Cruising World - - The Last Wave -


When Jim and Joy Carey set out to cross the At­lantic Ocean from Florida in 2002, they had no in­ten­tion of voy­ag­ing around the planet. The Careys had sailed their Tai­wan-built Omega 45, Ke­laerin, from their home in Wash­ing­ton state to the Sun­shine State a decade ear­lier, and had been back and forth to the Pa­cific North­west in the in­ter­ven­ing years as Jim wrapped up his ca­reer as a pro­fes­sional mariner. Fol­low­ing his re­tire­ment, the cou­ple planned on tak­ing a year to com­plete an At­lantic cir­cle, but some­thing un­ex­pected hap­pened once they reached Gi­bral­tar.

They kept on go­ing. And go­ing. And go­ing.

By May 26, 2018, when they set out from the Hawai­ian is­land of Oahu on the fi­nal leg of their jour­ney to Belling­ham, Wash­ing­ton, the Careys had seen the world. Their trav­els aboard their beloved Ke­laerin, which they’d pur­chased in 1991, had been ex­ten­sive, me­an­der­ing and deeply sat­is­fy­ing. The Careys were never in any hurry; they thought noth­ing of lin­ger­ing for a year or more in places they loved, or even re­trac­ing their route to again en­joy a fa­vorite cruis­ing ground. The Mediter­ranean. The Mid­dle East. The Black Sea. The Red Sea. In­done­sia. South­east Asia. The Philip­pines. The vast Pa­cific. Tens of thou­sands of miles un­der sail. Planet Earth was their oys­ter, and they’d slurped it all up. “It was cool,” Joy said. So, when they left Hawaii in late spring, there were no more boxes to tick. On the other end of their last pas­sage awaited their daugh­ters, Erin and Kelly, with bot­tles of bub­bly and pack­ages of M&M’S, a fam­ily tra­di­tion since they’d started sailing with the girls all those years be­fore when they were still lit­tle kids. Joy planned on hoist­ing the cour­tesy flags of the 50 coun­tries they’d vis­ited as they ap­proached the docks. She’d al­ready planned it all out in her mind’s eye. It wasn’t to be. In­stead, what hap­pened to the Careys — the in­con­ceiv­able loss of their boat and a dra­matic res­cue at sea, both about a day away from com­plet­ing their long and ful­fill­ing cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion — is both heart­break­ing and al­most in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. The fol­low­ing ac­count has been de­rived from a Face­book post writ­ten by Joy shortly af­ter the in­ci­dent and from in­ter­views I con­ducted with the cou­ple in early July. Over the years, I’ve writ­ten a lot of sto­ries about a lot of sailors. This, I’m afraid, is prob­a­bly the cru­elest, strangest and most un­fair.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a cruis­ing sailor and skip­per more ex­pe­ri­enced and ac­com­plished than Jim Carey. His whole life has been about boats and the wa­ter, start­ing as a Sea Scout; on­ward to stints in the U.S. Navy and the Mer­chant Marine; and cul­mi­nat­ing in many years log­ging hard miles in the Ber­ing Sea, the Aleu­tian Is­lands and else­where aboard ocean­go­ing tug­boats and barges, first as an en­gi­neer and then as a cap­tain. All this be­fore round­ing the globe on his own yacht. It’s no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that when it comes to the high seas, Jim has pretty much seen it all.

And, as he kept a weather eye on the off­shore Pa­cific fore­casts and GRIB files while ex­plor­ing the Hawai­ian Is­lands in ad­vance of Ke­laerin’s trip last May, he ba­si­cally liked what he saw: “As the de­lin­eation of the sun pro­gressed north­ward, we could see the high start­ing to build in and the lows that come from Siberia and north­ern Ja­pan be pushed a lit­tle far­ther north into Alaska. By the end of May, it looked pretty good, so we took off.”

Ke­laerin held a course al­most due north from the is­lands un­til reach­ing 38 de­grees north. Jim said, “Then we took a hard right, and at that point, we were on the tip of the high, on its north­ern edge, and headed more or less to­ward the West Coast. At about 137 de­grees west or there­abouts, we started on a direct line for Cape Flat­tery (at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca).” It was a bouncy ride, but with the west­erly flow from the high,

Ke­laerin was knock­ing off the miles, av­er­ag­ing a steady 5 knots,

on an ideal head­ing … straight for the barn. The dis­tance to go grew shorter and shorter. Jim con­tin­ued to down­load twice-daily GRIB files, and the fore­cast re­mained good. In fact, from about 150 miles out to sea right to the coast, the winds ap­peared to go very light — un­der 5 knots — and from the south­west. Jim al­lowed him­self to think they might roll the fi­nal miles into the cape un­der spin­naker, and wouldn’t that be a fine way to wrap up the pro­ceed­ings? And if the breeze crapped out al­to­gether, since they’d been un­der sail ex­clu­sively since leav­ing Hawaii, at the very least there’d be plenty of fuel to mo­tor on home.

Then, with fewer than 200 miles to sail, sud­denly, and omi­nously, things changed.

The first inkling of brew­ing trou­ble was a GRIB file Jim down­loaded on the evening of June 15. The fore­cast now called for north or north­west winds of up to 26 knots, which meant higher gusts: not ter­ri­ble, but not pleas­ant ei­ther. “It looked like a squash zone,” Jim said, re­fer­ring to the tighter bands of breeze. As pre­dicted, on the 16th, it filled in and con­tin­ued strength­en­ing, all day long. But the odd part was the se­away, which be­gan to take on a persona of its own. Then the sun went down. “The seas got more ner­vous,” Jim said. “They were con­fused to be­gin with. They were get­ting jit­tery. The boat was just jerk­ing around. Ev­ery now and then it would fall into a hole. It just wasn’t plain sailing.”

The chang­ing con­di­tions, and the new northerly, ne­ces­si­tated a course change. Jim kept fall­ing far­ther off the wind to keep it abaft the beam. The straight-line shot to Cape Flat­tery was a fleet­ing, dis­tant me­mory.

“By mid­night, we were sailing down­wind un­der bare poles with pretty good seas, but the boat was han­dling it great,” he said. “The Aries wind­vane was steer­ing like a champ. We were do­ing about 4.5 knots, which was a good speed for the Aries. There was plenty of power for it to steer, and it was very sen­si­tive. So it was do­ing a good job.” There wasn’t much to do but main­tain a sharp look­out and hang on. Around 0230 on June 17, Joy dis­ap­peared be­low to catch a short cat­nap. In all their time cruis­ing, she’d never seen such seas. Jim re­mained in the cock­pit. For­get 26 knots. It was gust­ing into the 40s. So much for the cake­walk home.

An hour passed. The boat surged on a wave. White wa­ter streamed down both sides of Ke­laerin. The boat slowed down. The wave dis­si­pated. This was noth­ing es­pe­cially new. Jim, sit­ting to star­board and watch­ing the com­pass, never saw the next wave, the one that came steam­ing in from port and caught Ke­laerin broad­side. But he felt it. It was un­like any wave in the steady train that pre­ceded it. Had this long and get­ting longer day been a bar­room brawl, this was the flat-out, knock-down sucker punch.

“The boat just picked up on that wave and the wave slammed it down,” he said. “It was pretty much up­side down.” Later, Jim tried to cal­cu­late the physics of the crash. The mast­head VHF an­tenna washed away dur­ing it, mean­ing the spar was se­ri­ously dunked. “I don’t think we did a 360-de­gree turn, but we went [to] at least 220 [de­grees],” he said. “It was def­i­nitely not the wave we surged on. I guess it was a rogue wave. Once we righted, we didn’t have any more waves like that. We had that one wave.”

It didn’t mat­ter. For all in­tents and pur­poses, it was Ke­laerin’s last one.

Down be­low in the aft cabin, Joy also with­stood the im­pact. “It was so hard it lit­er­ally felt as though we had been hit by a train while sit­ting on the tracks,” she wrote. Then … wa­ter. Ev­ery­where. She was en­tombed by it. For a mo­ment, she won­dered if she’d ever take a breath of air again. First, she was on the ceil­ing, then back in her berth, then her feet were on the floor. They were un­der­wa­ter. She gath­ered her wits and couldn’t be­lieve her eyes (it was chaos) or her ears (the noise was deaf­en­ing). To en­ter the main cabin, she had to clear the com­pan­ion­way lad­der from the door­way, where it was wedged with a scuba tank that had been dis­lodged from its holder. The sa­loon looked like a bomb had gone off. Lock­ers were torn asun­der, their doors bro­ken or

miss­ing, their con­tents slosh­ing in wa­ter cover­ing the cabin sole. The floor­boards had van­ished, the tanks ex­posed to view. For the 27 years the Careys had owned her, Ke­laerin was lov­ingly, painstak­ingly main­tained. She was a mem­ber of the fam­ily. Now she was bro­ken and bru­tal­ized. What in God’s name had hap­pened?

Back top­side, though blood was stream­ing down his face from a deep gash over his left eye, Jim also took stock of the sit­u­a­tion. He’d sur­vived the wallop from his perch in the cen­ter cock­pit with a death grip on the Ed­son steer­ing pedestal, the base of which was now bro­ken, though amaz­ingly enough, they still had steer­ing. He’d watched the dodger and Bi­mini blow away “like news­pa­per in the wind.” The dinghy, which had been lashed down to handrails on the for­ward deck, was miss­ing. Nei­ther the stain­less rack for the life raft, se­cured to the deck with a dozen bolts, nor the raft it­self were still there.

For­ward of that, the mas­sive Lew­mar Ocean Se­ries hatch, which had been down and dogged for the en­tire trip, was popped open and stand­ing straight up. Had it acted like a scoop for the lit­er­ally tons of wa­ter now wash­ing through the boat? It was the only ex­pla­na­tion that seemed to make any sense.

Joy came on deck to find Jim stand­ing at the wheel, driv­ing

Ke­laerin down the face of a wave. She looked around, stunned by what she did and didn’t see: no raft, no dinghy, no dodger, bro­ken bits of cock­pit coam­ing and other de­tri­tus, her hus­band blood­ied but un­bowed. He asked her to put out a may­day call on the VHF, which went unan­swered. Then they swapped po­si­tions so Jim could go be­low and as­sess the sit­u­a­tion.

It was a grim sight. “With the boat pitch­ing and rolling, the wa­ter on the cabin sole was like a lit­tle tidal wave go­ing from bow to stern and back,” he said. The SSB ra­dio was out, as was at least one of their two VHF ra­dios. But the bat­ter­ies re­mained se­cure and op­er­a­tional, and the wind gen­er­a­tor was still in­tact and whirring like a ban­shee: They had power. Jim switched on all four elec­tric bilge pumps, in­clud­ing the 4,000-gal­lon-an-hour sub­mersible in the en­gine room, the one with the 1½-inch dis­charge “like a fire hose.” For about 20 min­utes, they ran fine and took the wa­ter level down sev­eral inches, but then the paperback books float­ing in the murk and turn­ing to mush — “like oat­meal” — clogged the pumps. Though it was hard to see while blink­ing blood out of his eyes, Jim man­aged to un­snap the main pump from its base and clear the screen, which he did count­less times dur­ing the next sev­eral hours. But it be­came a los­ing, fu­tile propo­si­tion. It would run a few min­utes and just clog again.

At about 0530, two hours af­ter the smashup, the Careys were in nearly as bad a shape as Ke­laerin. They were both shiv­er­ing. Joy’s lips were turn­ing blue. Jim’s hands were lock­ing up. Joy had a fleet­ing thought: She couldn’t re­mem­ber if she’d told their daugh­ters where they’d stashed their as­sets, “their lit­tle in­her­i­tance.” It’s amaz­ing, she later thought, what ex­actly goes through your mind. “I looked at Jim and said, ‘Should we set the EPIRB off?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, we better set it off.’” He re­trieved it from its holder and pushed the but­ton.

The idea of aban­don­ing the boat had not set in. What Jim was re­ally af­ter was a stronger pump. He wasn’t ready to con­cede any­thing. Jim’s con­tacts on Ke­laerin’s EPIRB reg­is­tra­tion were a pair of old tug­boat pals whom he spoke to daily via ham ra­dio. When the Coast Guard reached them, they were able to con­firm the Careys’ po­si­tion from the pre­vi­ous evening’s call; their course and des­ti­na­tion; and that they’d re­ported en­coun­ter­ing rough weather. The Coast Guard re­sponded by im­me­di­ately dis­patch­ing a he­li­copter from its base in War­ren­ton, Ore­gon.

Sev­eral hours later, the sec­ond, still op­er­a­ble VHF ra­dio on Ke­laerin crack­led to life. It was the Coast Guard chop­per, about 20 min­utes out. Amaz­ingly, the chart plot­ter was still func­tion­ing, and Joy was able to re­lay an ex­act po­si­tion. The air­men con­tin­ued call­ing and ask­ing Joy to count down num­bers so they could pin­point the boat via their ra­dio-di­rec­tion-find­ing equip­ment. Soon enough, the he­li­copter was hov­er­ing over­head. A swim­mer was dropped off to star­board. Jim was still steer­ing,

Ke­laerin still surg­ing at over 4 knots un­der bare poles. The swim­mer reached the steer­ing vane and the board­ing lad­der Jim had dropped, and clam­bered aboard, his fins still on. Jim was as­ton­ished. Man, he thought, that guy is in good shape. It was 0933, al­most ex­actly six hours af­ter the rollover.

The two men dis­cussed the op­tions. Jim re­it­er­ated that he needed a better pump. The guards­man said, “Well, our pump isn’t go­ing to pump that slop ei­ther. You need to make a de­ci­sion. We’ll give you a pump, or you’re go­ing to have to get off.”

Jim’s teeth were chat­ter­ing, but de­spite every­thing, he was still a sailor and a skip­per in full com­mand of his fac­ul­ties. Here’s what he thought:

On the one hand, the main­sail had been ripped out of the stack pack and was toast, but the yan­kee was still furled up and the stay­sail was still han­ked on to the forestay. Two good sails. Maybe they could con­tinue run­ning down­wind un­til the seas laid down and then set sail and bring her home. But … On the other hand, there were no comms other than a short-range VHF. The en­gine was swamped. The crank­case was prob­a­bly full of wa­ter. The wa­ter tanks were be­low the sole, and the freshwater sup­ply was likely con­tam­i­nated by sea­wa­ter. The stove had been ripped off its gim­bals; there was no way to even make a hot cup of tea, never mind a meal. It was surely only a mat­ter of time be­fore some­thing slosh­ing inside the boat jammed the steer­ing ca­bles or the quad­rant, leav­ing them adrift. If they were rolled again — a likely sce­nario if they lost steer­ing — there was no life raft or dinghy in which to re­treat. They were both on the verge of hy­pother­mia. It might not be long at all be­fore they suc­cumbed to ex­po­sure. The only way to bail the boat was by hand, some­thing nei­ther had the strength to do for very long.

As a pru­dent and ex­pe­ri­enced sea­man, Jim un­der­stood there re­ally was no choice in the mat­ter. “OK,” he told the swim­mer. “We’ll get off.”

“Then every­thing went at hyper speed,” Joy said. “The Coast Guard swim­mer said I had only a minute to gather my things.” Per­haps sur­pris­ingly, the de­ci­sion to leave Ke­laerin still caught her by sur­prise. She’d col­lected some items and stashed them in a dry bag and a small cooler ear­lier, when they’d first fired off the EPIRB, not re­ally think­ing she’d be leap­ing into the wa­ter with them. Now that such a sce­nario was im­mi­nent, she re­al­ized their pass­ports, wal­lets, cash, good cam­era and other valu­ables were ei­ther miss­ing or un­reach­able. Too late.

In the fran­tic mo­ments that fol­lowed, nei­ther the cooler nor the com­puter she’d grabbed at the last mo­ment ever made it off

Ke­laerin. Like al­most every­thing else they cher­ished from their years of cruis­ing, all the hard drives, pic­tures, logs and me­men­tos, they stayed on the boat, for­ever gone. “It’s an unimag­in­able loss,” Joy would later write.

As they made their way to the stern, Jim and Joy were still wear­ing the in­flat­able vests they’d donned through­out the en­tire or­deal. “In­flate your vests,” said the swim­mer. “Jump.” Joy hes­i­tated; a rolling wave was ap­proach­ing. “Go now!” he com­manded. All of a sud­den, they were all in the drink.

The res­cue was noth­ing shy of heroic. It turned out the he­li­copter was at the ex­treme limit of its range when the Careys were winched aboard in bas­kets. It di­verted from War­ren­ton on its re­turn 180-mile flight, and set down in nearby As­to­ria. When it landed, Jim heard the pi­lot tell ground con­trol they were down to one minute of fuel. One minute.

The Coast Guard crew took good care of Jim and Joy on the way in, wrap­ping them in cov­ers, giv­ing them wa­ter — they’d never had so much as a sip the whole time they tried to save

Ke­laerin. An am­bu­lance ar­rived and whisked the cou­ple off to the hos­pi­tal. Jim was put on a sa­line drip and re­ceived seven stitches; they were given T-shirts and pa­per pants.

Jim has no re­grets about call­ing in the coasties. Given the cir­cum­stances, it was the sound, sea­man­like thing to do. If Joy could change one thing, she’d have put the im­por­tant stuff in a ditch bag. They did have one pre­pared, but it was full of things for a life raft, not for the unimag­in­able cir­cum­stance of plung­ing into the sea. In any case, that dis­ap­peared when Ke­laerin flipped.

The Careys didn’t leave a transpon­der on Ke­laerin. They were well out of the ship­ping lanes, and Jim be­lieved the boat sunk al­most im­me­di­ately. But in mid-july, Joy sent me the fol­low­ing email: “A ray of hope. Our life raft was found and re­ported to the Coast Guard. We are cur­rently look­ing at weather, cur­rents, to see if there is any way we could still find Ke­laerin. It’s been a month, but I have heard of strange dis­cov­er­ies of yachts that were aban­doned. You see a whole bunch of them in Amer­i­can Samoa, for in­stance. We have fish­er­men friends of a friend who are ‘look­ing’ out for it. … We may head down to Ore­gon soon and camp out near one of the ac­tive fishing har­bors and see what hap­pens.”

You never know, right? Find­ing Ke­laerin might be as unimag­in­able as what hap­pened to Joy and Jim, as ex­pe­ri­enced and ca­pa­ble as any cruis­ers could be, a long day away from putting the ex­cla­ma­tion point on the trip of a life­time. You just never know.

Herb Mccormick is CW’S ex­ec­u­tive editor.

Pic­tures from a cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion: Ke­laerin rests on the hard af­ter her decks were painted in Fiji (top). Joy and Jim pose for a sou­venir shot in Moorea, French Poly­ne­sia.

Ke­laerin at an­chor in New Zealand (top). With an­other cruis­ing cou­ple, Jim, left, and Joy, third from left, en­joy M&M’S and Cham­pagne, their tra­di­tional post-pas­sage treat.

In 27 years of own­er­ship, Ke­laerin took the Careys to more than 50 coun­tries. Here, she takes a well-earned break in beau­ti­ful Palau.

With Ke­laerin gone, so are a life­time of me­men­tos, in­clud­ing this Turk­ish Santa Claus grac­ing the sa­loon on one merry Christ­mas.

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