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Coffee voyage a bitter pill to swallow

Eco-friendly coffee importers lose their sailboat and cargo in a storm returning to Texas from Belize

Eco-friendly coffee importers lose their sailboat and cargo in a storm returning to Texas from Belize

Somewhere on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico lies a 42-foot sailboat … along with 4,000 pounds of coffee beans.

Joe and Terry Butcher, an entrepreneurial couple from El Lago, Texas, were transporting the coffee from Belize in their steel-hulled cutter ketch, Red Cloud, when a storm cut short both their trip and their dream of delivering coffee to the United States under sail, in “green” fashion. They were rescued by the Coast Guard Jan. 2 in heavy weather after activating their EPIRB, leaving Red Cloud and its cargo in the stormy Gulf.

Following the EPIRB coordinates provided by the Coast Guard, the couple returned to the Gulf on a friend’s 55-foot steel trawler a few days later to look for Red Cloud. They were hopeful — until they found the distress beacon floating in the water. It had been left in the vessel’s wheelhouse. Joe Butcher says they followed a search pattern for 12 hours without finding another trace of their boat.

“This would’ve been the first coffee transported by boat since 1914,” says Butcher, who is 46.

Butcher is an experienced boater who earned his 1,600-ton license when he was 25, after four years in the Navy. Two years ago he got the idea to ship coffee aboard his sailboat — which he had owned for 13 years and named Red Cloud because of her crimson hull — as a more eco-friendly means of transport. They planned to sell the coffee on eBay when they returned to the United States.

“It started out as a way to make money and to do something positive,” says Butcher. “I didn’t want to do chartering — never wanted to — but ever since I had the boat I’ve been looking for ways to make money with it.

“We started looking for coffee in the Caribbean and Central America, and we found a company in Belize called Caye Coffee that was by far the best,” he says.

Last June, Butcher and his wife began the task of turning Red Cloud’s cabin into a cargo hold. Their aim was to leave in late fall, having secured a deal with Caye Coffee for organic beans grown in Guatemala. Also, they would be taking 500 pounds of school supplies and eight musical instruments (provided by private donors and Wal-Mart) to children in Belize.

“A month before, Terry and I flew down to San Pedro [Belize] to see where we would make port and how to navigate the reefs,” says Butcher. “We met a representative to parliament who mentioned that there were very poor children in the area who could use supplies.”

They had set a departure date of Nov. 15, near the end of hurricane season. However, the sailors were delayed when they discovered they had overlooked a customs regulation requiring advance notice of commercial vessels arriving and departing the United States. (The regulation required a $75,000 bond, which Butcher says Global Steamship Agency in Dickinson, Texas, helped secure.) It was one of several delays that Butcher says caused them to miss their weather window.

When the life raft Butcher ordered arrived — two days late — its container was split in two. A Houston company was able to repair the raft, but the voyage was further delayed when Butcher’s brother and crewmember, Doug, had passport complications. The trio, with dog in tow, finally left GalvestonBay Dec. 5.

“We had good sailing weather all the way to the Yucatan, but we received weather reports that [Tropical Storm] Olga was going to cut through Belize,” says Butcher. “We were advised to stop in Cancun.”

In what he describes as a “nightmare,” the crew was greeted with more customs red tape on Isla Mujeres, about eight miles off Cancun. “We spent four days doing paperwork and five days there,” he says. “This delayed us another five to six days.”

The crew grudgingly accepted the fact that the coffee would not be available for the Christmas season and set off for San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye. They reached their destination a few days before Christmas, enduring squalls and picking their way through a barrier reef. Over the next day or so the crew offloaded the school supplies, closely supervised by customs and immigration officials, and then discovered that Caye Coffee was still roasting the beans.

“That took several days, but we finally left Christmas Eve,” says Butcher. “We reached Cozumel by Christmas, and we had great sailing … just out of this world. We were steady at about 10 knots.”

A few days after Christmas, however, they lost the main engine; the sailors still had a working generator. “I suspect we lost a fuel pump, and I spent many days and nights getting burned, stabbed, poked, cut and gashed trying to find out why,” says Butcher. “We finally gave up on it.”

Red Cloud was 181 miles from GalvestonBay on New Year’s Eve when she ran into a front with 15-foot swells and 35-knot winds. Butcher says Red Cloud sailed magnificently in the swells, which were spaced well apart. “She was performing like never before; it was the ultimate night of my sailing life,” says Butcher. “The boat was just breathing with every wave. There were jellyfish the size of pumpkins all around, and as a pressure wave off the bow hit them, they would set off a phosphorous discharge that looked like popping, glowing pumpkins all around us.”

But conditions worsened early the next morning, and at one point Red Cloud was knocked down in 60-knot winds. Butcher says he set sea anchors in an attempt to ride out the storm. “We lost the windshield out of the wheelhouse, and we didn’t even see how that happened,” says Butcher. “We nailed a piece of plywood up to keep the water out.” Butcher says shortly afterward a wave hit them broadside so hard it cracked the side of the wheelhouse.

“The waves were usually 25 feet, but occasionally they were 30 to 35 feet, and they were stacked so close together,” he says.

As the crew hunkered down, Butcher tried to contact the Coast Guard, starting around 3 a.m., to request a weather update, a medical evacuation for his wife, who had badly twisted her ankle, and a tow. (Butcher was reluctant to abandon Red Cloud because it was uninsured.) “I wanted to advise them that we were on a sea anchor and moving backward at6-1/2 to 7 knots,” he says. The sailors finally reached the Coast Guard by radio about 7 a.m. on New Year’s Day. They spoke again around noon.

“They denied the tow and said if my wife gets off, everyone gets off,” Butcher recalls. “NOAA reported similar conditions for the following night, so we decided it was time to get off.” The Coast Guard instructed the sailors to activate their EPIRB to help guide rescuers to the boat.

Before the Coast Guard hoisted the crew and dog to the safety of a helicopter, Butcher says he made sure the generator was running to operate the pumps, and they managed to grab eight bags of coffee, which they had planned to put on eBay Feb. 1.

Butcher theorizes that either water flooded Red Cloud’s engine room and killed the generator, or the hull was further holed by the damaged steering system. He may be without a boat, but he remains devoted to the project.

“Only thing of any value I have left is this story,” says Butcher. “But I have to find another boat. I need to get this done.”

Butcher can be contacted at