Cruising as he usually did, with good friends, the 69-year-old retired surgeon was on the last leg of a multisummer exploration of northern Europe, including Greenland, Iceland and the Baltic Sea. He and two men who accompanied him on the voyage were sailing from Lark Harbour, Newfoundland, to Baddeck, Nova Scotia, where he had begun his summers of cruising in 2005. Cabot and one of his crewmembers were swept overboard Sept. 1, nine miles off Stephenville, Newfoundland, says Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sgt. Kathy Whitehead.
She describes the wave that knocked Cielita down as “huge,” possibly a rogue. “It was pretty hard going out there,” Whitehead says. Canadian Coast Guard spokeswoman Jan Woodford says winds were 45 knots, seas 10 to 12 feet.
Details remained sketchy while the RCMP continued its investigation, but Whitehead says the crewman who went overboard with Cabot got back aboard Cielita after the knockdown. He was wearing a tether and harness and was clipped in, as was a second crewman on deck. Cabot was not clipped in when Cielita — a J/Boat with a reinforced hull and extra-heavy rigging, as well as other modifications for high-latitudes sailing — went over, she says.
Whitehead says the knockdown caused a mechanical problem that “interfered” with the steering and prevented the crew from coming to Cabot’s rescue. She says that by the time they were able to get the steering working, it was too late to save Cabot, who had been washed into seas that in September average 55 F. Bob Fegan, of the Canadian Coast Guard, says one of its Newfoundland stations received a VHF mayday from Cielita at 1:46 p.m. Sept. 1. A Cormorant rescue helicopter recovered Cabot’s body just after 10 a.m. the next day. He was wearing a life jacket with a light and personal locator beacon, which had not been activated, press reports say.
Cielita departed Reykjavik, Iceland, where she had been laid up for the winter, in July for the Atlantic crossing to Baddeck via Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland. Cabot’s expeditions on Cielita — six to eight weeks a summer — had taken him and his friends to Greenland, Scotland, Ireland, the Baltic Sea and the Norwegian coast as far north as Spitsbergen on the Arctic Ocean.
Cabot, a father of four, relished “going north to wild and gorgeous places and inviting friends to fly in here and there to join him and the one or two people who were his regulars” — longtime sailing buddies who knew the boat and how Cabot did things — says Charlie Welch, a Boston doctor and friend of Cabot’s since their college days at Harvard. In the summer of 1968, with college behind them, Cabot and Welch cruised Newfoundland together on Cabot’s father’s 48-foot John Alden yawl, Avalinda. “It was great,” Welch recalls. “It was a wonderful summer.”
It set the pattern for much of Cabot’s subsequent cruising. “It was a very important summer,” Welch says. Not only did it reveal to Cabot where he really liked to sail — he would go on to cruise Canada’s maritime provinces probably a dozen times and around Newfoundland twice after that — but it also was when he conceived this way of cruising, says Welch. “And he did it for the rest of his life, being generous and very thoughtful to his friends, enabling them to go places they otherwise never would be able to go,” he says.
“I can’t think of anyone in the sailing world who has been so generous with his boat and with his time and opened up beautiful cruising experiences to so many people,” Welch adds. “Evenings in the cabin were always fun, full of laughter. It was a joyous thing to be cruising with Ned. I’d come home feeling, I don’t want this to end. I want to do it again.”
Welch says Cabot was very safety-conscious. “He knew his stuff and did it well. He was always very thoughtful about safety gear. His boat had all the latest stuff — AIS transponders for everyone on deck, personal EPIRBs, a ship’s EPIRB, survival suits. He took safety very seriously.”
Welch and Cabot joined the Cruising Club of America together in 1970. After Avalinda, Cabot sailed his father’s Whitby 42, then in the early ’80s his own boat, a Beneteau 42. Welch says Cielita, launched in 2003, was specially built to cruise farther afield in icy northern waters. Welch remembers sailing with Cabot on Cielita in a gale off Denmark, with 40- to 50-foot seas. “The boat was spectacular,” he says. “She would sail beautifully 45 degrees off the wind with a storm jib. It was kind of spooky to be out there sailing in a raging gale and steering with one hand. The boat handled very easily.”
Cabot, who grew up cruising the Maine coast with his father, Thomas, was a 1961 graduate of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He graduated in 1965 from Harvard and in 1972 from Harvard Medical School. He taught at Harvard and practiced surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, retiring from his clinical practice there in 2000 to serve as managing director of the family’s philanthropic foundation, Cabot Wellington.
Cabot was an enthusiastic outdoorsman who skied; ranched in Colorado; voyaged in the North Atlantic; raised and rode quarter horses; went horse packing and camping, whitewater canoeing and scuba diving; and enjoyed flying, photography and music. He was board chairman of the Sea Education Association, a study-at-sea program that teaches young people about the oceans, from 2000 to 2006 and vice chairman from 2006 to 2012. He also was active in the ocean conservation organization Sailors for the Sea and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which seeks to protect Maine’s coastal lands and islands.
November 2012 issue.