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‘Free spirits’ lived for sailing

Family and friends paint a picture of four sailors lost in Tropical Storm Alberto

Family and friends paint a picture of four sailors lost in Tropical Storm Alberto

It started with a promise.

A few years ago, when Jack Bielecki was in his early teens, his father, former British shipping lawyer Jacek Bielecki, told him that when he turned 18 they would set off on an adventure sailing around the world. Last year Jack turned 18, and shortly after his birthday he asked his father about the promise he had made.

“[Jacek] wasn’t really expecting to do it, but since he had promised and did want to sail around the world someday, he decided to go along with it,” says Tom Callahan, a restaurant owner in Newport, R.I. Callahan befriended the Bieleckis after they moved to Rhode Island last fall from Suffolk, England. “So they began to search the world for a seaworthy sailboat. That’s how they wound up here in Newport.”

On June 11 Jacek Bielecki, 56, Jack Bielecki, 19, and two passengers set off from East Greenwich, R.I., aboard a 1974 Tartan 41, Free Spirit, bound for the Mediterranean, the first leg of what was to be a two-year circumnavigation. The passengers were Richard White, 34, a friend from England; and Molly Finn, 19, Jack’s girlfriend from Newport. The Bieleckis planned to continue on around the world by themselves after spending the summer in the Med.

Four days into their passage across the Atlantic they were overtaken by the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto, about 200 nautical miles south of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Coast Guard reported seas of 23 to 30 feet, with winds gusting between 50 and 90 knots. With his boat and crew apparently in distress, Jacek Bielecki made a call for help with his satellite phone, but neither the sailors nor Free Spirit were seen or heard from again. The Coast Guard searched for three days and reportedly had traced an EPIRB signal to a debris field near where Free Spirit was thought to have been when the call was placed. However, it was unregistered and couldn’t be linked for certain to the missing boat.

“Our families, we’re obviously devastated,” says Kirsty Scott, Jacek Bielecki’s stepdaughter. “After they disappeared we were split between thinking they are really gone and not believing that they could be overcome by the storm, that they were out there in a life raft somewhere.

“My stepfather had been a sailor all of his life,” continues Scott, who is 37 and lives in Larchmont, N.Y. “He was accomplished, always loved a challenge and faced life straight away. They had wanted to do this for so long and had spent months preparing. It’s hard for us to accept what happened.”

Jacek Bielecki found Free Spirit in September 2005 at New England Boatworks in Portsmouth, R.I. He purchased the boat and moved to the Ocean State in October. Jack Bielecki followed in November.

“This circumnavigation was what these two lived for,” Scott says. “[Jacek] wanted to do a circumnavigation for years. I think he may have felt a little pressured to do it before he turned 60. For him, he thought he had to either do it now or not at all. For Jack, having grown up sailing Optis and Lasers and speedboats in Suffolk, this was exhilarating.”

“This was a dream adventure come true for Jack,” says Polly Bielecka, Jacek Bielecki’s 26-year-old daughter, who lives in London. (Bielecka is the feminine version of the family name.) “To be doing a circumnavigation as a father and son made it even more exciting and meaningful.”

In the wake of the tragedy, Bielecka is developing a charity she calls Safe at Sea to encourage design, innovation and research into marine safety, and search and rescue equipment.

Jacek & Jack Bielecki spent the next several months restoring Free Spirit and preparing for the voyage. Jacek Bielecki was “very serious” about safety equipment on board, Scott says. His safety gear included a life raft, EPIRB, self-inflating PFDs, satellite phone and flares, she says. Scott wasn’t sure, however, if he had registered the EPIRB.

Some of the work that was done to Free Spirit, according to Scott, included rebuilding the 44-hp Yanmar diesel, rebuilding the exhaust system, replacing through-hull fittings, checking the spars and rigging, and updating the wiring and plumbing. The Bieleckis did much of the work themselves, friends and family say, but they turned to professional help when needed.

“From the rigging to the sails, if there was something to do on the boat that they couldn’t handle themselves they contracted the work out to some of the best professionals here in Newport,” says restaurant owner Callahan, who is 47. “[Jacek] was extremely intelligent and also extremely thorough.” The Bieleckis continued to work on Free Spirit after she was launched in May.

One person Jacek and Jack recruited to help with the refit was Richard White, a boatbuilder from England. “Richard grew up sailing the Indian Ocean, and his parents had him building things early in his life,” Scott says. “I think he built his first boat at age 8. He really knew his stuff. [Jacek] asked Richard to come to the United States to help with Free Spirit. He often used to say that Richard was a genius in regards to his ability to fix things and for his inventive solutions.”

Kiki Finn, Molly Finn’s mother, says she had discussed with her daughter the “risks and rewards” associated with sailing across the Atlantic. “I have always encouraged my children to follow their dreams,” says Finn in an e-mail to Soundings. “Molly was strong-willed and resilient. I had confidence that she would be a dependable crewmember.”

Molly Finn had sailing experience, having been on her high school sailing team and taken sailing lessons at the Newport Yacht Club. Before setting sail aboard Free Spirit, she applied to Newport’s International Yacht Restoration School.

“Molly had always dreamed of sailing across the ocean,” says Kiki Finn. “After meeting Jack and working on the Free Spirit she realized that she loved doing that kind of work. She was friendly with a number of students at the school, and was very enthusiastic about boatbuilding and learning all the different aspects of restoration that they told her about: navigation, steam bending, planking, boat handling, etc.”

Around noon July 15 Scott received the distress call from her stepfather on her cell phone. Free Spirit was four days out, and Bielecki said they were caught in a storm and were in trouble. “The wind was howling, and his voice was so distorted,” Scott recalls. “At first, all he could say was, ‘This is a mayday call.’ He made sure to give me his coordinates, but it was difficult to make out what he was saying. He’d say ‘3,’ and I’d say ‘4,’ so he’d say, ‘No! I said 3.’ It was back and forth like that, and it was painful that it took so long to get the coordinates, but it was the only way.”

Scott called 911 and was transferred to the Coast Guard to report the emergency and Free Spirit’s position. U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard officials launched a search with helicopters, Falcon jets, cutters and other vessels, covering about 15,000 square miles, but were unable to find the sailboat. The debris field found within the search area contained a wooden door, bleach bottle, milk carton and gasoline can. Authorities couldn’t determine if the items were from Free Spirit or another vessel. According to phone records, Scott says, Jacek Bielecki’s call that afternoon was the last he made.

“They got caught in a storm. No one had any clue that the weather would be that severe,” says Scott. “Sailing is what everyone on board that boat lived for. They all had so much life in them and so much courage. In their own ways, they were all free spirits. We will all miss them.”