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A rescue success story

A couple battle an ocean storm for four days before radioing for help

A couple battle an ocean storm for four days before radioing for help

James Brown and his wife, Nancy May, did everything right on their April voyage north from the Bahamas, according to the Coast Guard, yet things still went wrong for the New Bern, N.C., couple and their 34-foot sailboat, Chapulin. A storm wreaked havoc inside the sloop and on deck, but their rescuers say the fact that the 71-year-olds had prepared themselves properly is what brought them safely to shore after four grueling days at sea.

Brown and May had crossed the Gulf Stream to Nassau in January with 48 other boats, leaving from No Name Harbor south of Miami after spending a month on the Intracoastal Waterway, May says. They sailed as far south as George Town in the Exumas. On Friday, April 14, they left Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco and headed for home in pleasant weather and with a decent forecast.

“We originally were going to go from Marsh Harbour to Beaufort, N.C., direct and not [stay] in the Gulf Stream at all,” Brown says. “I did it a couple of times before. Instead, we went with some other boats,” he said. The idea was to find the maximum current in the stream heading north and ride it, speeding the trip. “We ran into a pretty serious countercurrent on the top of the Abacos,” before reaching the Gulf Stream, Brown recalls.

Brown and May sail a sloop designed by George Olson and built by Brown from a bare hull and deck. Brown, who has a small boat repair business about 30 miles up the Neuse River from the ICW, had installed a 16-hp engine in the boat, which was launched about four years ago.

In the countercurrent, Brown says he couldn’t get much speed out of it — 3.8, 3.9 knots. “We quit trying to sail in convoy,” he says.

Chapulin (pronounced sha-poo-LEEN) slogged its way into the Gulf Stream and finally was riding the current north when, on Sunday, April 16, the wind unexpectedly rose sharply from the west, reaching 40 knots at times and building the seas to 8 to 10 feet in steep waves. In two days at sea Brown had gone sleepless and May had only a little more rest. They were sailing with one reef in the mainsail. The engine was turned off.

As conditions worsened Sunday night, Brown decided it was time to put a second reef in the main. He went to the mast and uncleated the main halyard, preparing to reef. In the whipping wind, the upper part of the halyard, which is wire, snagged in the upper spreaders. With waves breaking over the boat, Brown was nearly washed overboard as he tried to free the halyard, catching himself but losing his grip on the halyard, which rose up the mast and out of reach.

It was about this time that Brown and May noticed there was water inside Chapulin’s cabin. Sea water apparently was coming in through a broken hose in the head. May went below and closed a valve, solving that problem, and Brown brought the mainsail down and lashed it to the boom.

Brown and May now needed to turn their boat north, but the bow wouldn’t come through the west wind. They started the engine for some help. They were unaware that May, in seeking to stop the flooding of the cabin in the violent rocking of the boat, had turned off the main seawater valve, which feeds water to both the head and the engine. Soon, the engine overheated and stopped.

“Finally, we got to the point where Jim felt he probably could not safely get the boat to where we wanted to go,” says May, who has been sailing for 30 years. (Before she met her husband, he had sailed westward around the world from California to North Carolina from 1981 to 1989.) “He just got on the radio and said we need help. He did not say pan pan or break break or mayday,” she says.

A navy ship responded. It was two hours away, so it sent out a call for mariners in the vicinity of Chapulin to assist. Meanwhile, the ship called NOAA for a weather update and told Brown and May that the storm would only get worse. Then the ship called the Coast Guard, May says.

“The boat was not in any need of being rescued, but the people were,” says Brown. He was exhausted, unsteady on his feet. “My wife is good on the boat, but she can’t handle the boat by herself. I was afraid if I went on deck and got washed off, that would be the end of me and that would be the end of her.” He says he asked the Coast Guard through the Navy if they could help him bring the boat in.

As Chapulin rode the rough waves, its mast slashing in sideways arcs, a 40-plus-foot sailboat under power arrived, responding to the Navy’s appeal for help. Brown says the crew of four on the boat offered to come aboard, but the seas were too rough and he sent them on their way.

Both May and Brown were soaked, but it was warm Gulf Stream water. They felt none of the ill effects a cold sea would have produced. They stayed in contact with the Navy ship on the VHF until about 1 a.m. Monday, when the first Coast Guard C-130 aircraft arrived.

“The Coast Guard was so professional and so good that I can’t say enough about them,” Brown says.

“Jim was talking to the pilots, and the Coast Guard kept calling to make sure we were all right,” while the cutter Kingfisher was dispatched from Jacksonville, Fla., 80 miles to the west, says May. “Finally, one of the airplanes said: ‘Do you have an EPIRB on board?’ Jim said yes, but we had not set it off. ‘This is not a dire emergency.’ So the pilot said set it off so the ship can find you.”

The ship arrived at about 6 p.m. Monday, and a crewman tossed a throwing line, snagging it in Chapulin’s rigging so Brown could reach it. Brown then wrapped his arms and legs around Chapulin’s bow pulpit, pulling the towing line from the cutter aboard as the seas broke over him. “The seas weren’t God-awful,” says Brown. “The primary reason [for the struggle] was my physical condition.”

Brown got the tow line around Chapulin’s bow cleats and the tow began. There was still no rest for Brown and May, however, as they had to steer their boat.

“The weather was so bad, the waves were so high that they could only tow us at about 3.5 to 4 knots,” May says. “The boat would just slam down as we went through each wave. Finally, as we got closer to Jacksonville, the waves lessened, and the speed picked up.”

It was 11 o’clock Tuesday morning, April 18, when Kingfisher brought Chapulin to the dock at the Jacksonville Marina in Mayport. The Coast Guard had invited the press to cover the arrival of the two exhausted sailors. “It wasn’t that we were not going to survive,” says May. “The boat was going to float. We were not hurt. But we were so tired that we couldn’t make proper decisions. We called them before the situation became critical.”

It was a search-and-rescue success story, says Petty Officer Bobby Nash, because Brown and May had done everything right. “They had an EPIRB. They had a float plan. They had life jackets on at all times,” says Nash. “They were calm on the radio. They actually had a radio.”