Of Dreams and Disaster at Sea

The events are real. The names have been changed. In the late 1980s a mariner had only a compass and sextant to guide him at sea. No GPS.  

heavy sailing seas
The author was well aware that a vessel's seaworthiness for any sea state is part of  proper preparation for a bluewater passage. 

A friend of mine called me and told me of a couple who had purchased a 38-foot sailboat and wanted to bring it down to the Virgin Islands to be used in a charter business. Would I help? No pay. “Sure,” I thought. “Why not?” My friend had done good things for me, so I would return the favor. 

The boat was to leave Annapolis mid-September, so I cleared my calendar for two weeks. The owner, Bob, and his wife, Sharon, kept delaying. Finally, Seth (the navigator) and I met at BWI airport and flew down to New Bern, NC. We found the boat and put our gear onboard. 

After the usual welcome aboard, Bob told us that he had purchased a sextant, but he had not learned to properly use it, so his positions came out in Boston, and Greenland. That did not faze me, as we had a navigator. That day I noted that there was a four-man life raft and five people set to sail: the owner, his wife, a fellow named Thomas, Seth, and me.

As I continued to check the condition of the boat, I found the propane tank to be very light, certainly not enough propane to last the trip. I continued my survey and found other items that I considered to be problems, such as absolutely no spare parts, limited provisions, and no radio direction finder (RDF). Seth informed me that the compass was way off and questioned how they got from Annapolis to North Carolina. 

I began a written list of items that needed repairs. As my list grew, my personal feelings soured. I doubted the safety and condition of the boat to make the trip to the Virgins. The wife offered beans for supper. Seth and I went out to supper. Seth said that he would swing by the boat the next day. Not only did we wonder how the boat had traveled there, but we also questioned the owner’s ability, knowledge, and experience as captain for the ride to the Virgin Islands. The weather was not helping. It was blowing 20 to 35 and not letting up. 

I am not clairvoyant and never claimed to be, but that night I had a very bad dream that the boat sank; three people climbed into the life raft and were picked up by a military ship. The following day I attempted to help the owner make the boat seaworthy. During the course of the day, Sharon found that the little antenna had come detached from the EPIRB and began to scream and accuse someone of trying to sabotage the trip. She yelled and screamed until one of us put the antenna in place. 

That evening when Seth and I went out to dinner, our discussion went to the owner’s experience and ability to captain, the deficiencies onboard, and our personal distrust of the owner and his wife. We agreed that it would be unwise to sail.

After supper we conferenced with Bill and Sharon. We explained that our best suggestion was to return to Annapolis as neither the sailboat nor skipper were ready to make a safe passage to the Virgin Islands. Captain Bob stated that we were wrong. I told Bob that I was not sailing with him, and Seth followed with the same. Bob and Sharon began calling us derogatory names such as “yellow” and “spineless” and noted other derogatory personal faults that we possessed. Seth and I pulled our sea bags off the boat and spent the night at a hotel. We flew back home the next day.

Five days later, I got a phone call from my friend who had set up the trip. He told me the boat had sunk off the coast of Florida. The mast had slipped off its base and pierced the hull in rough seas. Three people abandoned the sinking sailboat and were able to get in the raft. They were picked up by a military ship!

by Jerome Stanbury