Atlantic crossing becomes a wild ride

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Two sailors feared lost in the North Atlantic in the remnants of Hurricane Katia turned up safe but tired in a fishing village on Ireland’s rugged southwest coast in late September after a weeklong air and sea search for their 32-foot sailboat.
“We knew exactly where we were. It’s just that no one else did,” says Frank Cooper, 62, the captain hired to deliver Golden Eagle from St. Thomas, U.S.V.I., to Bergen, Norway, with its 69-year-old owner, Arvid Moe.

Golden Eagle’s two crewmembers encountered 60-knot winds and 25-foot seas while sailing from Bermuda to Crookhaven in West Cork. Altogether, they hove-to for 53 hours during Katia. Spray blew off the top of waves, pelting the face “like handfuls of gravel,” Cooper says. When waves smacked the 35-year-old boat on the beam, she slid eight to 10 feet through the water — sideways.
But the Irvine, Calf.-built Downeaster 32’s stoutly built double-laminate fiberglass hull withstood the punishment. “It’s a very sturdy boat,” says Cooper, a veteran New Zealand shipwright and captain who completed a seven-year solo circumnavigation in 2003 on the 60-foot L. Francis Herreshoff design Circe. Had they been sailing a lighter, faster, more modern cruiser, Cooper isn’t sure the boat would have withstood the pounding and the 3,000-mile voyage.
Although he never thought their lives were in danger, Cooper says he and Moe — a retired merchant vessel chief engineer and novice sailor from Norway — grappled with troublesome gremlins in the boat’s rigging and electronic gear. Their new $3,500 chart plotter stopped locking on to satellites 10 days into a 36-day voyage that began Aug. 21 in Bermuda, so it couldn’t determine their position. Compounding that failure, for the first time in 40 years of sailing Cooper chose to deliver a boat without paper charts to back up the electronics, a mistake he says won’t happen again. He brought a chart of the Atlantic but none of the Irish, English or Norwegian coasts.
Although Golden Eagle carried a single side-band radio for long-distance communications, he couldn’t raise anyone on it, so he couldn’t notify authorities — or Moe’s brother in Norway, who reported them overdue — that they were running 10 days late arriving in Europe. The two put in at Bermuda to repair broken rigging toggles and a damaged chain plate, and to rebuild a jib and roller furler — parts and systems that a rigger was supposed to have inspected and repaired in St. Thomas.
The pair ran low on diesel, having used much of it motorsailing north from Bermuda to catch the westerlies that would blow them toward Ireland, and the new engine was balky from what Cooper suspects was sea water backflowing through the exhaust system and into the engine. The upshot: Golden Eagle’s power plant was of no use when they reached Ireland.
The bowsprit weakened and threatened to give way from termite damage, but Cooper was able to reinforce it with webbed ratchet straps and double-braided line. The boat carried no pole for sailing downwind, so he used a one-third jib at times for running on the wind and a jury-rigged genoa.
“It was quite an interesting delivery,” says Cooper, who spoke with Soundings from The Moorings inn and restaurant in Portmagee, which fed and housed the sailors gratis while they were in Ireland preparing Golden Eagle for the 670-mile leg to Bergen.
Approaching the southwest Irish coast on Sept. 25, Cooper didn’t know exactly where they were until he saw the soaring, craggy rocks of the Skellig Islands. Fighting current and wind, he sailed into a promising fjord on a flood tide under power of one-third of Golden Eagle’s jib, without benefit of an engine. At the fjord’s headwaters, Cooper and Moe discovered Portmagee, a fishing village where news teams were gathering and locals were turning out to give them a tumultuous welcome. Cooper says a British Maritime and Coastguard Agency vessel at Portmagee identified Golden Eagle as the sailboat they had been searching for all week and passed the information shoreside.
Feared lost and now found safe, Golden Eagle’s crew were greeted as heroes. “I said, ‘What the hell is this?’ All I wanted was a cold beer,” Cooper says.
The pair had set off from Bermuda during the height of the hurricane season. Cooper says he realized that August and September were not the best months to attempt an Atlantic crossing because of hurricane activity, but Moe had bought Golden Eagle — his first sailboat — earlier in the summer and wanted to sail it to Norway before winter. One delivery captain had backed away from doing the crossing with Moe, so Cooper stepped in.
“I’m just glad we didn’t end up on the rocks or sink or wind up in a life raft,” he says. Cooper planned to return to St. Thomas after getting the boat to Bergen and helping Moe with a few repairs. “I’ll be glad to get back to tropical climates where we don’t have to wear wool socks.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.