts, heading for Restive’s last known coordinates.
Part 23. Found
Amid reports of calming seas, the salvage team set off on a hired boat. “The trip out proved the weather prediction to be wrong,” according to the subsequent report. “They had an 8-to-10-foot roll with a 2-3-foot chop on top, making the trip very uncomfortable.” At 3 p.m., just over 12 hours later, they found Restive about 127 miles south of Nantucket.
“The poor sea conditions on the outboard voyage were the same on-scene. This prevented a vessel-to-vessel transfer of the salvage team. Our crew had to don diving gear, jump overboard and make a swim for the boat. One crewmember was able to pull himself up over the side with a little adrenaline from the talk of sharks in the area by the boat crew. He would rig a ladder for the second crewmember. They found the vessel taking on water.”
They also found a severely damaged rudder “flopping violently back and forth, [which] would have resulted in massive flooding in the next 6-12 hours.” Night was falling by the time they had Restive rigged for towing. As they set off, it quickly became clear that the damage was far more extensive than they had thought.
“I've given this a lot of thought,” Rob, Sparky’s captain, later wrote George, “and am convinced that the only thing that kept Restive from sinking is the tremendous strength of her hull skin. Any lesser build would almost certainly have suffered hull failure at the lower bearing block. There are very, very few boats that would have survived.”
Part 24. Old Friends, New Friends
It was close quarters on Sparky, where 10 of us now shared space that had previously been packed with half that number. Sparky’s crew welcomed us with a biblical generosity, if not killing the fatted calf, then giving us the first and largest servings of Trader Joe’s steaming Asian chicken stew. They, too, had had an eventful trip. Their toilet broke during the race, and on the return, the radar antenna had pulled free from the mast, forcing Rob, an ardent rock climber, to shinny up the mast and reattach it in the same high winds we had recently come through.
It’s a motley crew. Rob, the captain, left his Cranston, Rhode Island, birthplace in his late teens for the oil fields of the Southwest and eventually built a successful oil-and-gas company in Midland, Texas. (“We’ve been fracking safely for 60 years.”). Jack, Rob’s childhood friend never left Cranston. A housepainter whose left foot is curled from years of stretching out from a ladder, he told us funny yet heartfelt stories in an incomprehensible New England-Irish accent – to wit: “How many potatoes does it take to kill an Irishman?” The answer, of course, is “none.”
Eric, a quiet physician and solitary sailor, has spent his career studying the human brain at the National Institutes of Health. And Bob and Nancy, relative newlyweds – Bob, the brilliant helmsman doubled as short-order chef, and Nancy nursed both our wounds and our psyches.
We headed toward Marion, an allegory of generosity.
Part 25. The Law of Salvage
With our heroes safely aboard Sparky, our abandoned heroine continued to take on water as the salvage crew worked to secure her for safe towing. Just finding and boarding Restive had been hair-raising enough to validate the salvage company’s “many misgivings” about making the trip at all.
You may be under the impression, as I was, that ships abandoned at sea belong to the person who finds them. But it’s not so simple. While salvage law dates back to the 6th-century reign of the emperor Justinian, no branch is “so little understood,” one scholar wrote, “as the question pertaining to ownership of distressed, abandoned, or wrecked property at sea.”
Common law recognizes four categories of goods lost at sea: wreck (boats and cargo washed ashore); flotsam (still afloat); jetsam (sunken goods thrown overboard to save the ship); and ligan (sunken goods tied to a buoy to facilitate recovery). Restive was now legally “flotsam;” and here U.S. law is clear: an owner must both abandon the property and relinquish ownership to cede rightful possession. The finder, however, is entitled to compensation “commensurate with the value of the property” – and the greater the value and more dangerous the mission, the more compensation the finder can demand.
“Sleep deprivation and sea sickness [took] a severe toll on the crew,” the salvage company subsequently reported to the insurer, “and as a result they could not sleep for fear, if they lost the rudder, they would sink before getting out of the vessel.”
Part 26. “Those in Peril on the Sea”
The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.
T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages
As such things go, the North Atlantic is a relatively good place to abandon ship, and my own experience has made me more mindful of the daily, often horrific, dangers faced by others at sea. “In many parts of the world,” writes Ian Urbina, “the waters beyond national jurisdiction represent an outlaw ocean, where crimes ranging from murder and slavery to dumping and illegal fishing occur with impunity.”
The world’s ocean, whose contiguous parts are named Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic and Southern, is a vast, beautiful, dangerous and endangered place. As described by Scott Gass, its 139 million square miles cover 71% of Earth’s surface; it holds 97% of the world’s water and comprises 99% of the world’s biosphere. It has the world’s highest mountain, Hawaii’s Mauna Kea rising 33,000 feet from ocean floor to snow-capped peak; longest mountain range, Mid-Ocean Ridge, ten times longer than the Andes; deepest ravine, Challenger Deep, six times deeper than Grand Canyon; biggest waterfall, Denmark Strait cataract, which falls over two miles and carries 116 times more water per second than Congo’s Inga Falls; and largest animal ever, the 98-foot, 200-ton blue whale.
It is also a place, Urbina writes in “The Outlaw Ocean,” where “tens of thousands of workers, many of them children, are enslaved on boats” and thousands die each year, where commercial vessels devastate the world’s fishing stocks, dump oil and sludge at unsustainable rates, and emit more air pollutants “than all the world’s cars.”
From a vital global commons we have fashioned a lawless global dump.
Part 27. Tears
It turns out that captains aren’t the only grown men who cry. As we awoke aboard Sparky on the final day of our journey, much of the morning’s talk centered on the events of the day before. When we got within cellphone distance of shore, Fred called his wife and daughters, who were still under the impression that he was out for a leisurely sail with old friends.
“I don’t know what it is,” said the man on whose physical strength we had so heavily relied. “I can talk about what happened with everyone here, but when I try to describe it to my family, I start crying.”
After dropping Dave off at home, David and I continued on to a CVS store to get necessary supplies: toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, shaving cream and soap. As we got out of the car in the parking lot, unshaven and still wearing the only clothes that had survived – in my case, a badly ripped bathing suit, with its netting hanging out, and a T-shirt – a mother and her daughter parked next to us and opened the door to get out of their car. They took one look at these two clearly homeless, certainly odiferous and probably dangerous old men and, without a word, re-entered their car and locked the doors.
When we had gone into the pharmacy, they must have felt safe enough to follow, where I came upon them in the dental products aisle. “Don’t turn around,” the mother whispered to her daughter, “one of them is right behind you.” “The other one,” the daughter replied “is in the next aisle.”
The next morning, shaved, bathed and brushed, David and I drove back to Maine. We stopped at the Kennebunk Service Plaza, where a young and very nervous trainee took our orders under the watchful eye of her mentor.
“Explain this to me,” said David, as we downed our 486-calorie breakfast sandwiches with 11 grams of saturated fat and 1,037 milligrams of sodium. “I wanted to encourage her, but when I tried to tell her what a good job she was doing, I burst into tears.”
As for me, I held out until I read this comment on my website a month later:
“I'm glad four of my oldest friends (and Dave) are finally safe, very sad about George's beautiful Restive. A wonderful story of seamanship and friendship.
"’It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas.’*
“But you did.”
*From Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat.
Part 28. Restive’s Fate
Because Restive immediately began taking on much more water than the salvage crew had anticipated, they “began to harvest whatever materials they needed” to try to save the boat. They also managed to get the engine started, and pumped water continuously until they arrive at Fairhaven the next afternoon. “It appears,” wrote David, “the salvage crew experienced many – if not every – adverse, unpleasant and even life-threatening condition and challenge we imagined, only short of having Restive actually sink.”
Efforts to take Restive under motor to Brooklin, Maine, where she was built, failed when she began leaking significantly almost immediately. She was hauled at Jamestown Boat Yard, where a flange on top of the lower rudder bearing was discovered to have been sheared off.
Musing on the possibility of repairing Restive at sea, Dave wrote: “To fix something in an emergency, you really need three things: the right materials, a way to shape them to your needs, and a way to attach them together. At that moment, I was looking at Restive not as a fine yacht, but as a floating lumberyard, filled with different types and shapes of wood. What I needed was something to hold the wood together, and three-inch deck screws would have been just right. But we didn't have deck screws or anything else with the requisite strength and ease of use.
“I want to follow that up with another thought. When do you start breaking stuff to save yourself or others? If we did have deck screws, who would smash the first set of drawers to get lumber? Fireman and salvage crews don't hesitate. They are there to save the house or the boat, and aren't afraid to chop through a door or rip up a teak deck to do their job.”
Restive will be back on the water next month.
Part 29. The Bavier Trophy Award Ceremony
On September 18th the crews of Restive and Sparky gathered at the Beverly Yacht Club in Marion, Massachusetts, for the presentation of the Bavier Trophy to Sparky’s crew for their courage and seamanship during a rescue at sea one late afternoon in early July.
An extraordinary bond had developed between the two crews, and I was determined to make the trip to Marion. But it was an eventful summer, and I found myself during the week of the event with a filmmaker friend of mine, trying to understand the desperate refugee crisis then unfolding in Eastern Europe. I made plans to leave Serbia in time to get to Marion on time, but shortly after my plane had taken off, the captain announced that the plane had it a large bird shortly after takeoff and “the engine is broken.” We returned to the Belgrade airport and I had to rebook. I arrived in time for drinks, dinner and camaraderie but missed the ceremony itself.
Excerpts from two letters capture something of the two crews’ deep affection for each other.
It’s been a week since you took us aboard Sparky from our life raft. . . .So thank you, Eric – for being strong and helping us aboard, thank you for understanding some of our emotions as you took us in. Thank you, Jack – for being so strong, for hugging me from the raft over the lifeline, and, later, for your sense of the ridiculous, helping re-attach me to reality and the present, and not the rescue. Thank you, Nancy – for your warmth, generosity, nursing, and selflessness. Thank you, Bob – for applying your seamanship skills perfectly at the right time for Restive’s crew – and for cooking, cleaning, and loving each of us.
And Rob, thank you. You exemplify the essence of being a skipper, of helping others in need, under all circumstances – from the mundane to the extreme. Cool-headed, experienced, strong, thoughtful, skillful and prepared. Thank you.
Hearing the account from your perspective and the thoughts and conversations of the Restive crew prior to and during the rescue was fascinating! I assume that your experience that day will stay with you for a the rest of your lives, and as strong as your lifelong friendships with these extraordinary men have been in the past, this experience will create a bond that few people ever enjoy.
Know this is from our heart – we will never forget the calm, courageous, caring, thoughtful, gentlemanly men that we had the honor of meeting on July 1, 2015. You all have affected our lives in a most wonderful way. The crew of Restive showed us how to handle adversity with the utmost of grace and courage, and we will never forget any of you.
Warmest regards, Nurse Nancy and Bob
Epilogue. “Even Butter Wouldn’t Bring It Back”
I came back yesterday from a three-day sail on Restive with George to Block Island, Tarpaulin Cove and back to Jamestown, and it was great fun. Needless to say, the food was superb, matched only by the wine and company. I did have to toss out the French toast, which was still in the oven. Even butter wouldn't bring it back.
On January 30, 2016, I received the following from David, one of my shipmates:
“Ten days ago the Trustees of the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts voted to award its Bronze Medal to the Captain and Crew of Sparky and a Certificate and award of $1,000 to each of the five for their role in the rescue of the Captain and Crew of Restive on July 1, 2015.”
“Founded in 1785, the Humane Society was formed for the purpose of reducing the loss of human life from shipwrecks off the coast of Massachusetts. Its activity eventually led to the formation of the US Coast Guard, which in time took over all the activity of the Humane Society’s lifeboat crews.
“Today, the Society recognizes the saving of human lives not just at sea, but from accidents of all sorts.”
It’s a story of courage and kindness, friendship and competence.
By contrast, my daughter, Gayley, sent me a People magazine article, “These 71-Year-Olds Trying to Sail Across the Atlantic Have Been Rescued at Sea 9 Times in 7 Months – and They've Only Made It to England.”
“Most recently, the pair managed to accidentally set fire to the Nora in the tiny harbor of Hayle, Cornwall, when the yacht tipped over at low tide and a burning candle set their clothes alight.”
Presented to All Aboard S/V SPARKY