Family holds out hope for vanished couple

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Rigger and his girlfriend sailed for Hawaii and B.C., but haven’t been seen or heard from in months

Rigger and his girlfriend sailed for Hawaii and B.C., but haven’t been seen or heard from in months

It was supposed to be a trip that would fulfill the dream of a lifetime.

Chris Malchow, a 31-year-old professional rigger and his girlfriend, Courtenay Steele, 27, who worked for a Web-based company, left New Zealand last June, charting a course for Hawaii and then back to their home waters of Victoria, British Columbia, in a 30-foot wooden Tahiti ketch. They updated their blog regularly, telling family and friends of their adventures. But as of Sept. 5, the entries stopped.

When their target arrival date of Oct. 16 came and went, the concerned families contacted the Canadian Coast Guard, who alerted the U.S. Coast Guard. A search for the couple was suspended Dec. 16, though grieving loved ones held out hope they are out there somewhere.

“By mid-October it was actually [Malchow’s], parents that started the initial alarms when they were two weeks overdue,” says Suzanne Steele, Courtenay’s aunt and spokesperson for the families. “This was a new experience for [Courtenay] and it really is her partner’s passion. She’s been sailing for only a year, and he had been sailing most of his life.”

Malchow and Steele met about three years ago, and Steele immediately caught her boyfriend’s love of the sea. Leaving behind their 9-to-5 lives in Victoria, they moved to New Zealand in October 2006. They acquired the gaff-rigged Tahiti ketch in March, christened her Takaroa 2, and spent three months preparing for their voyage. At the end of June they slipped the lines and headed toward Hilo, Hawaii. Late in July the couple encountered a series of gales, one of which broke the boom on the main mast and threw Malchow off the boat, though his harness secured his safe return on board. They arrived at Tubuai, near Tahiti, July 22 after 28 days and 2,500 nautical miles at sea. Optimistic despite the weather, the duo stepped onto the island to get refreshed and stock up on supplies.

After spending a few days repairing the boom and sifting through customs red tape, the couple then took off for Hilo, reaching their destination Aug. 27. In a blog post, Courtenay describes how, 200 miles after setting off from Tubuai, they realized they could be sailing through a hurricane zone that stretches from Mexico to Hawaii.

“We were the only visiting boat on the island and the locals were nonplussed,” states Courtenay in a blog post dated Aug. 4, 2007. “A local fellow shook our hands as we stepped foot on terra firma for the first time in a month, but with the language barrier there was no way we could relate what a big deal it was for us.”

According to their blog, the couple’s boat had orange sails and was equipped with such gear as harnesses with built-in inflatable PFDs, a manual EPIRB, two GPS systems, a depth sounder, life raft, flares, first-aid kits, a para-anchor, storm sails and an SSB receiver for weather reports, as well as a laptop computer and VHF. However, they failed to file a detailed float plan with their families or with the Coast Guard.

“Our little radio receiver had been wrecked on the first leg (soaked with salt water); we had no way to get weather reports,” states Courtenay in a blog post dated Aug. 27, 2007. “So we read up as much as we could on the warning signs, watched the clouds and the barometer, and fretted about it nearly every day.”

Shortly after leaving Tubuai, their VHF quit working as well. The blog indicates they made Hilo and bought a new VHF when they got there. In the last entry, Sept. 5, Courtenay discusses her love for the island, but also how she looks forward to returning to Victoria in roughly a month.

Jeff Nemrava, regional supervisor for the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre (JRCC) in Victoria says they first got a call from Malchow’s family Oct. 10 with concerns about a vessel overdue.

“We contacted the United States Coast Guard chapter in Alameda, Calif., to coordinate efforts searching for them along the Pacific, and they accepted the case,” says Nemrava. “Our role for the most part was to be the liaison between the families from Victoria and efforts in the U.S.”

The JRCC sent out local broadcasts in the area via the VHF network all along the coast of British Columbia up to 40 miles out into open water. Meanwhile, Alameda alerted Coast Guard District 14 in Honolulu of the situation with the couple as of Oct. 14.

“During the time in question there was some adverse weather in the West Coast region near Washington,” says Lt. John Titchen, spokesperson for the Coast Guard 14th District. “Since we didn’t have much information on where they could’ve possibly been at that time and there was such a huge area to cover, that was our best guess where they could’ve run into trouble.”

From Nov. 6-10, a C-130 from Air Station Sacramento, Calif., searched the area for six hours daily. Winds were reported at 42 knots and seas 30 to 40 feet when the aircraft first deployed. A Navy P-3 departed from Navy Base San Diego searched the coast six hours every day until Nov. 12. Informational broadcasts were read all along the couple’s route until Dec. 19.

“Without any information to go on, we had to make a lot of assumptions about the trip,” says Titchen. “Weather in the upper Pacific can be brutal; it can develop quickly and deteriorate just as fast.”

Both Titchen and Nemrava confirm that they have not received a signal from the EPIRB on the Takaroa 2.

“There was no indication of distress, and when we heard from Victoria, we didn’t know where to begin,” says Titchen. “We can’t have one of our C-130s fly the entire Pacific, so we had to focus mostly on the area where the weather would have given a boat that size that much trouble.”

When the U.S. Coast Guard didn’t find a trace of the couple, the last U.S. broadcast was made Nov. 19 before the case was handed back over to the JRCC. Nemrava says they continued broadcasting to local vessels and texting messages to merchant ships in the area to be on the lookout for Takaroa 2 until the case was officially closed on Dec. 16.

“I think we contacted every vessel that came through British Columbia,” says Nemrava.

Steele, who contacted a number of ships herself, describes her niece as someone with a passion for life, and admires her for having the courage to step out of a structured environment and explore the world.

“It was meeting Chris that made her want to do this, and he’s been her partner for about three years now,” says Steele. “These are two adults that are knowledgeable about life and do not shy away from life, and they should be honored for that.”

Steele says while this has been a difficult time for the families, they still hold out hope they will see them again. “My intuition is that they are out there, way, way out there, and I just don’t feel that they are gone. Time will tell, but I know Courtenay’s mother feels that way, too,” says Steele. “Obviously, the longer it is, the less chance we have of seeing them. On the other hand, what I’ve heard from lifelong sailors … is that miracles happen on the sea all the time. It is not unheard of that a boat just be out there for a long, long, long time, demasted or whatever. We can only hope for that.”

Steele says because the manual EPIRB was not received, Courtenay’s father fears that they were hit by a commercial vessel. However, the family puts a great deal of faith in Malchow’s experience with the sea and believe he would not have left harbor without being totally confident in their preparation for the voyage.

“He knows his way around boats; he’s very thorough,” said Steele. “He’s the kind of guy who is very tenacious and would be able to survive almost anything.”

Titchen says it is very important that boaters file a float plan with the Coast Guard or their families so they can be located quickly.

“It is so easy to just hit the seas and go, but it’s a big ocean out there,” says Titchen. “Blogs and Web sites are great, but you can never have enough information put out there about where you plan on going, and also talking to as many people as you can about your journey before you leave.”

Titchen says all of his sympathy goes out to the families at this time because they have no closure.

“It is difficult to accept anything when nothing’s been found,” says Titchen.

Steele says it has been difficult waiting for any kind of news and information, but she doesn’t regret encouraging them to follow their dreams.

“Only time will tell what this particular dream led to,” says Steele. “My brother hopes that this doesn’t make people afraid of following their dreams, this story, because that would be too bad … they are good people, really extraordinary people, and it is very painful to be missing them, very painful to not know where they are.”

The U.S. and Canadian coast guards maintain if new information comes out about the couple, the case will be reopened. The family welcomes any information, particularly from anyone in Hawaii that might have seen or talked to them. Steele can be contacted at sznnsteele@gmail.com .