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Sailor drowned, two lost for 12 days, no EPIRB

By Sue Richards last modified Dec 02, 2010 01:05 PM

Published: 2010-12-02 13:05:41
Countries: Bermuda , USA

As reported by

Sat, 27 Nov 2010

Today almost every tragic tale of being lost at sea involves the admission of carrying no EPIRB. What was meant to be a routine sail from Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts in the USA to the Caribbean this month was no different. The voyage ended in tragedy after an inaccurate forecast, advice "not to worry if you don't hear from us", and the lack of an EPIRB.

One sailor's life was lost, the ketch was dismasted and the two remaining sailors fought for their lives to survive for 12 days before they were fortuitously rescued by a merchant ship, days they were forced to endure because of the lack of an EPIRB.

Survivor Dennis White and his wife Julie Robinson of West Tisbury in Massachusetts, told Mark Lovewell of the local Vineyard Gazette his story:

Dennis White, 63, skipper of the 41-foot ketch Emma Goldman, had left the Vineyard on Saturday, Nov. 6 with a crew of two: the captain’s longtime friend William (Willie) Thorns, 64, of Mashpee and his 25-year-old daughter, Amanda Thorns.

On Sunday, White and Amanda Thorns were rescued from the foundering sailboat after 12 days, about 218 miles northwest of Bermuda by a passing Greek 900-foot oil tanker. The two survivors brought with them a harrowing tale of the loss of Amanda Thorns’s father after the dismasting and of their own struggle to stay alive. After their rescue from the deck of the sailboat, the boat was abandoned.

The skipper’s goal had been to sail the ocean-equipped sailboat to the Virgin Islands, or at the very least Bermuda, depending on the weather, according to his wife, who spoke to the Gazette from her West Tisbury home on Tuesday. He had done the sail to the Caribbean several times before. Ms. Robinson said she only heard about the tragedy that befell the Emma Goldman on Sunday, when she got a telephone call from her husband aboard the oil tanker saying that he and Amanda Thorns had just been rescued.

Prior to leaving, Ms. Robinson said: "Dennis had said to me that they were going to head to the Virgin Islands. He said, if you don’t hear from me in five days [how long it would take to get to Bermuda], I would hear from him in 14 days. "If you don’t hear from me, don’t call the Coast Guard, we will be all right and arrive Monday and Tuesday," he said."

But through conversations on the phone, Ms. Robinson learned about what happened. They had left Lake Tashmoo on Saturday, Nov. 6. They sailed to Tarpaulin Cove. "They left after midnight," she said. "I had a six-day weather forecast that said northwest winds all the way to Bermuda," the captain said. He was unaware that a weather system was forming in the Gulf of Maine that was far bigger than any forecast he had seen.

The weather deteriorated. "I was sucked into the Gulf Steam by the current," Mr. White said. "My plan was to take it." Somewhere 350 miles south of the Vineyard they were in the midst of huge seas, gale force northeast winds. She said the vessel encountered 30 to 40 foot waves.

Ms. Robinson said at one moment, at night, while Mr. Thorns was on deck on watch, with a lifeline connecting him to the boat, and Miss Thorns and the skipper were below, the vessel rolled over in a swell. "While Will was on watch, the boat rolled over 360 degrees. When it came up, the masts were gone, everything was washed off. Willie was washed off, caught up in the rigging that was dragging behind the boat."

Mr. Thorns was still alive at the time.

"In 30 to 40 foot waves, they were unable to pull Willie back up into the boat. He was tangled in the wires," Ms. Robinson said. "It was very cold," the captain said. In high seas, the sailor died.

For the next three days, all the two could do was stay alive and below and bail. "There was a hole on deck, left by the mizzen. After three days they were able to go on deck and cut loose all the wires and the debris," she said. Without a mast, there was no antenna, no way to communicate a distress call by radio. The engine didn’t work. A portable marine radio was hidden below.

"I didn’t have an EPIRB," the skipper explained. "If I had, I would have been rescued. Instead, it took 12 days to be rescued."

After three days of bailing the boat out, White said he found the handheld marine VHF radio, with still enough battery power to be used. "I found it in the bilge, it had been underwater for three days, and it had about a half a charge in the battery," the captain said.

When the weather had improved, the skipper was able to rig up a sail using the mast from their sailing dinghy. "He jury-rigged a small sail and they were able to do about two knots for two days," Ms. Robinson said. But they could only sail in one direction. The skipper said they did 55 miles in two days.

On more than one occasion they tried to hail a passing freighter but weren’t noticed. Mr. White said they saw their first ship, only about four miles away. But it didn’t see them, though they sent up flares. "The second ship was three miles away and they missed us," the skipper said. "I kept figuring if we could sail farther south, I would see more tankers. All I wanted to do was get rescued. I was running out of water, the boat was falling apart. I saw one ship one day. I saw another the next day."

"Twelve days after the dismasting, a ship was seen. They sent up a flare and were picked up by a Greek ship, but it took all day for the ship to come alongside because the water was so rough," Ms. Robinson said. The ship was the Triathlon. The two survivors arrived in Bermuda on Monday morning.

When the sailboat was adrift in the hard seas, Amanda and Dennis kept each other going, Ms. Robinson said she had learned. "I know that kind of experience," she said. "You are too busy surviving. We once got knocked down in Bermuda. I can picture pretty clearly in my mind what they went through," Ms. Robinson said. "Dennis is cool and calm under pressure."

The sailboat Emma Goldman was built over six years in the family’s backyard in West Tisbury and completed in 1992. She was a cold-molded, cedar plank, wood and epoxy hull.

Ms. Robinson said she and her husband and friends are now mourning the loss of a dear friend: "Boats are replaceable. It is Willie that is not replaceable."

By Mark Alan Lovewell, Vineyard Gazette/Sail-World