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C.G. investigates yacht-freighter collision - Soundings Online

C.G. investigates yacht-freighter collision

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A 92-foot sailboat and 623-foot freighter collide on a clear night on Long Island Sound, with one dead

A 92-foot sailboat and 623-foot freighter collide on a clear night on Long Island Sound, with one dead

Sometime between 6 and 7 o’clock on the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 19, the three-person crew of the 92-foot sailboat Essence, chartered by members of an invitation-only vacation club, left Newport, R.I., and headed west for Long Island Sound and Greenwich, Conn.

At 2:30 a.m., Wednesday, the 623-foot freighter Barkald got under way from Bridgeport, Conn., headed east down Long Island Sound, outbound for Halifax, Nova Scotia. Neither vessel made its intended destination.

Just after 4 a.m. the yacht and freighter collided in the Sound about five miles north of Roanoke Point Shoals, off the north shore of Long Island near Riverhead, N.Y., according to the Coast Guard. Essence sank, and her three crewmembers were left in the water. The Coast Guard reported light winds and seas between 2 and 3 feet. Visibility was up to 10 miles, and the water temperature was about 68 F, according to Brian Ciemnecki, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The crew of the Barkald radioed the Coast Guard at 4:04 a.m. to report the collision, says Dawn Kallen, a marine investigator with Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound. A 25-foot Coast Guard rescue boat arrived on scene about 20 minutes later and pulled 29-year-old Gina Bortolotti, the chef aboard Essence, and 31-year-old Nardus “Blue” Bothma, the first mate, from the water. Essence skipper Ian Robberts, 47, was rescued by Barkald crewmembers aboard one of the freighter’s life boats. Bortolotti, who was engaged to Bothma, was the sole fatality in the accident. All three aboard Essence were wearing PFDs, Kallen says.

The Coast Guard transported Bortolotti, Bothma and Robberts to Sector Long Island Sound, where they were taken to Yale-New Haven (Conn.) Hospital. Robberts was reported in good condition, and Bothma, who the Coast Guard says was on watch at the time of the collision, was treated for mild hypothermia. Although Bortolotti had a pulse when she was rescued, Kallen says, she was declared dead of accidental drowning at the hospital.

The Coast Guard Captain of the Port for Long Island Sound ordered the 49,000-ton Barkald, owned by T. Klaveness Shipping of Oslo, Norway, to a New Haven anchorage pending the start of an investigation, the Coast Guard says. As standard practice, drug and alcohol tests were administered to Robberts, Bothma and the five Barkald crewmembers who were on the bridge at the time of the collision, including the captain and a New York State pilot on board to help the freighter navigate the Sound. All tests for alcohol were negative. The results of drug tests weren’t available at press time.

As part of their preliminary investigation, Coast Guard authorities boarded the Barkald on the day of the collision to examine the vessel and interview the crew, says Lt. Brenda White of Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound. Authorities released the Barkald at 10 p.m. The Coast Guard wasn’t requiring that the Essence be raised as part of the investigation.

“We completed our preliminary interviews with the Barkald pilot and crew and the Essence crew,” investigator Kallen says. “We’ve gathered a lot of information that we need to get through. Now it’s a matter of conducting follow-up interviews and writing our report.”

After the Barkald was released, T. Klaveness Shipping ordered the freighter back to Bridgeport. “The Barkald had been going to Halifax to pick up a cargo of stone products,” says Nils Hoy-Petersen, a T. Klaveness technical director. “We decided it should return to Bridgeport to continue offloading coal [at PSEG’s Bridgeport Harbor Generating Station].”

Essence had been leased to Quintess LLC, an exclusive vacation club based in Boulder, Colo., by its owners in the Cayman Islands. She was originally designed by Ted Hood as a sloop and was built in Taiwan in 1984, though subsequent modifications to her rig and cabin were made. The elegant three-stateroom, three-head yacht (the master stateroom had 7-foot headroom and a head with marble and gold appointments) had a formal dining area for six, sun deck, and saloon with heating, air conditioning and a wide-screen television. She was powered by twin 300-hp inboard diesels.

The crew was transporting Essence to Greenwich for a “series of events for Quintess members,” Quintess co-founder Ben Addoms says in an e-mail to Soundings. Addoms says he wasn’t surprised that the Essence crew had been motorsailing non-stop through the night. “The yacht was expected in Greenwich the morning of the accident,” Addoms says. “It is normal for delivery to happen during the day or night.”

The Essence crew was hired by the yacht’s owners, Addoms says. Robberts, the skipper, is from South Africa and has 10 years experience as a captain, dive instructor, fly-fishing guide and water ski instructor, according to information on the Quintess Web site (www.quintess.com). He is a licensed captain but doesn’t have a U.S. captain’s license, Addoms says.

First mate Bothma also is from South Africa, according to the Web site. He worked for eight years as a sailor, diver and photographer and, according to Addoms, also has a captain’s license. Bothma had been sailing aboard Essence all summer, according to information on a Web site he shared with Bortolotti (www.bluegina.com), who also had a captain’s license.

As of mid-October the Coast Guard investigation was still open, and the details of what caused the accident were not available. Here’s what was available at press time. Kallen says Essence was equipped with at least a VHF, chart plotter and radar for electronics, and had a sail up and engines running at the time of the collision. Communication was established between the Barkald and Essence over VHF channel 16 before the collision, she says. Kallen declined to report what was said during that communication or how long before the collision it occurred.

Both vessels were displaying the proper lights, Kallen says, and no warning signals were sounded. She declined to say if anyone was asleep on the sailboat prior to the collision or how fast the vessels were traveling.

In the days following the accident, questions swirled among the marine community. How did a 92-foot sailboat and a 623-foot freighter — both with professional, licensed crew, radar and VHF communications — collide on a clear night?

Three hours before the tragedy, Bortolotti spoke on her cell phone to her parents in California. She talked about her work aboard the yacht and about her engagement to first mate Nardus “Blue” Bothma.

“She was absolutely on cloud nine,” says Dan Bortolotti, Gina Bortolotti’s father. “All she talked about was her [new] house and planning her wedding. She said she was cooking all night, preparing for a party. She said they had just finished a job in Newport and had multiple charters the next day in Connecticut.”

Gina Bortolotti grew up in Moss Beach, Calif., a town about 25 miles south of San Francisco. She spent much of her childhood at the family restaurant where, her father says, she developed a passion for food and wine. “My parents owned an Italian restaurant,” he says. “Even when she was very small Gina played an active role in the restaurant, prepping food and things like that. She was always very interested in food.”

Gina Bortolotti left high school her junior year, earned a GED and enrolled in college. Not long after, she decided she wanted a “new adventure,” Dan Bortolotti says, and began working as a deck hand on a local boat. At age 19 she earned a Coast Guard 100-ton license and began working on boats that traveled the world.

“I told her, ‘The world is yours; go for it,’ ” Bortolotti recalls. “And she did. She went to places like Alaska, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Panama, the Med and New Zealand. She went from adventure to adventure making what she could along the way.”

A few years ago, while working aboard a boat at the Miami International Boat Show, Bortolotti met Bothma. There was an instant connection, Dan Bortolotti says, but after the show they went their separate ways. “About three years later Blue showed up on her doorstep,” he says. “From that point on you couldn’t pry them apart. They really shined as a couple.”

Bortolotti and Bothma worked on boats together and saved money to buy a house in the mountains of Lewiston, Calif., next to property that Bortolotti’s parents recently purchased. “Our plan is to work like dogs until next fall and save our pennies and then begin our exit from the yachting industry,” Bortolotti wrote on her Web site with Blue. “I, for one, cannot wait to have a normal life.”

In the early morning hours after the collision, Bothma struggled to keep his unconscious fiancée’s head above water, according to the victim’s father. “Blue was with Gina when everything happened,” Dan Bortolotti says. “He held her in the water until they were rescued by the Coast Guard. It obviously was a very traumatic situation for him.” Bothma was staying with the Bortolottis in California after the accident, but was not available for comment.

“I believe in my heart that when the accident happened, even when she was in the water, by the time she realized she was in trouble, it was already too late,” Bortolotti says. “Gina met every goal she made for herself tenfold. She lived and loved life, and we will miss her.”