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Meet the luckiest sailor alive

lead_insideDennis Clements, battling gale-force winds and 30-foot seas for four days, was tossed from his Cal 39, Gloria A Dios, about 250 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C.

"I couldn't see anything," says Clements, recounting the Jan. 2 incident. "These were big waves, man, and it was dark and the wind was blowing like 40 knots. I was just floating there, trying to conserve heat."

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Click here to hear Clements talk about his rescue, and see infrared footage taken by the Coast Guard.

Related story: An EPIRB and some Lady Luck

Responding to the 55-year-old sailor's EPIRB signal - which Clements later learned only went off because he had mistakenly placed the beacon backward in its bracket - the Coast Guard dropped two life rafts from an HC-130J Hercules aircraft. But Clements couldn't see the rafts and the aircraft was low on fuel and had to leave the scene.

Clements started to pray, then kicked off his boots and swam blindly in the darkness. In a stroke of luck, he bumped into one of the life rafts, which had capsized. "I was able to flip it over and somehow get in," he says.

About an hour later a Navy helicopter, dispatched from the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, was on the scene and a rescue swimmer was in the water. Winds were blowing 50 knots, with 10-foot seas and driving sleet and snow.

Clements was en route from Hampton Roads, Va., to the U.S. Virgin Islands when he ran into heavy weather. His 10-year-old EPIRB activated when a wave crashed through the port side of the cabin and soaked the beacon - another stroke of luck because it was a manually activated model that normally would not go off in that situation. But Clements had mounted the EPIRB improperly in its bracket, causing the beacon to send a signal when it got wet (see sidebar).

The distress signal came in to the Coast Guard's Fifth District headquarters in Portsmouth, Va., around 5 p.m. Jan. 2, at which point the district dispatched the HC-130J Hercules.

After hoisting the Navy swimmer and Clements from the water, the helicopter flew 130 miles back to the aircraft carrier, with another Coast Guard Hercules aircraft overhead, according to public affairs specialist Andrew Kendrick.

Bad to worse

Clements, who bought Gloria A Dios in 1994, had made only one other long passage - a 740-mile cruise across the Gulf of Mexico from Tarpon Springs, Fla., to Galveston, Texas. The sailor says he properly planned and prepared for the trip to the USVI.

"I spent a month refitting, provisioning, checking everything out, making equipment upgrades," he says. "The recommended time to make this trip is [after] November, when hurricane season is over. That's really the main concern for an offshore run like that."

The weather forecast for the week after Christmas was good, says Clements, so he departed Dec. 26 from Hampton. "Saturday was mild and variable, and Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday was 10 to 15 [knot winds] or 15 to 20 [knot winds] from the west or northwest," he says.

On Wednesday, Dec. 30, the forecast changed - a gale warning was up, with sustained 40-knot winds, he says. After battling the elements for 12 hours, Clements went below to get something to eat. A rogue wave struck the sailboat, a 1969 model, knocking out the starboard cabin window and throwing the sailor across the cabin.

"A hundred gallons of salt water came aboard," he says. "I lost all electronics and something happened to the batteries and I had no way to restart the motor."

Engineless in worsening conditions, he was battered in the wind and seas for days.

On Saturday, Jan. 2, a wave slammed the port side, knocking Gloria A Dios on its side and holing the port side of the cabin. "I was very nearly upside down and took in a couple hundred gallons of water," says Clements. "It was a struggle."

Clements lost his boat, which was uninsured.

Read more on Clements' rescue in the March issue of  Soundings magazine.

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