FEBRUARY 2007 – NO. 12
In the Monster's Jaws
The final moments of two sailors swept up in the open ocean during Hurricane Lenny
Ocean waves, for all their complexity, are defined by a few simple dimensions: Wave length is the distance from one crest to the next; wave height is the vertical distance from trough to crest; the period is the time in seconds between the arrival of two successive crests; and the velocity of a wave is inversely proportional to its period. In deepwater swells — waves traveling across water that is at least half as deep as the waves are long —there are consistent and predictable relationships among these dimensions. A typical large ocean swell with a 15-second period, traveling at 40 knots, will have a length of around 1000 feet. For this to be a deepwater wave, the ocean depth must be at least 500 feet. Such a wave, even when its height is majestic, is no threat to a small boat, which rides over it with ease. But storm waves do not become swells until the wind stops blowing.
Wind-generated waves increase with the strength of the wind, its duration, and the unfettered stretch of ocean, known as fetch, across which it blows. The waves accompanying 1999's Hurricane Lenny had been building for days across 800 miles of open sea. Because the storm had tracked south of the large islands of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, there had been no significant landmass to interrupt these building seas. According to models developed by the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences in England, Lenny's waves might have been in excess of 60 feet high — higher than La Vie en Rose's masthead.
But this does not adequately describe the actual sea conditions Carl Wake, Steve Rigby, Guillaume Llobregat, and Jacques Santos were experiencing. Though the significant wave height — the average height of the highest third of the seas — might have been 60 feet, occasional seas would have been much higher. The highest measured significant wave heights were 50 feet in Hurricane Ivan, a Category 4 storm in the Gulf of Mexico in 2004, but individual waves as high as 91 feet were reliably measured outside the eyewall, and wave heights inside the eyewall are thought to have exceeded 130 feet. And waves in storms are not the regular, sinusoidal deepwater swells that roll across the oceans hundreds or thousands of miles from the disturbances that created them. Rather, storm waves are a study in chaos.
As Hurricane Lenny approached the Anegada Passage, it first whipped up huge seas from the southwest. Within this wave train, bigger, faster-moving crests overtook and consumed smaller ones, growing larger still. Eventually, under the continuing influence of hurricane-strength winds, some of those crests grew so high and steep that they became unstable and began to collapse, or break. When a crest angle falls below 120 degrees — or, put another way, when the ratio of wave height to wave length exceeds 1:7 — the wave becomes unstable and will almost certainly break. In a breaking sea, the nondestructive energy locked in an undulating wave form is translated into the unleashed mass, momentum, and kinetic energy of tons of white water tumbling from a wave crest at speeds in excess of 40 knots. Swells do not destroy boats, but breaking seas do. No small boat, no matter how sturdy, can withstand a large breaking sea. If it is in the wrong place at the wrong time, it will be broken apart as if made of kindling.
The seas from the southwest were followed by seas from the south, then the southeast as Lenny approached, and as these wave trains collided, occasionally reinforcing each other, huge breaking seas reared up in every quarter.
To make matters worse, both La Vie en Rose and Frederic-Anne were encountering Lenny in the worst possible place, over the Saba Banks, a broad, shallow shelf west of the island of Saba. The sea bottom south and southeast of St. Croix reaches down to more than 13,000 feet deep, but 40 miles east, over the banks, the soundings rise abruptly from 3000 to less than 100 feet. Nothing transforms a survivable deepwater wave into a steep, breaking, destructive cascade more effectively than a sudden rise of the ocean floor. When a wave "feels the bottom" in depths less than half its length, the base of the wave is slowed by friction, in effect causing the crest to overrun the base and eventually to break. Even waves that would otherwise have been survivable were turned into weapons of destruction when they started to break on the turquoise shallows of the Saba Banks.
Aboard La Vie en Rose, Carl and Steve must have talked about what to do next, but there really wasn't much to discuss. There was no way to sail out of Lenny's way, no way even to control the boat. After days of forging south to skirt the storm, La Vie en Rose was reduced to being thrown before the storm under bare poles, slowly drifting back to the north. Wave after wave swept over the boat, each one flooding the deck with thousands of pounds of water. The fiberglass flexed and distorted under these loads, allowing water to pour in everywhere, around hatches that were dogged down as right as a man could dog them. If a hatch gave way, the boat would be swamped before they could fashion a jury-rigged replacement. If the hull or deck gave way, she'd sink like a stone. The bilge pumps were already struggling to keep up with the ingress of water. La Vie en Rose moaned and creaked. She was laboring, and it was only a matter of time before she broke up. It was time to ask for help, to call the Coast Guard and have them send out a ship or a helicopter. It was time to leave La Vie en Rose, to let her cope with Lenny on her own.
Or was it? Steve could hope to find another boat in which to pursue his ambition to become a singlehanded racing sailor, but Carl had made a one-time-only emotional investment in his boat and all that she represented. There would be no other. It wasn't a matter of money. Although most blue-water voyagers find insurance to be exorbitantly expensive when available at all, Carl had been able to purchase worldwide coverage for La Vie through USAA, which provides financial services for members of the military. The boat was covered for $90,000. He could replace the boat. But Carl had no insurance on his dream. He possessed neither the naiveté nor the will to begin again. The choice now confronting him must have struck him as bitterly cruel.
The motion in the cabin was violent, and it wasn't possible even to stand up. Braced on the settee, Carl surveyed his still-floating world: painted white bulkheads with bits of teak trim, tropical fabric on the settees. A woman had obviously decorated La Vie, he was sure of that. Somehow this boat, lean and muscular on the outside, feminine within, had brought out the best in him. With this boat he had pursued an uncompromised dream. In this boat he had propelled himself over an ocean, rescued a man in a hurricane, endured a crucible and found in himself the man he'd always hoped to be. He had made this boat his world, imposed on it his own idealized order, and then in turn been recreated by it.
Listening to Virgin Islands Radio, Carl and Steve must have wondered why they had pressed south into the storm. Reports coming from land and sea indicated that Lenny was barely impacting the Virgin Islands. Carl and Steve had been right there, just a few hours from safe harbor in Tortola. If they had headed north after the rescue instead of south, they'd be in port right now. The irony was as inescapable as the radio chatter. Boats in Charlotte Amalie Harbor were fretting over their anchors dragging in 30-knot gusts. Just to have an anchor down to worry about would have been a wonderful exchange for Carl and Steve.
The winds continued to break. By 0900, 100-knot blasts were coming from the east-southeast, and La Vie was aiming roughly toward St. Martin, wallowing with no sails set yet still making forward progress from the force of the wind in her rigging and against her hull. She was near 17.6° N and 63.8° W, approximately halfway between St. Croix and St. Martin and about 30 miles west of Saba. The eyewall was a mere 60 or 70 miles away and overtaking her by the hour. The shrill whine of the winds must have been terrifying. Carl told Steve to call the Coast Guard and put out a Mayday. It was time to abandon ship while they still had an antenna with which to make the call. Every powerful gust that laid La Vie en Rose onto her beam ends threatened to carry away the mast and with it their ability to communicate.
According to Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Jim Munro, by the time Steve broadcast Maydays on La Vie's VHF and SSB radios, the conditions had deteriorated to such a degree that it was impossible to launch a rescue mission. Earlier that morning the decision had been made to ground and lash down all GANTSEC aircraft, including the HH-65 Dolphin helicopters, at Air Station Borinquen in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. The cutter Valiant, the ship most capable of reaching the stricken sailors, had been deployed to smoother southern waters. Munro said later that if Carl and Steve had called just two hours earlier, rescue might still have been an option. Despair and deep fear must have clutched the two men aboard La Vie en Rose when they heard this.
Then there was a ray of hope. A Dutch naval ship hovering near Guadeloupe overheard Steve's calls and offered to help. The radio officer informed the Coast Guard that they would try to read La Vie en Rose, and the frigate began working its way northwest. Julia Rigby was in near constant communication with the Coast Guard, which kept her apprised of the frigate's position. But it soon became obvious that the ship would not reach the stricken sailboat. The conditions were too dangerous; the frigate nearly broached in a monstrous following sea. After an hour they turned back to the south. Rescue was no longer an option.
At 1100 hours, Steve managed to get a call through to Julia. She was his lifeline. He knew that she was in contact with the Coast Guard, with VISAR, and with anybody who might be able to help them. He desperately wanted to see her again but realized that survival had become a long shot. "He started to cry. For the first time he wasn't calm and hopeful," she later told me. "I was crying too. He said that he loved me and that I was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Then he said that things were not going well, that the boat was threatening to break up and they could not get free of the storm. He told me that they were going to try to get into the liferaft, but he wasn't sure they'd make it. Then he told me again that he loved me."
Carl made no personal calls throughout the storm. As he had so many other ordeals in his life, he endured this one privately.
During the early hours of November 17, Lenny had drifted between two mid-level high-pressure ridges, slowing its forward motion to a crawl. When a well-formed hurricane slows down, it usually intensifies, and Lenny was no exception. The 1200 AST advisory from the National Hurricane Center was devastating. Sustained winds were up to 125 knots, with further strengthening likely. Indeed, three hours later sustained winds of 135 knots would be recorded — the borderline between a Category 4 and Category 5 storm. The chances of surviving such a storm are remote aboard any vessel, much less a 42-foot sailboat. Lenny's center was at 17.3° north and 64.9° west, with the strongest winds east and southeast of the eyewall. La Vie en Rose was 55 miles due east of the center and a mere 20 or 30 miles east of the eyewall.
Now the hurricane had started to move again, traveling northeast at eight knots. The leading eyewall would pass directly over La Vie en Rose in less than four hours.
At 1300 AST, Steve again made contact with the Coast Guard, frantic. He had time to say that La Vie en Rose was breaking up, then he lost the signal. At 1320 he was able to get through once more. With greater composure this time, he told the radio officer that they were sinking and were going to try to get into the liferaft. He gave their position, 17.7° north, 63.7° west. They were 25 miles northwest of Saba. They had made it off the Saba Banks, but that no longer mattered. That was their last communication.
It doesn't take long for a boat to sink once its watertight integrity has been breeched. A six-inch hole six inches below the waterline will admit 500 gallons per minute to the boat's interior, and as the boat sinks the leak rate increases. By the time the hold is two feet below the waterline, it allows 1000 gallons per minute into the boat. Carl's largest electric bilge pump was able to remove just under a gallon per minute at optimal efficiency, and his manual pump, when stroked with the force of a desperate man, could move about a quarter of a gallon per stroke. A furious rate of 100 strokes per minute would have translated into 25 gallons per minute, which was far too little, and anyway how long could anyone keep that up? Once the boat started to sink, it was just a matter of time before the weight of the water overcame La Vie en Rose's reserves buoyancy. "There's not a worse feeling imaginable than knowing the boat is going down and you're going into the water," Alex Bennett says.
The boat's six-man Eurovinyl liferaft was designed for offshore use. It had a full canopy and a small sea anchor that could be deployed to keep it steady in the water. Carl had climbed inside it when it was serviced in Annapo9lis and had declared it cozy, but that was on a shop floor, not a ravaged sea. Liferafts work better in theory than in practice; the raft is something to be checked off a list when a sailor prepares his boat for a passage, not something he ever expects to use. He may feel safer just knowing his raft is there on deck, but clinging to one in a storm-tossed sea is another definition of torture. Even the stoutest raft is flung about like a toy in a bathtub. The unfortunate people inside are almost instantly seasick, and it doesn't take long for the raft to be swamped, leaving its occupants drenched and shivering. Further, there is no way to propel a liferaft. All you can do is sit and worry, hoping that somebody will come to your assistance.
La Vie en Rose's liferaft was housed in a fiberglass canister, which was mounted in a stainless steel cradle near the base of the mast. Many cruising sailboats stow their rafts in this position, but it is not the ideal place. It requires that a crewmember make his way forward, unstrap the lashings, and either launch the raft from there or carry an awkward 70-pound load back to the cockpit in storm conditions. Another reason not to mount the liferaft on deck is that it is prone to being washed overboard. La Vie en Rose had repeatedly been swept by powerful waves. In the cabin, Carl and Steve had no way of knowing if the raft was still in its cradle and good reason to suspect that it wasn't.
Launching and boarding a liferaft in calm conditions is challenging. The sailor is supposed to toss the raft overboard with the painter, or attachment line, secured to the boat. The raft is then inflated by pulling the painted until pressure is felt. At that point a sharp, short yank removes the pin from a CO2 canister, and the raft begins to fill. Sailors are taught to draw the fully inflated raft alongside the boat and try to board it without entering the water — thereby lessening or at least delaying the onset of hypothermia.
But proper technique was not an option for the crew of La Vie en Rose. There wasn't time, the boat was foundering, and the wild seas would never permit such a deliberate procedure. It was impossible to stand up in the cockpit, much less on deck. Assuming the raft was still there, they would have to hastily cut it free, toss it into the water, pull vigorously to inflate it, and hope that it doesn't blow away faster than they could swim to it. Carl wasn't a strong swimmer, but at least he could swim.
Carl and Steve would have pushed open the companionway and pulled themselves into the cockpit. The deck had been stripped clean. The spray dodger, the bimini sun shade, the stainless steel bracket with the solar panels and wind generator, and the emergency life ring and strobe light were all gone. It was impossible to stand up without being blown off the boat. Maybe they took a split second to marvel at the emerald, white-capped liquid mountains that surrounded them, or maybe they didn't. Wind, rain, and seas combined to create a blinding salt spray that burned into any exposed skin. Both men were wearing safety harnesses and had stashed emergency beacons, or EPIRBs, into their foul weather jacket pockets. Carl had his passport in a waterproof bag, along with his wallet and some money. He was wearing a life jacket — a "personal flotation device" in Coast Guard parlance — but most likely from oversight, Steve may not have been.
At least one of the two men — perhaps Steve, the younger and fitter — worked his way forward to the mast, keeping his lifeline clipped. Under repeated assault by boarding seas, the journey of just a few yards would have required a supreme effort. There he found the raft — or he didn't. If it was there, he either succeeded in launching it or not. And if he succeeded, it either blew away or didn't, and one or both men either succeeded in boarding it or didn't. And within a few seconds or a few minutes, perhaps with one or two witnesses or perhaps with none, the battered hulk of a once-beautiful sailboat sank from view.
From At the Mercy of the Sea by John Kretschmer. Copyright © 2006 by the author and reprinted by permission of McGraw Hill.
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