Although he had lived aboard La Vie en Rose for more than a year and had sailed from Mexico to Nantucket, he considered the looming 1,200 mile passage as his first real bluewater test. "I'll be happy to have this passage under my belt," he noted wryly on his web page, "then the Pacific won't seem so far away."
Carl was one of my best friends. In many ways I was his sailing mentor and in many ways he was a wise, big brother to my family and me. When it was finally time to launch his cruising dream, I steered him toward La Vie en Rose. A stout, well-equipped, Lavranos 41 sloop, La Vie was built in South Africa. With her fine entry, low freeboard, sweet sheer, pronounced tumble home, low slung deck house, and small, seaworthy cockpit, she reminded me of a larger version of Gigi, the Contessa 32 sloop in which I had doubled Cape Horn to weather years ago. I'm certain that I liked the boat more than Carl did at first, but gradually he came to admire her seakeeping abilities and forgiving nature.
He sent me a long e-mail from Nantucket, proclaiming that now he was sure that La Vie was the boat that would take him to "far flung quaysides." I wrote back saying that I looked forward to the day when our old steel ketch and his handsome sloop were the only two boats anchored in the lagoon of a South Pacific atoll. Somehow I knew this vague rendezvous would take place, maybe not in the South Pacific, but somewhere.
The club of bluewater sailors is small and friendships formed there survive space and time that would snuff out less genuine relationships. But first there was Thanksgiving in the Virgin Islands. I was leaving for Havana a week later, to deliver a Hylas 49 down the Old Bahama Channel to St. Thomas, and Carl and I made tentative plans to have a turkey dinner ashore. I planned to depart on November 15, about ten days after Carl, and I jokingly told him to have some cold beer aboard and to start looking for us around November 23. Then, in a more serious tone, I told Carl to take the passage one day at a time and not to hesitate to heave-to to rest. "Fatigue is your enemy offshore," I reminded him. I also told him to ignore conventional wisdom, "don't try to get east all at once, steer closer to the rhumb line." "Take what the ocean gives you," I insisted, which now, of course, seems bitterly ironic.
Indeed, all my advice seems hubristic in retrospect. He indicated that he wanted to keep Bermuda as an option and we finally agreed that he should a lay a course a little north and east of the rhumb line. He passed over the Bay Tunnel on the morning of November 5, 1999 and I can picture the smile that creased his face. Carl had all the right ingredients to make the cruising lifestyle work. As a West Point Graduate and retired Army Major, Carl was well prepared for the inconveniences and the idiosyncrasies of life at sea. He had mellowed since his military days, and become more philosophical, but he maintained the quiet forbearance of a man who has faced the enemy. He was prudent and well prepared but not afraid of what the sea might throw his way.
Typical of his planning, he waited until the first week of November to make the passage, to lessen the likelihood of encountering a tropical system. Carl didn't expect, and didn't want, cruising to be easy. He dealt with the small adversities that beset every cruise, from broken gear to scheduling conflicts, and kept single-handing with good humor and grace. La Vie en Rose tracked ESE the first few days and then more to the SE. In what would prove to be a fateful decision, Carl decided to forgo Bermuda and head directly to St. Thomas.
Although Carl had an excellent short-wave receiver, he didn't have the ability to transmit long range via SSB or HAM radio. Still, he was able to keep his web manager, and incredibly good friend, Shelly Gund updated by passing VHF messages along through other sailors.
On the night of November 9, the crew of nearby MaRiah e-mailed Shelly and reported that La Vie was located at 30.17 N, and 66.00 W, or about 120 miles south of Bermuda. He said that Carl was doing well, his course was 170 True and La Vie was making 6.5 knots. On November 13, MaRiah sent another e-mail. "I talked to Carl tonight, everything is okay." La Vie was at 22.49 N 64.40 W, or about 250 miles north of St. Thomas. Carl was hoping to make landfall on Tuesday, November 16. Although Carl was not setting any speed records, by all accounts it looked like he was poised to complete his first offshore passage in good time and in good shape.
On November 14, an area of disturbed weather south of Jamaica made my flight into Cuba turbulent to say the least. Later that day, the National Hurricane Center announced the birth of Tropical Storm Lenny. Havana was hosting the Latin American Summit meeting and Fidel tightened security all over the island. The Marina Hemingway was closed and we were forced to bide our time for three days.
In the meantime, Lenny was upgraded to a hurricane and for reasons known only to Neptune, was tracking east! As Beth Leonard notes in her recent SailNet column (See From Out There - Hurricane Lenny Makes for a Few Tense Days), it is very hard to comprehend a hurricane that is moving east -- it baffles all conventional wisdom. Carl, sailing south, must have been aware of the building storm. A fateful collision was ensuing and looking back, it seems so unfair. On one hand was a sailor who had gone to great lengths to prepare for, and execute, an offshore passage. On the other was a nasty hurricane with a name that sounds like a pimply faced kid from Brooklyn -- a sinister storm traveling in the wrong direction at the wrong time of the year.
I can only speculate when Carl first became aware of the storm since there were no messages from him at that point. My guess is that he heard about the Hurricane from Herb, the faithful HAM weather guru, known to cruisers as, "Southbound II." The storm was forecast to track east through the day on November 15, skirt the south shore of Hispaniola, and then turn northeast toward Puerto Rico and the Virgins -- and then turn due north. This must have been devastating news for Carl, it was as though the storm was aiming at him. Yet my strong hunch is that Carl remained calm, considered his options and made his decisions based on what he considered to be sound information.
The forecasters continued to predict this track for the storm on November 16. Lenny intensified dramatically during the day, but continued to move more east than north. Still, a NE and then N track was the official forecast. Carl was in a quandary -- what evasive action should he take? I suspect that he decided to head further east and then south, thinking that he would circle in behind the storm as it tracked north over the Virgins.
In retrospect, it is easy to see that this was a flawed decision as Lenny failed to listen to the forecasters in Miami. However, even without the benefit of hindsight, I would have tried to talk Carl out of this course of action. Carl must have slowed down, typically, I think he hove-to and carefully considered his next move. On November 13 he was 250 miles from St. Thomas, two days out at the most. However, the next report is from the Coast Guard on the morning of November 17, announcing that Carl was east of St. Croix, and, that "La Vie" is in the eye of the Hurricane with winds gusting to 150 mph! How could this have happened?
Easily, and tragically. Once Carl committed to going east, he sealed his fate because after a brief flirt to north, Lenny continued east then actually turned southeast. Carl tried to outflank the storm, then a deadly category 4 hurricane, but he must have encountered slow going in gale force headwinds. Instead of avoiding the storm he sailed directly into the most dangerous place possible, the NE sector or quadrant.
The Coast Guard reported that they picked up Carl's 406 EPIRB signal and a radio Mayday, but that it was too dangerous to launch a helicopter rescue. They did, however, tell him that another single-hander in a 22' boat was nearby and had also put out a Mayday. Carl's next Mayday announced that he had taken the other sailor aboard but that La Vie was sinking and that they were going to try to get into the liferaft. That is the last anybody ever heard of Carl. The man he rescued had a satellite phone and actually placed a call to his wife, saying they were in the eye of the storm and that he didn't think he'd ever see her again.
On the morning of November 20 the Coast Guard informed Carl's family that they had located his body, still floating in his life jacket, four miles off the island of Saba. The other sailor has not been found, nor has there been a trace of either boat.
POSTSCRIPT - I learned about Carl's death the next day. We left Havana on November 18 and endured four of the toughest days imaginable, beating down the Old Bahama Channel against 30 - 40 knot easterlies. I knew these winds were spawned by Lenny, but I also knew the storm was moving away from us. We staggered into the tiny basin at Mathewtown on the island of Great Inagua in the Bahamas to rest and refuel. I called home and my wife Lesa gave me the tragic news. I was numb. The next four days were the worst days I have ever spent at sea, as I traversed the same waters that had claimed my friend. I kept asking myself, and asking Neptune, "Why Carl?" When I returned home, we attended Carl's funeral and later I gradually pieced together what must have happened. I gave a great deal of thought to writing this piece as I knew that it would be a sobering story to say the least.
In the end, however, there is an important message to take from Carl's tragedy. Weather forecasts are not infallible. I do not fault the forecasters one iota for Carl's death -- they do their best and we mariners benefit mightily from their work. Since weather is ultimately unpredictable, however, offshore sailors have to be prepared to make smart decisions based on the current weather conditions, the best possible forecast, and a sound knowledge of basic weather seamanship.
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