A strange and ill-fated Atlantic cruise - Soundings Online

A strange and ill-fated Atlantic cruise

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The Coast Guard rescues two Russian sailors from the same 50-foot ketch in separate incidents

The Coast Guard rescues two Russian sailors from the same 50-foot ketch in separate incidents

The first Coast Guard rescue helicopter — there would later be another in this strange tale — was responding to an unidentified EPIRB signal at 10 a.m. when it spotted the yacht Anabel motoring north, 75 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C., and with no visual signs of distress.

The weather was undesirable, and the boat was aimed in an unconventional direction for a winter cruise. It was Feb. 10, and winds were gale force, seas 10 to 11 feet. But Anabel — a 50-foot ketch with crisp white topsides, blue trim and a fully enclosed aft cockpit — was handling the head seas with its sails furled and motor driving it at about 5 knots.

No one seemed to be in danger. Still, as his Jayhawk helicopter hovered near Anabel, Coast Guard pilot Lt. Curtis Brown consulted with his crew about their next step. Anabel wasn’t responding to calls on the VHF, though the crew could see two men and a dog on board. Then one of the men was seen donning a life vest. When he had gathered some belongings, the man stepped to Anabel’s rail and leapt into the water. The dog, a white pit bull, followed him.

Thus began a series of events that triggered Coast Guard concerns about homeland security, and concluded several days later with a second rescue hundreds of miles north in a still-raw ocean. The following account was compiled from interviews with Coast Guard officials in Virginia, New York and Massachusetts.

Brown and co-pilot Lt. J.G. Audie Andry, seeing the man and dog hit the water, switched to rescue mode. Brown lowered the helicopter to within 15 feet of the heaving seas, and rescue swimmer Petty Officer Joel Sayers, already in his gear, leapt from the door as Petty Officer 3rd Class Thomas Romero prepared the hoist. Within two minutes the rescue basket was on board the helicopter, carrying a drenched Russian, 23-year-old Roman Bogdanov, and the dog, Lilly. The rescuers found Bogdanov cold but uninjured. The dog, no doubt equally cold, sat quietly at the rear of the cabin. As they tried to warm Bogdanov, crewmembers began asking questions.

Bogdanov told them Anabel’s captain was another Russian, Victor Turzhavsky, 63, who like Bogdanov lived in Brooklyn, N.Y. Their boat had been taking on water — about a half-foot every two hours — and an electric bilge pump was handling it. But the radio apparently was dead, and Bogdanov explained that he had triggered the EPIRB because he didn’t like some of the skipper’s decisions.

The chopper next lowered a hand-held radio to Turzhavsky, who then indicated that the Coast Guard should leave. Unable to persuade the skipper to communicate, and with their fuel supply running low, the chopper crew headed back to North Carolina.

Meanwhile in Newport, Va., Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Randall had put a Coast Guard cutter on standby to intercept Anabel. Randall, branch chief of the 5th District’s law enforcement division, had heard what was going on offshore. In an era of dirty bombs and other unconventional enemy threats, he was concerned.

He says he wondered why somebody would just jump off a vessel into the water. “That’s kind of out of the norm,” says Randall. “He [the skipper] wouldn’t answer the radio. He was waving us away, saying I don’t want you, get away. That tells us that maybe we need to look into this a little closer.”

Randall had a background check run on Turzhavsky and found only that he was a licensed captain. They checked out the agent for the boat, Vinova Meyler, who represented the new owner of Anabel, which had recently been sold. They found nothing suspicious.

The crew was on the cutter with engines running, “Waiting for us to hit the ‘go’ button,” Randall says. But it would have taken too long for the cutter to reach Anabel, he says, and seas were too rough to conduct a boarding. “You’re talking about Cape Hatteras with a northeast wind,” he says. “It’s an ugly place to be.”

Having found nothing in the skipper or agent’s backgrounds to cause alarm, Randall kept the cutter in port but passed his information along to the next Coast Guard district up the coast.

Anabel’s EPIRB kept signaling for four more days, a period during which Turzhavsky radioed for a weather report but then refused to communicate with the Coast Guard. And then all contact with Anabel ceased … for four days.

Lt. Jason Dorval, commander of a Jayhawk helicopter stationed on Cape Cod, Mass., had been in the air for about an hour Feb. 18 when he got a call at 1:30 p.m. to return to the base and refuel. Anabel had issued a mayday from 150 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard.

As Dorval flew south, he had to dodge snow squalls blowing over a sea whipped by a 30-knot northwest wind into 10- to 15-foot waves. The command center had told Dorval that the skipper spoke only Russian. Dorval asked them to relay a message to Turzhavsky that he would probably have to jump in the water.

It would be about 75 minutes before Dorval and his co-pilot, Lt. Sean Kruger, first saw Anabel. The boat was sailing northeast at about 4 knots under a fully reefed mainsail. “He would be hard pressed to hit land [even] up in Nova Scotia,” Dorval says. In the mayday, intercepted by the Coast Guard in New York, Turzhavsky had reported that his engine had quit, his rudder was stuck, and he was taking on water. From the helicopter Dorval saw that the sailboat’s mizzenmast was unsupported, its shrouds slack and wrapping about it.

With the Jayhawk hovering at about 75 feet, rescue swimmer John Houlberg clipped onto the chopper’s cable, and Aviation Mechanic 1st Class Bill Cameron lowered him beside Anabel. Turzhavsky was standing at the rail when Houlberg motioned for him to jump. With a scream, the Russian leapt into the sea, clad in jeans, a sweatshirt, winter jacket and a PWC life vest.

Turzhavsky was hoisted aboard, bundled into a “thermal recovery capsule” and a sleeping bag, and flown to an airport on eastern Long Island, N.Y., as Houlberg and Cameron unsuccessfully attempted to communicate with him.

When the chopper crew left the scene, Anabel was sailing on her own toward open ocean. Given the conditions of the sea and the boat, Dorval assumes the boat would have sank.

The last the Coast Guard saw of Turzhavsky was when an unidentified ambulance pulled up to the chopper at Republic Airport in East Farmingdale, N.Y., and took him away. The agency was unable to report on his condition. Randall says that while Turzhavsky may have violated United States law that prohibits non-citizens from skippering U.S.-documented vessels in national waters, no charges had been filed in the case.