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A rescue that no novel could describe

Moving aboard a refurbished Marine Trader 38 was more than a lifestyle decision for novelist Wes DeMott. Going to sea was a conscious attempt to simplify his life and reinvent his fiction.

Wasafiri lost steerage in rough seas when the tow line to the dinghy fouled the prop and rudder.

He and his wife, Sabine, were going to wander the Caribbean finding inspiration for a new series of books reminiscent of the adventures of Travis McGee by the late John D. MacDonald.

That creative vision was interrupted Jan. 22, when DeMott and his crew, including the family cat, were taken aboard the Carnival Valor about 12 miles off Cuba. DeMott had radioed the cruise ship, asking to be rescued. His trawler, Wasafiri, had lost steerage and was taking a beating in rough seas during a passage from Florida to Mexico's Yucatan region. The crew consisted of DeMott, two friends and Smudge the Sea Cat; the wives had flown ahead and were waiting in Mexico.

DeMott's latest novel, due out this year, figures into the story both as a backdrop for the ill-fated voyage and as a postscript. The book's name is "Tortuga Gold," and here is a description of the author's state of mind when he wrote it:

Novelist Wes DeMott

... inspired by his beautiful Belgian wife who spent seven of her years with the U.N. stationed in Africa ...  their permanent move aboard the couple's trawler and the adventurous three-year cruise they're currently enjoying through the Keys, Caribbean, West Indies and Central America, "Tortuga Gold" might very well be the book DeMott was always meant to write, but a story he could only recently, in his new and emotionally unburdened incarnation, execute so brilliantly.

The words "honor" and "pride" figure prominently in DeMott's vocabulary, so one can only imagine his feelings at having to be unceremoniously hauled aboard a cruise ship as hundreds of passengers hooted and hollered, obviously enjoying the unscheduled entertainment. Videos of the rescue that passengers shot were quickly posted online. In one, we see the abandoned trawler drifting away as Valor gets under way again on a course for Miami.

"Wasafiri comes from the Swahili word safari, which means to travel or wander or journey, but we prefer the interpretation of Wasafiri as 'The Wanderers' as a nod to Tolkien's all who wander are not lost," DeMott says.

Most of the couple's personal belongings, including wedding rings, were left aboard - lost indeed, like Wasafiri herself.

Issues of towing, weather

Florida news outlets widely and inaccurately reported the rescue, and it was briefly discussed in an online sailing forum. Remarkably, the incident escaped wider notice in the cruising community. Accidents and incidents are regular fodder for scrutiny by hypercritical contributors to online forums such as Trawlers & Trawlering.

Soundings asked DeMott to write about the loss of his boat and lessons learned from it - mindful that dockside critics likely would zero in on two things. They might have questioned DeMott's decision to tow a skiff in the open ocean, which as you will read in his mea culpa led to Wasafiri's loss of steering. And they might have asked what the heck he was doing out in such snotty weather in the first place, especially trying to cross the Gulf Stream in an unstabilized power craft.

Wasafiri's final voyage began from Fort Myers, Fla. When the couple purchased their trawler in November 2009 they had decided that living in three homes across the United States was "too big a footprint." Instead, they would move aboard and live like sea gypsies.

DeMott says he has been drawn to the water since he was a teenager roving the Chesapeake. "My first boat was a 12-foot aluminum vee-hull with a 9.9 outboard. I was 13, and I went all over the Bay with it. I've probably had two dozen boats since, up to a 52-foot full-keeled offshore sailing racer," he says.

Wasafiri was built in 1982. The DeMotts had her completely refurbished before embarking on a shakedown cruise to the Keys, up the Atlantic coast to St. Augustine and back to base in southwest Florida. "We peeled the hull and refiberglassed it, ripped out the galley and had custom cabinets built, added three 8-D AGM batteries with isolator, all new instruments and radios, new cushions inside and out, new canvas, and sanded and refinished all the teak. We pulled the teak decks and refiberglassed them," DeMott says. "She was beautiful and got lots of great comments from dock walkers and marina staff alike."

On Jan. 20, Wasafiri nudged away from the dock at Fort Myers. Aboard with DeMott were friends Paul Rodriguez and Ken Quillen, and Smudge. They left the harbor and set a course for Isla Mujeres, Mexico, where their wives would be waiting. The passage was slightly more than 400 nautical miles and would have taken Wasafiri about 70 hours at 6 knots.

DeMott says he thought he had a good weather window. "The marine forecast and NOAA 144-hour sea state report looked excellent, and our cruising friends confirmed that they wished they were ready to go with us because they were envious of our weather. Winds were predicted to range from 3 to 11 mph during the voyage," DeMott says.

He had considered installing a single-sideband transceiver and using a weather router but decided not to. "The only reason I didn't is because it's not a passagemaker, and this was the longest leg at sea," he says. "Once there, we were just planning to gunkhole our way casually down the coast."

Forecaster sees trouble

Had DeMott gone with a weather router, one of the forecasters he might have chosen is Chris Parker. Broadcasting daily over single-sideband radio from Florida, Parker issues daily forecasts over SSB, then conducts individual discussions with his paying customers.

Although he will not disclose the number of people who pay for his services, Parker estimates that on a given morning more than 5,000 boaters listen to his broadcast. It can be heard by anyone who has an inexpensive SSB-capable receiver.

This video still shows Wasafiri as the crew prepared to transfer to the cruise ship Carnival Valor.

On Jan. 20, Parker says, he was advising clients along the same latitudes as Wasafiri's intended route to stay put; a cold front was expected, with winds as much as 25 knots and squalls to 35 knots. Afterward, Parker says, some clients reported that squalls that passed through their anchorages Jan. 22 had 50-knot winds. By Jan. 26, when we spoke to Parker, the seas had laid down to 2 feet or less, creating a four-day weather window for passages throughout the region.

Generally speaking, mid-December through March is the worst time for ocean passages down island. Cold fronts march down from the American heartland in succession. They sweep through the Gulf States and Georgia, down the Florida peninsula and through the Bahamas, then die out before reaching Hispaniola or Puerto Rico.

These "northers" disturb the usual easterly flow and spawn clocking winds as they pass through. First they blow from the south and west, then from the northwest and usually freshening, then from the north and northeast until the front passes or dies.

In DeMott's account (see link below),  Wasafiri's crew was experiencing brisk north winds, which had whipped up the seas of the Gulf Stream on Jan. 22, the day of their rescue. As conditions worsened, DeMott altered course to seek shelter at a place on the Cuban coast called Cayo Jutias, a pretty good choice.

There is an open passage approaching Cuba from the sea, but for miles to the west and east the coast is guarded by dangerous outlying reefs. In the area of Cayo Jutias, however, there is a marked ship's channel through the coral. A 134-foot lighthouse at the tip of the small island provides a good visual reference, and the anchorage is reasonably well protected in a norther, according to cruising guides.

As DeMott writes in his account, Wasafiri got no closer than 12 miles from this refuge before he was forced to radio Carnival Valor that his boat was disabled. A line wrapped around the prop and rudder, and Wasafiri's water tanks had broken from their mounts and were slamming around down below.

Lower the flag

Video taken by Valor passengers shows Wasafiri struggling to come alongside the cruise liner. The seas appear to be 6-footers, but that's deceptive. The captain would have maneuvered the 952-foot ship to windward of the trawler and at a right angle to the direction of the seas; this would have created an area of relative calm for the transfer of the three men.

Outside this artificial lee, one might assume considerably rougher conditions, bad enough to make a disabled vessel roll through 70 degrees. One passenger noted with appreciation that DeMott took down the U.S. flag before leaving Wasafiri for the safety of the cruise ship.

News accounts in Florida used "Cruise ship rescues cat" as their hook and tended to conclude by noting that DeMott was a novelist and - guess what? - his latest book was about a man rescued by a cruise ship! Online and TV comments about the incident suggested that the loss of Wasafiri might have been a stunt to promote DeMott's novel.

DeMott, a former FBI agent from a Navy family, bristles at the insinuation. The protagonist of "Tortuga Gold" was not rescued; he was a cruise ship passenger who is left behind and hires a local boat to ferry him out to the departing ship. And such a stunt would be shameful.

"It's idiotic to consider, but lots of people who don't know how unlikely a rescue even was or how intense a situation like that can be were quick to leap aboard," DeMott says.

And, he might have added, even if three men and a cat could stage-manage such an event, a refurbished Marine Trader commands six figures on the used market - a lot of money to market an adventure novel.

When last we communicated, DeMott and his wife were doing a little traveling and putting their lives back together. When they committed to living aboard, DeMott says, they "jettisoned everything for a life of adventure." What little they had kept - clothing, jewels, personal papers - was now gone, too. Wasafiri's fate was not known at this writing. She may have sunk or been carried off by the Gulf Stream. As you read this, she may be tied to a dock in Cuba.

Wasafiri was insured, and DeMott says he and his wife are talking about getting another boat. DeMott's experience may have been harrowing in the moment and embarrassing in its aftermath, but in his dark imagination the ending could have been far worse. DeMott once wrote a short story called "Seventeen Days on a Raft" in which a husband agonizes over whether he should eat his dead wife's flesh to survive. Now there's a sea story with no happy ending.

See related article:

- The sea as school of hard knocks

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.