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post #90 of Old 07-10-2013
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Re: 6 Americans, 1 Brit vanish at sea

Some interesting and rather provocative observations/hypotheses from the legendary Warwick Tompkins, Jr, a guy who definitely knows wood boats, and was somewhat familiar with NINA...


Two other Northern California sailors, 'Commodore' and Nancy Tompkins of the Mill Valley-based Wylie 38+ Flashgirl, also became friends with the Dyche family in New Zealand. Indeed, Commodore had a strong family connection with the 85-year-old schooner.

"When we got to Whangarei, I saw Niña – which, like Katherine Ross [who co-starred in the film The Graduate decades ago], is very distinctive – and immediately recognized her," says Commodore. "She was the schooner my father Warwick had navigated across the Atlantic Ocean to victory in 1929."

A narrow schooner with long overhangs, Niña was designed by the famed Starling Burgess and built by Ruben Bigelow on Monument Beach in Cape Cod in 1928. She was built specifically to win the 3,900-mile race from New York to Santander, Spain. And she did. When she arrived in Santander, a launch pulled alongside and a gentleman waved his cap and shouted, "Well sailed, Niña, I congratulate you. I am the King of Spain." Niña continued on to England where she became the first American vessel to win the prestigious 600-mile Fastnet Race.

"Here I am, 80 years old, walking around the interior of a boat that my father navigated across the Atlantic 85 years ago when he was just 30," says Commodore. "It was powerful experience." All the more so because Commodore is every bit his father's son.

"My father and I only really talked about the Niña once, and when we did, I came to the realization — as all sons must — that their fathers are not all-knowing. When I asked him how many degrees Niña tacked in, he said he didn't know. I found this astounding. Even though he hadn't sailed on the boat in more than 50 years, how could a vessel's navigator not remember how many degrees she tacked in? My father also wrote that 'Niña danced around like a dervish at sea.' He attributed this to the fact that she was cut away forward, whereas my father's Wanderbird, the former Elbe River pilot schooner that he sailed back and forth across the Atlantic and around Cape Horn, had a full forefoot."

Commodore is notorious for being critical of boats. "He can't help himself," explains his wife Nancy. For example, upon completing the delivery of our catamaran Profligate from Mexico to California some years ago, he wrote a single-spaced two-page letter listing the litany of reasons why we should sell the cat immediately.

Based on an hour aboard Niña, dinner with the couple, and another meeting, Tompkins said it was clear that both David and Rosemary had "totally embraced the schooner." But to his very critical eye, the schooner looked "a bit rundown" and "like an old boat that was struggling to be kept going." We asked him for specifics. "I noticed that a couple of the turnbuckles were slightly deformed. These were very large bronze turnbuckles that might have been the first the Merriman Brothers ever made. They needed to be replaced. David also explained to me that they had rebuilt the foundation of the forward mast — without unstepping it. I don't see how that could be done properly without unstepping the mast. Thirdly, he told me that they had sheathed the entire hull, and I believe the keel, in a quarter inch of fiberglass. 'That's what enabled us to do this trip,' he told me. That suggests to me that the underlying 86-year-old hull was not in the best condition."

We asked Commodore to speculate on what might have gone wrong on the schooner.

"The first thing that occurs to me is that there was still something wrong with the base of the foremast, and that under the tremendous compression of heavy weather, it opened up the garboards. That would sink the boat in a hurry. The second thought is that maybe one of the deformed turnbuckles had failed, causing the big aluminum main mast to fall, fill with water and, still attached to the boat, ram a big hole in the hull. Or the butt could smash a large hole in the hull. A distant third possibility is that some of the fiberglass sheathing no longer adhered to the hull and led to some kind of hull failure."

These theories are certainly plausible. For instance, about 25 years ago San Diego sailmakers Paul and Susan Mitchell took off across the Pacific aboard their 61-ft wood schooner White Cloud. Without warning, her hull opened up in moderate conditions in the Coral Sea, and she sank within minutes. They survived to buy a smaller aluminum sloop and cruise her for many years, and more recently have taken to cruising the canals of Europe.

When we suggested that Niña might have sunk as a result of a collision with a whale or container, Commodore dismissed the possibilities. "You have to be fatalistic about those things if you're going to go to sea, so it's counterproductive to think about them." We're perplexed by his reasoning.

Is there any hope for the crew of the Niña? It's true that the Tasman Sea is large and not home to many vessels. Indeed, one poster to a report on said he'd been on a fishing boat in the Tasman Sea that lost all power, and drifted helplessly for a month or so before being stumbled upon by a sailboat. Indeed, when we started Latitude in the late '70s, and when EPIRBs were much less common and reliable, it was not that rare for boats or crews of boats in liferafts to survive unheard of for a month or more.

The biggest mystery to us is why no EPIRB signal has been received. It suggests three possibilities: 1) There was some failure so catastrophic that nobody had time to get to the EPIRB, which had to be manually activated; 2) the EPIRB went down with the vessel so quickly that there was no time for the signal to get out; 3) the EPIRB battery was dead and/or there was some other problem with the EPIRB.

While the chances of the Niña or her crew being found are becoming more slim by the day, we, like the Dardens, continue to think positively.

- latitude / richard

Latitude 38 - 'Lectronic Latitude

Based on this and other photos of Niña taken by Steve Darden, the schooner didn't appear ready for the front row at St. Tropez, but she looked better than a lot of wooden boats we've seen out cruising. The exterior, of course, only gives limited insight to the conditions of the structure of a vessel.
© 2013 Steve Darden
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