The one that got away
To the editor: Telling this story I feel like a fisherman talking about a big fish that got off his hook. It was Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013. We were on a non-stop trip from Huntington, N.Y., to St. Maarten. Joining me on board my Amel Super Maramu Kimberlite were Reiner Schick, Jeff Kraus, and Carl McGregor.
At 0800 Atlantic Standard Time, beating close hauled into 20-plus knots of wind, we were contacted by the cargo ship Vincentia, which was heading eastward for Gibraltar. Vincentia told us that a vessel was in distress and asked if we were in distress.
We replied that we were not. We then learned the sailor in distress was named Michel Salan, a Canadian national aboard his sailboat Scat. Salan was suffering from severe dehydration 50 miles south of us and was in need of assistance.
We started monitoring both VHF channel 16 and 2,182 kHz on our SSB radio. We also immediately changed course and headed to Scat’s reported position at approximately 24° 48’ N, 63° 41’ W.
The first ship to arrive on scene was the 518-foot Chiquita Scandinavia, but it did not have lifting equipment to lift the solo sailor off. The captain was wise and Chiquita went to windward to put the sailboat in calmer seas.
We were about 10 miles away when Vincentia, a 623-foot bulk carrier, arrived on scene. We continued to sail towards Scat’s reported position. Vincentia had a crane and was able to lift the sailor on board. We watched all this unfold on radar.
We figured we could claim the sailboat for salvage and sail it to St. Maarten. Then I noticed on our AIS that Vincentia was steaming south at 7.5 knots, which I thought was odd. When we arrived where the sailboat should have been it was not anywhere to be seen. I looked at the horizon and I saw Vincentia as a small speck and what looked to be the sailboat in tow. When we called Vincentia, it confirmed that it was in fact towing the sailboat possibly for salvage.
That was about 1400 AST. About an hour and a half before sundown, Vincentia called us by name and said that the towline had parted and the sailboat was ours to be had at position 24° 35.4’ N, 63° 46.1’ W. We headed to that position and low and behold, a beautiful green hulled sailboat with a beige deck, bobstay, solar panels, and a monitor wind vane lay 150 feet off our port side. It looked to be about a 34-foot double-ended sloop probably worth approximately $150,000 to $200,000. Unfortunately, we only had a half an hour before sunset, the seas were running 12 to 14 feet and the wind was still in the 20-knot range. We also did not know if it was trailing a 400-foot towline. Something you do not want to motor into.
If Vincentia had not taken the boat in tow, we would have come across the sailboat much earlier and we would have had a lot of sunlight in which to work. I would have headed upwind of the sailboat and drifted down to it. My boat Kimberlite being a ketch rig, it’s important to come alongside another boat without either of my masts colliding with the abandoned sloop, as this would probably cause us to lose our masts.
Our initial plan was to drift down to the boat after carefully inspecting it to see how long a tow it was trailing. We would have then aligned our masts, put fenders over the side; tied off to it and boarded her with two crew in PFDs, radio gear and GPS receivers. If the boat was locked we could have passed drills and a cut off saw over to the boat, we could have seen if it needed fuel, etc., and done whatever repairs were needed to make the boat seaworthy and able to sail.
It was getting dark and this maneuver was very dangerous. Additionally, the boat had a radar signature about the size of a pinhead on our radar and it would be impossible to track it overnight as it was easily lost in the sea clutter. So we decided to abandon the salvage effort.
We advised the Maritime Mobile Service Network of the boat adrift and sailed off. We were all very bummed out over the loss of this boat. It would have been a hell of an adventure.
I still run this loss over and over in my mind and I know I made the right decision, but it would have been so exciting to have sailed this boat into St. Maarten — not for the salvage value, but for the fun of the adventure and to reunite Salan with his boat.
I feel very sorry for Salan. I hope that someone will find his boat and he will get it back. Unfortunately, if Salan’s insurance is anything like mine, solo sailing is not insured. I have made this trip from New York to or from the Caribbean about 26 times, and once solo and am well aware of the hazards.
Eric Freedman lives in New York and is a member of the Cruising Club of America. He owns the Amel Super Maramu Kimberlite.