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Father swept overboard, son stranded

Unable to sail their ketch, the 20-year-old spent five days on the 41-footer before being rescued

What was to be a routine end-of-season sail from Rockland, Maine, to a boatyard in New Hampshire for winter storage turned tragic in October when the skipper, 55-year-old Stephen Woods of Stratham, N.H., fell overboard in rough conditions.

His son and only crewmember, 20-year-old Asher Woods, would spend five days aboard the 41-foot ketch, apparently unable to sail the boat, before being rescued 130 miles off Cape Cod, Mass.

Stephen and Asher Woods left Rockland Harbor Boat Yard around noon Oct. 15 to transport their boat, Niobe — named after the Queen of Thebes in Greek mythology — to Rye Harbor, N.H., for the winter. Stephen Woods, an attorney, had sailed the 120-mile passage before, and planned to make Rye Harbor by the morning of Oct. 17.

The National Weather Service issued a small craft advisory about 7:30 a.m. Oct. 15, and posted a gale warning effective until the following evening, according to meteorological technician Art Lester, who is with the weather service station located in Gray, Maine. Water temperature was reportedly 53 degrees. At about 9 p.m., sustained winds near Portland were about 23 knots, with gusts to 33 knots, Lester says. Seas were running about 7 feet. When the men failed to arrive at their destination, Stephen Woods’ wife, Deborah, a former state representative, contacted authorities.

The Coast Guard launched two Falcon jets from Air Station Cape Cod, a C-130 Hercules search-and-rescue plane, the 270-foot cutter Tahoma, and a number of smaller boats from Coast Guard stations in Maine and New Hampshire. Authorities reportedly saw flares about 30 miles off Portsmouth Harbor, N.H., during the first day of searching, but an investigation turned up nothing. No other signs of the men or their sailboat could be found.

Despite the circumstances, friends and family members remained confident that Stephen and Asher would return safely. During an Oct. 19 telephone interview, Tim Rieser, who had known Stephen Woods for 18 years, refused to refer to his friend in the past tense. “I know he’s still alive,” Rieser said. “Stephen has more than 20 years of sailing experience, and I can tell you firsthand that he’s a very competent captain.”

For five years Rieser and Woods co-owned a Hunter 33 named Hecuba, after another figure in Greek mythology. “Every summer we’d get out a few times together,” Rieser recalled. “We’d mostly go daysailing up and down the coast. Occasional overnighting, too. Stephen is passionate about life, his family and also about sailing. He’s a great family man and a good friend.”

Although Asher Woods grew up sailing with his father, Rieser said, he isn’t “as proficient at it as his father. Maybe he just didn’t take to it. I don’t know,” he said. “Asher is a good deckhand though, from what I understand. He’s a great kid. Bright, just like his dad.”

As for the condition of the boat, Niobe was “good and safe” when the Woodses left Rockland Harbor, according to Sam Slaymaker, owner of Rockland Harbor Boat Yard. “I’m not sure it had much in the way of electronics, but it was certainly a sound boat,” says Slaymaker, who describes the boat as a Taiwanese-built Sea Wolf. “It’s a heavy fiberglass boat. I know it had a brand new engine — a 50-hp Beta — and that [Stephen Woods] owned it for about three years.”

On Oct. 21 the Woods family finally received some news. At about 10 a.m., Coast Guard officials had spotted a boat 130 miles off Provincetown, Mass. “A Coast Guard Falcon jet was on its normal patrol in the vicinity when the crew noticed a boat and determined that it was, in fact, the Niobe,” says Coast Guard spokesman Luke Pinneo. “The jet was low on fuel, so it headed back to Air Station Cape Cod. The crew radioed a nearby fishing vessel about the Niobe and said it would send a helicopter to the scene.”

But not all the news was good. The four-man crew of the 82-foot Amy Philbrick steamed eight miles to reach Niobe and found only Asher Woods on board. No sign of Stephen Woods. “When we got there, Asher was standing at the stern,” says John Doran, 47, of Elliot, Maine, captain of the Amy Philbrick. “I told him that a Coast Guard helicopter was en route, but he wasn’t about to wait. He jumped off his boat and started swimming for ours. We threw him a life ring on a rope and pulled him in.

“Once on board, he told us that his father had been swept overboard their first night, without a life jacket, about 13 miles from Boothbay Harbor,” Doran continues. “All things considered, for what he had been through all those days alone on the boat, I guess he was in pretty good shape. What those guys were thinking, heading out that weekend in those conditions, though, I couldn’t tell you.” In fact, Doran, who says he misses only two or three days a year because of bad weather, did not go out that weekend.

About two hours later, a Coast Guard helicopter airlifted Asher Woods from the Amy Philbrick and took him to Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod, where he was transported to Falmouth (Mass.) Hospital for evaluation. He was later released into the care of his mother and family.

“Our people had been working day and night on this,” spokesman Pinneo says. “I think everyone’s relieved that we had at least some success with this.”

Presuming Stephen Woods had drowned, the Coast Guard began a marine casualty investigation. Following a tracking buoy the Coast Guard had dropped, Doran and his crew on Oct. 22 located the drifting Niobe and towed it to the Coast Guard station in New Castle, N.H. — a passage that took 43 hours. Her sails were shredded and the stays broken, Doran says. On board, Doran found a hand-held GPS and an “older” VHF radio. There was no radar, no EPIRB, no dinghy, and he said that the batteries were dead and the boat was out of fuel. The Coast Guard reportedly received no mayday calls during the ordeal.

Despite initial news reports saying that there were no PFDs on board Niobe, the Coast Guard — having completed its investigation — confirmed that there were life jackets on the boat. Other details, such as how Stephen Woods fell overboard, were to be made public after officials at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., reviewed the report, according to Coast Guard spokesperson Kelly Newlin. Deborah Woods didn’t return calls for comment.

Following the Coast Guard investigation, Doran and the crew of the Amy Philbrick towed Niobe from New Castle to their homeport at the Shafmaster Fishing Co. in Newington, N.H. “The crew is looking for compensation for interrupting its fishing trip in order to tow the Niobe,” says Amy Philbrick representative Nick Jenkins. “To my knowledge, the crew has been in contact with Ms. Woods, and that process is under way. There are no intentions of taking this issue to court.” As of early November, no agreement for payment had been reached, according to news reports.

Meanwhile, those who knew Stephen and Asher Woods had bittersweet feelings over the outcome: happy about the son’s rescue, saddened by the loss of the father. “We are extremely grateful to the United States Coast Guard for all they have done in their search and recovery effort, and for bringing Asher Woods back to his family,” says Thomas U. Gage, Stephen Woods’ partner at an Exeter, N.H., law firm, in a statement.

An estimated 200 people attended an Oct. 28 memorial service at St. Michael Parish in Exeter.

“Stephen was a decent guy — friendly, outgoing — and had a great sense of humor,” says Marshall Quandt, who knew Stephen Woods for nearly 30 years. “He was always intense about his job and about his family. Whatever he was involved in, he went at it heart and soul.”