Catamaran survives Pacific tempest

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The 32-footer is found adrift 76 days after the two sailors on board are airlifted in a gale

The 32-footer is found adrift 76 days after the two sailors on board are airlifted in a gale

Richard Woods had complete faith in his 32-foot catamaran, Eclipse. He had, after all, designed and built it himself. But there came a time earlier this year off Mexico’s Pacific coast when Woods, a British yacht designer, and his American friend, Jetti Mantzke, thought there was a chance they would not survive a building gale aboard Eclipse, and they abandoned ship.

“Whatever potential chance of losing the boat and, therefore, basically dying ourselves — even if it was 1 percent — you’d still want to get off because you want to live,” says Woods, who is 52.

Their odds, as it happens, would have been much better. The catamaran was found in the Pacific by a commercial fishing boat 76 days later and 1,000 miles to the southwest, stripped by seagoing scavengers and now the roost for a colony of sea birds. For Woods, the boat, although still floating, was a total loss. It was uninsured, and the fisherman wanted more than Woods would pay to tow it ashore.

Until he stepped aboard the U.S. Navy frigate Ford Jan. 19, Woods had been aboard Eclipse much of the time since fall 2002. A devotee of catamarans whose designs are sold to amateur builders and others, Woods left England that fall and sailed Eclipse to the Canary Islands. His first year took him across the Atlantic, through the islands of the Caribbean and up the U.S. East Coast to Maine before returning to the Bahamas with Mantzke for Christmas in 2003. The next year they sailed to Cuba and Belize, where they left the boat for six months. They were off the boat from March to November last year, then went through the Panama Canal in December and headed north.

On Friday, Jan. 13, he and Mantzke left a marina in Nicaragua, bound for Mexico. They kept close to the shore, sometimes only 100 feet off the beach, and sailed most of the time, since Woods had only an outboard engine and 20 gallons of gasoline.

“Basically, we had six days to do 500 miles, which normally we’d expect to do easily,” says Woods. But with light winds, “It was taking much longer than we expected, and we had done only 450 miles. That’s when the winds came through and hit us.

“We’d been sailing along the beach. We could see the lights in the town, and it was getting dark, so we decided to get offshore,” he says. “About an hour later, we had gone at most 5 miles offshore. The wind got up quite significantly, and we decided that because we hadn’t slept, we’d put a sea anchor out and wait until morning and then move on. The alternative was we’d arrive in Mexico in the dark.”

Woods says he expected winds of 30 to 35 knots, but it blew harder. At about 10 a.m. Jan. 18, after riding on the sea anchor for 14 hours, the anchor rode parted, he says.

“Then we tried running downwind for about probably not more than a quarter hour, towing warps,” Woods says. But the waves were steep and close together and breaking. “So if we went faster than the waves, we potentially would go over the edge of a waterfall. If we went slower, the waves would break on top of us. First we were going slightly too fast, so I trailed more warps and slowed us to about 3 knots. But then the breaking waves washed up to the boat. The first wave filled the cockpit. The second breaking wave was much bigger” and swamped a dinghy hanging from davits.

Woods and Mantzke cut the dinghy loose and decided to lie a-hull. “We were doing about 2 to 3 knots [to the south] lying a-hull,” he says.

Late that morning, Woods estimates the waves were 20 feet, steep and close, and the wind was blowing at “Force 9” (41 to 47 knots). By early afternoon, he says, conditions had changed.

“At 2 o’clock, the wind got up very significantly so that when I went outside, I couldn’t stand up without holding on, and my face was being distorted by the wind, [which was blowing] probably about 70 knots,” Woods says. “The sea turned completely white, [with] a lot of blown spray.”

That’s when the pair decided their lives were in danger. “We set off the EPIRB and also called the Coast Guard in England with the satellite phone. From then on, we called them every hour.”

Woods estimates that seas built to 25 to 30 feet, with occasional monster waves. “And we could see, you’ve just got to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to catch them,” he says.

Over their satellite phone, they learned that the Mexican Coast Guard was coordinating any rescue attempt. “But nothing much seemed to be happening,” says Woods. “Then at some stage the U.S. Coast Guard got involved.” It asked vessels in Eclipse’s vicinity to provide assistance, and the frigate Ford was about 100 miles away. “It actually had hove-to because the captain told us he didn’t want to risk his ship and his crew going into the area where we were.”

At 11 p.m. Woods says they were surprised when they heard an American woman’s voice calling on the VHF. “She said she was in a helicopter and would be with us in 10 minutes,” he says. “We lit a flare so she could see us. They hovered at 100 feet. The swimmer came down to pick Jetti up and then came down to pick me up. The helicopter pilot said she was hovering at 50 knots to keep stationary. They took us back to the ship.”

Woods and Mantzke rented a plane in Mexico and flew over an area where they thought Eclipse might be but saw nothing, he says. “On April 5 we had an e-mail from a fishing boat agent in Panama saying one of his fishing ships had found the boat … 1,100 miles south of Acapulco and 2,000 miles from Panama.”

Woods says the 300-foot ship would charge $56,000 a day for two days to tow Eclipse to shore. “It wasn’t economic,” he says. “The other problem was these fishermen found that they weren’t the first persons on board.” Woods says he was told that the electronics, the boom and mainsail, the outboard and the solar panels that were bolted to the deck were missing. He says an ocean-drift expert said it would take about two years for Eclipse to cross the Pacific and wash up in Japan or the Philippines.

“As an owner, it’s bad” to hear of the condition of the catamaran, Woods says. Eclipse was launched in 2001 and had covered about 20,000 miles, he says. As a designer, he is pleased that his work survived conditions at sea “that a 450-foot U.S. frigate thought it was too dangerous to navigate in. I think that sort of proves the seaworthiness.”