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Change in course proves fatal

The skipper of a Lagoon 38 is lost when the catamaran runs into a monster storm off Bermuda

The skipper of a Lagoon 38 is lost when the catamaran runs into a monster storm off Bermuda

Steve Hobley hadn’t planned on going to Annapolis, Md., just yet. After all, it was midwinter in the treacherous northern Atlantic, and he was comfortably, if slowly, sailing west, five days out of Madeira, the balmy PortugueseIsland a few hundred miles west of Morocco.

Hobley and his crew were steering the catamaran — a new Lagoon 380 built in France for a Baltimore cardiologist — toward Miami, where it was to be displayed during the annual boat show. The trip had been plagued by headwinds and slow progress, though, so it was perhaps no surprise when the satellite phone rang Feb. 1 and Hobley, 50, got the succinct message: divert to Annapolis.

Whether he wanted to or not, Hobley turned the as-yet-unnamed boat north, on what would prove to be a collision course with a monster storm. Seventeen days later, after encountering deadly wind and seas east of Bermuda, the catamaran was upside down in 63 degree water, the captain was dead — apparently from hypothermia — and his two crewmen were clipped onto the stricken vessel, hoping for rescue as, every 15 seconds, waves either washed over them or they were hurled overboard by cresting, 45-foot sheer walls of black ocean.

Theirs was the second fatal delivery of a catamaran in a little more than two months for the British delivery company that employed Hobley and his crew: Reliance Yacht Management of Farnborough, Hampshire. On Dec. 11, the three crewmembers of a Voyage 440 Plus catamaran were lost off Oregon on a delivery from South Africa. (Soundings covered that story in the March issue.)

“Suffice to say this is very, very unusual for us,” says Nick Irving, the head of Reliance. “I can’t think of any particular explanation for it. Our skippers are very experienced on these particular boats, these particular areas. There is no obvious connection between them that I can see.”

The explanation for the loss of Hobley and the boat he was delivering seems straightforward. They sailed into weather they did not expect, a terrifying storm that was more than they could handle. All three men on board had extensive sailing experience, and Irving says Reliance delivers about 50 catamarans a year across the Atlantic from Europe. “[Hobley] was very conversant with this particular make and model of boat, and I think it was his third Atlantic crossing on this particular model,” says Irving. Irving did not respond when asked to confirm a claim by one of the crewmen that the boat carried no sea anchor or drogue.

Why such a seasoned captain and crew would elect to sail in the notorious northern Atlantic in February rather than continue on a more temperate southerly route is unclear. No one living takes credit for that decision, although it is certain that the decision to divert the boat was made ashore.

“Whoever directed them to do that has very little knowledge of what kind of weather conditions you would encounter [there],” says Canadian weather router Herb Hilgenberg. “I think any skipper with any degree of experience would have chosen a different route.” Had the catamaran stayed on its course for Florida, he says, “they would have had a lovely summer cruise.”

Hobley had many years of sailing experience, although only a couple as a delivery captain, according to his adult daughter, Frances Hobley. On his personal Web site, he expressed his own thoughts on safety at sea. “I have experienced truly bad conditions out there and discovered how to deal with them (nice to know should push come to shove again),” Hobley writes. “Always, I will go to extreme lengths through planning to avoid bad weather, but on occasions it is karma — being prepared is the key.” Hobley’s ironic conclusion: “I hope never to lose sight of the objective — to get where we are going all in one piece and try to enjoy and get as much from the experience as possible.”

Kevin Klinges, 33, found Hobley to be a warm and thoughtful mentor when he boarded the Lagoon as a crewmember Jan. 12 in Les Sables d’Olonne, a port on the Bay of Biscay in western France. A week earlier Klinges, a skier, had been at home in Sun Valley, Idaho, and now, having packed his ski clothes as foul-weather gear, he was prepared for an adventure he had sought through an Internet posting.

Also boarding the catamaran was Olof Templeman, 37, a professional sailor from England’s Isle of Wight who had spent several years as crew or first mate on private yachts in Europe and the Caribbean. Templeman had signed aboard to see what working a delivery would be like. It was his first time on a catamaran but his second Atlantic crossing.

The good news for Klinges, who had grown up sailing on Chesapeake Bay and had worked on a charter catamaran for nine months in St. Thomas, was that Hobley was an attentive teacher. Klinges wanted to improve his sailing skills, and once the catamaran was under way, Hobley was teaching him navigation and other aspects of seamanship.

But there was a downside: As they proceeded across the Bay of Biscay toward Madeira, the crew had either no wind or headwinds.

“It was really annoying,” Klinges recalls, as the catamaran could only advance at 55 degrees or more off the wind. “After beating for 30 some days, it really got old.” Then the wind died. “After we rounded Cape Finisterre [the westernmost point in Spain], we had to motor for about a week.”

The boat was well behind schedule when it left Madeira in late January, bound for the Feb. 15 to 19 Miami International Boat Show. Five days into the leg, sailing at about 31 degrees north latitude, the crew got the word: Forget Miami. Go to Annapolis.

Weather router Hilgenberg recalls one time being contacted by a tank ship captain who, in the same time of year and at a similar location in the eastern Atlantic, was prepared to take a similar route. Hilgenberg says he first asked the skipper how fast his ship would travel in 30-foot seas and then how fast it would travel in calm seas. The response was 1 knot and 15 knots, respectively, he remembers. Informing the captain that those were the northern and southern conditions he could expect to encounter, Hilgenberg suggested that the captain do the math.

Hugh Murray, president of The Catamaran Company of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which had sold the Lagoon to cardiologist Henry Meilman, says “the crew was diverted straight to Annapolis.” Asked whether it was true that his company did not make the decision to alter the boat’s course, Murray says he was confused by the question.

Irving, the head of Reliance Yacht Management, says in an e-mail to Soundings, “On the 31st January we received instructions to redirect the boat to Annapolis.” He says that “passage plans are made by the captain,” and that “the change of destination was at the client’s request. We cannot answer for their decision to make this change.” He did not respond when asked whether the client was Murray’s company or Meilman.

Meilman says he was neither involved in nor consulted about the change in course. But he says he was following the boat’s progress with great interest through daily e-mails sent to him by Reliance that recorded the catamaran’s coordinates. He also was checking the High Seas weather forecast on the Internet, and a couple of weeks after the boat changed course he began noticing disturbing conditions developing offshore. When he learned the boat was nearing Bermuda, “I, like, flipped out,” Meilman says. “It looked like they were going to drop a bomb over Bermuda. It was frightening.”

Aboard the catamaran, there was no such concern. The forecasts the crew was receiving over a single sideband receiver, satellite phone and weatherfax suggested that conditions ahead were worsening. But the captain seemed convinced that the boat could handle the 35 to 45 knots of wind forecasted. “I took it on trust that the captain was confident about the weather,” says Templeman. The boat was southeast of Bermuda. Hobley decided to sail north of the island, knowing that the predicted winds would blow first from the southwest and then the northwest.

Klinges went off watch Sunday night, Feb. 18, with the boat sailing through 30-foot swells. “When I woke up [Monday] morning, the waves had exponentially grown, and they were pretty steep because they were pushed by the wind,” he says. “Not rollers anymore, [but] long back and steep front. At 10 that morning the waves were getting noticeably steeper, and I was getting apprehensive myself because I could see all around us the waves were breaking everywhere.”

“As we progressed, the front approached, the weather deteriorated, and [the wind] went to 55 knots, gusting to 60, and [up to] 45-foot waves,” Templeman recalls. “The problem was that one in 10 waves would crest. By this time we’d seen the weather had deteriorated far more than forecast, so we were heading southeasterly with a 30 percent jib and no mainsail. We had no other option but to run.”

Hobley took over the helm in the cockpit — the only steering station on the catamaran and the place where the life raft was stored — at 11 a.m., running in front of the sea and keeping the waves just off the starboard quarter. At times, he took a break and let the windvane or the autopilot do the steering, his crew says. At one point Templeman noted they were doing 22 knots as they raced down a wave, although on a regular basis the boat was making 10 to 12 knots. Everywhere around them were 35-foot seas, along with the occasional breaking 45-footer.

As Monday wore on, “the water was screaming, and the wind was screaming,” says Klinges. “It reminded me of being in the mountains when the wind blows the snow in streaks.”

Templeman and Klinges were in the saloon at around 2 p.m. with Hobley, who had turned on the autopilot and taken a break from steering. Klinges was on a couch on the port side and Templeman was standing to starboard when, through the sliding glass doors that separated them from the cockpit, they saw another 45-footer approach.

“I could see a huge one crest and break on a direct line for us,” Klinges says. “Pretty soon it came up, a 45-foot wall, straight up and down white with foam. It broke on our starboard quarter, blew the hatch cover open, filled up the cockpit, flooded the saloon floor. I was sitting on the saloon couch, so basically I rolled with it.”

Earlier in the afternoon, when a similar wave slammed the catamaran from astern, Templeman had been thrown across the saloon and down into the port hull. This time he was putting something away in his stateroom and felt the boat tilt 90 degrees and then slam back down.

“We were probably 5 degrees from flipping over,” says Klinges. “After that, I kind of came to the conclusion that if that one wave was there and the wind wasn’t letting up … our luck was probably running out.” He put on all his ski gear, an extra layer of fleece, his inflatable life jacket and his three-point tether and went to his stateroom forward in the port hull to lie in his bunk.

At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, with squalls of heavy rain that changed the wind angle, Hobley went below, shedding most of his gear except for his thermals and a layer of fleece. With Templeman in the cockpit steering, Hobley got into his bunk, on the opposite side of the boat from Klinges’ stateroom. An hour later, at 5 o’clock, Templeman saw the one-in-10 wave, another 45-footer, approach from astern, cresting twice. “The third time, it crested just as we came to the top of it and flipped the catamaran over,” he recalls.

Templeman found himself trapped in the inverted cockpit, unable to open the sliding glass doors to the saloon. Klinges, in his port-hull cabin in full foul weather gear, simply walked out of his bunk and onto the overhead as his cocoon turned upside down. As he made his way aft, he encountered Hobley, still only in thermals and fleece. The skipper had taken just enough time to put on his life jacket. The pair went aft to the escape hatch on the hull. Klinges had grabbed the ditch bag, in which the EPIRB was stored, and had it fastened to his harness.

Outside, 35-foot waves attacked the boat relentlessly, funneling between the hulls like racing surf. Klinges popped the escape hatch, reached outside and clipped his tether to a D-ring, then climbed out of the hull, with Hobley right behind. Caught in the water racing between the hulls, Klinges was yanked fore and aft several times, then finally made his way to the bow. He was shaken. The hook on his tether had been bent. He had never been in seas like these.

“Tell me we are going to get out of here!” Klinges shouted to Hobley.

“Absolutely,” the skipper shouted into the crewman’s face. “We are going to get out of here!”

Now Hobley and Klinges were joined at the bow by Templeman, who had managed to open the sliding doors and get out the escape hatch in the starboard hull. The life raft that had been in the cockpit was nowhere to be seen. Hobley busied himself activating his EPIRB, which was registered to another boat, named Haley. The long EPIRB tether got tangled around him and Klinges, then the tether snapped and the beacon was washed overboard. Meanwhile, Templeman had activated his personal EPIRB. So two signals were being broadcast to search-and-rescue authorities.

About a half-hour after the capsize, Klinges realized that Hobley had no tether, and he hooked the skipper to is own line. “Rather quickly, it became apparent that the skipper wasn’t very well-protected,” Templeman says. “He started shivering. We were actually sitting [on the catamaran’s trampoline] in the water, losing a lot of heat to the water. I suggested that we stand so the water could drain. Me and Kevin stood up” in the lee of one of the catamaran’s hulls. “The skipper questioned why we were standing up. He was becoming less and less responsive. We were doing everything to keep him awake … shouting louder and louder to keep him fighting. But it was quite a strain. We were also trying to keep ourselves on the deck.”

Then the ditch bag was torn away from Klinges. “The waves were just destroying us, throwing us overboard,” he says.

An hour into the ordeal, with dark descending on the Atlantic, the trio saw a light shining on Templeman’s EPIRB indicating that its signal had been received on shore. Some time later, Hobley began tearing at his life jacket as if trying to remove it, and he became incoherent. It was around 10 p.m. when a C-130 aircraft arrived on scene. Then a train of huge waves arrived, as well. Templeman was standing next to the hull, and Hobley was between him and Klinges. One of the waves shoved Templeman into Hobley, who in turn slammed into Klinges, knocking him into a cable and rupturing his inflated life jacket.

Between waves, the men saw flares and strobes dropped by the aircraft, and at one point they saw an inflated life raft float by but did not dare swim for it. A subsequent wave washed all three overboard, and when Klinges, pulling on his tether, hauled Hobley back to the boat, he could see the skipper was dead. “His eyes were still opened, and I closed his eyes, and I couldn’t believe that,” he says. “And the next wave blew us all over, and I pulled in the line, and the only thing there was the life jacket.”

About two hours later, another C-130 from Coast Guard Station Elizabeth City (N.C.) landed in Bermuda with Lt. Cdr. Adam Kerr, a helicopter pilot, on board. Kerr and his crew took over an HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter that had been flown to the island by another crew, and they headed for the catamaran, 90 minutes to the northeast.

Flying with night-vision goggles, Kerr and his co-pilot, flight mechanic and rescue swimmer could barely see anything. When they arrived at the cat, Kerr set the radar altimeter, which keeps the chopper in a hover at a chosen altitude.

“It was complete whitecaps, and our altimeter would go from 60 feet to 30 feet to 20 feet,” Kerr says. Turning on his search lights, the pilot saw two men huddled at one side of the catamaran. “And the waves were breaking over the top of them, just repeatedly crashing.”

What unfolded now was the most demanding rescue in Kerr’s seven years of flying. “Those waves were huge,” he says. “You would see the sea spray blowing off the back side of it, blowing right past my window.”

Now it was the rescue swimmer’s turn. Michael Ackerman changed into his swim gear, clipped the cable onto his harness, and descended through the spume toward the waves. Moments later, he surfaced in front of the catamaran.

“Hey, my name’s Mike,” he said to the astonished sailors. “I’m with the Coast Guard. Are you guys injured?”

It had been 10 hours since the catamaran capsized. “One second there was black water there, and the next second there was a guy with goggles,” recalls Klinges, who calls Ackerman “super human.”

“The scene,” Templeman says, “was something you see out of Hollywood. Wow, what a relief.”