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Rescuing the sailor and saving the boat

I was livid. Stranded on I-5 with a flat, I had to call for a tow because I was missing a critical part. It wasn’t just the delay but the embarrassment of asking someone to bail me out.

Derk Wolmuth at the helm of Bela Bartok during the San Francisco Bay start of the Singlehanded TransPacific Yacht Race

That’s more or less what happened to Derk Wolmuth, and he wasn’t amused, either — except that his problem wasn’t bad rubber but toxic shock, and it nearly did him in. And it didn’t happen on the interstate; it happened during the Singlehanded TransPacific Yacht Race, a 2,200-mile passage from San Francisco to Kauai.

Wolmuth, 42, of Victoria, British Columbia, is not your regular dude. He’s a trained shipwright and an artist who conducts himself with a high degree of self-sufficiency. He has sailed since boyhood and made a name for himself by circumnavigating Vancouver Island at age 19 on a Skerry cruiser — sans engine or radio — and taking a spidsgatter solo around the Queen Charlotte Islands. He saw the TransPac as the first stage of an open-ended voyage to the South Pacific and beyond. “This trip has been a dream of mine since childhood,” he says.” After my father passed away there was no reason to fuss around anymore.”

Bela Bartok, his Swedish-built Vindö 40, was named after a Hungarian composer whose music inspires Wolmuth. The 31-foot cruiser from the 1970s was one of the slowest in the 23-boat TransPac fleet, but it’s comfortable and capable, with a fiberglass hull, a wooden cabin top, a deck-stepped mast, a long keel and a Monitor self-steering system (more on that later).

Under way and into trouble

After the June 30 start, Wolmuth initially made good progress, but a few days into the race a sore spot on his left buttock bugged him. It’s an occupational hazard for bluewater sailors, who tend to sit around in damp foulies, but this one turned into a nasty boil and became infected. A good dose of an antibiotic would have helped, but Derk didn’t pack the pills. So he tried but failed to connect with other racers who might have been able to help out.

He eventually stopped racing to focus on nutrition and rest, but on July 14 things took a turn for the worse. “I had no idea it would reach the severity it did,” he told Latitude 38 magazine. “It happened very quickly and very dramatically. One minute I was OK. The next I felt a black line of ants crawling up a vein in my abdomen.” This was serious, and he knew it.

About midnight he sent out a mayday via single sideband radio. It drew no response, so he activated his EPIRB. The Coast Guard picked up the signal and asked the 30,000-ton freighter MV Mokihana — a ship of the Matson line — to render assistance. The Mokihana was about 80 miles away, en route from Honolulu to Oakland, Calif. This was the first piece of good news for Wolmuth because the ship’s captain, Tom Crawford, 51, of Lopez Island, Wash., is not just a seasoned merchant mariner but also a sailor who owns a Pacific Seacraft Mariah that’s about the size of Bela Bartok and is equipped with a Monitor vane.

Crawford briefed his crew and made radio contact with Wolmuth to discuss the transfer from his nutshell to an 860-foot freighter in the middle of the ocean. But there was something else that weighed on Crawford’s mind. “It’s a sad part of rescuing people that in all likelihood their boat might get lost,” he says. “So I thought, Wouldn’t it be nice to save this one?” More luck for Wolmuth: A U.S.-bound ship with a sailor as a captain was trying to save his life and his boat. Conditions cooperated. When the sun rose, the wind blew 12 to 15 knots with a moderate swell. Twenty-four hours later, Crawford says, it was blowing 35 with 12-foot waves. “Who knows if we’d gotten him off then? He was going downhill fast. I don’t think he’d have been around [for another day] or in a position to help himself.”

Wolmuth was sailing a southwesterly course when the Mokihana sighted him. On VHF, Crawford talked Wolmuth through the steps and confirmed that the Bela had a Monitor vane. “Get her on a point of sail where she’s comfortable,” he advised. In his weakened state, Wolmuth set up the self-steering to keep the boat on course to Hawaii under jib only.

“Keep your PFD on and don’t touch anything,” Crawford told him as he ran through the options. “We had to take him on over the starboard side because to port the hull skin is hot from the heated fuel tanks. We also were hauling cattle, and all the hoses [to pump manure overboard] were deployed on port.” Scary under the best of circumstances, this maneuver was going to be a crapshoot with a guy who was about to lose consciousness. Wolmuth later said he thought the odds were good that he’d live to see his boat again.

Rescuing the guy, sparing the boat

Bela Bartok at the end of her zero-handed voyage

Now for the skill part. Bela was doing 2.7 to 3 knots, but the Mokihana’s slowest engine speed is 7 knots. So Crawford stood out on the wing of the bridge deck, working the remote controls and shouting engine commands. To go from forward into reverse and vice versa, the Mokihana’s engines must be turned off and restarted with a blast of compressed air. “If the air runs out, we’d be really screwed,” says Crawford.

As soon as Bela was in Mokihana’s wind shadow, she nearly got trapped under the hull near the bow. “I hit the vessel rather abruptly and scraped down its side, getting hung up on various appendages,” Wolmuth says. “Heaving lines were thrown down from the deck. It was a rather jarring experience, and I lost my passport, which was in my back pocket.”

Meanwhile, up on the wing of the bridge, Crawford continued to adjust the distance between the Mokihana and Bela Bartok. “I used the wash of the bow thruster to push him back to the engine side port that is close to the waterline. His rig hit the hull, damaging his masthead light, but we got lucky.”

Mobilizing the last of his strength, Wolmuth secured the lines in the cockpit, trying to avoid fouling the wind vane. When he was close enough to Mokihana’s engine port, he took that leap of faith, running on empty but propelled by adrenaline. As soon as he was safe, he collapsed, though not without muttering something that rhymes with “duck bliss.”

Says Wolmuth: “I didn’t look back. I was pissed. I was very ill and made the decision to trade my boat and my dignity for antibiotics.”

And antibiotics he got, seven shots in all, administered by Crawford himself, who’s also an EMT.

Finding Maui

Bela was cast off after a “cockup” with one of the lines that nearly got her sucked into Mokihana’s prop. After that scare she was free and proceeded toward Maui, 400 miles to the southwest, making 3.5 knots with a partially furled jib. Steadied by her long keel and steered by the Monitor vane, she gamely stayed her course. While the skipper was en route to Oakland, the boat sailed toward the finish because good horses don’t need a rider to find the barn. Bela’s Yellowbrick tracker (mandatory for the race) transmitted her position twice an hour, so the sailors who had finished watched her progress on a secret Web page that was set up to prevent “premature salvage” by others.

Led by fellow competitor John Lubimir and race veteran Jeff Lebesch, sailors and friends worked feverishly to intercept the Bela Bartok before she ran aground on Maui’s north shore. In the wee hours of July 19, four days after Wolmuth’s rescue, Ronnie Simpson and Ruben Gabriel, who had sailed the race on two Moore 24s, set off in a 22-foot fishing boat to rendezvous with Bela 12 miles offshore.

Simpson, who had to abandon his boat four years ago in a gale 760 miles southwest of San Diego and also was rescued by a ship, recalls the moment. “We had no trouble finding her. She came in at 3 knots. Then we boarded and checked the rig before we hoisted sails,” he says. “There were lots of lines all over the boat. One had fouled the prop, but another one was wrapped around the Monitor’s paddle. I had to cut it off and was amazed that this [vane] still worked.”

Simpson and Gabriel cleaned her up and sailed to the Waikiki Yacht Club, where the boat was later reunited with her owner. Although Wolmuth acknowledges the help and camaraderie of the tight-knit single-hander community that saved his boat, he owes the crew of the Mokihana and its gallant captain a debt of gratitude. “Capt. Crawford went above and beyond his duty,” Wolmuth says. “After picking me up he personally administered shots of antibiotics and was prepared to do surgery. He is a hell of a good man. I am humbled and eternally grateful. It makes you reflect about many things.” Carrying antibiotics when going to sea, for one thing.

And Crawford? “I really suck at playing video games with my grandkids, but my advantage is that I can be really patient,” he says. In this case, his patience — and his skill with the remote control — saved a man’s life and his boat. That’s a far better story than the complications of a flat tire on the interstate. And after this year’s sailing tragedies on the West Coast, it’s the kind of tale that warms the heart.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

December 2012 issue