Holding on for dear life in the waves

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The Massachusetts author's latest book details a crew's dangerous voyage to Bermuda

Capt. Tom Tighe of Patterson, N.Y., had made the voyage between Connecticut and Bermuda 48 times and his first mate Lochlin Reidy joined him on 20 of those trips.

A rogue wave washed two of Almesian's crew overboard along with the life raft.

In May 2005, the two sailors embarked on yet another Bermuda-bound cruise, this time taking along three new crewmembers who wished to learn more about offshore sailing. The new crew included 46-year-old Kathy Gilchrist, 70-year-old Ron Burd and 34-year-old Chris Ferrer.

Four days into their voyage, a massive storm struck. Capt. Tighe and first mate Reidy were swept from the boat during a knockdown and carried away by huge seas. The three new crewmembers somehow remained on the vessel as it was being torn apart by the seas.

Franklin, Mass.-based author Michael Tougias recounts the encounter between a rogue wave and Almeisan - a 45-foot fiberglass Hardin ketch - in his newest book, "Overboard! A True Bluewater Odyssey of Disaster and Survival" ($24, Simon & Schuster) out March 18. Below, he summarizes the crew's ordeal and offers some of the lessons learned from the voyage.

Michael Tougias' newest book,

To read Soundings' coverage of the 2005 incident, visit www.SoundingsOnline.com, keyword: Almeisan.

The trouble starts on the fourth day of the trip when a storm-generated rogue wave comes roaring down on the sailboat. Kathy, Tom and Lochlin are in the cockpit when they hear an oncoming roar like the engines of a jet. Kathy is swept completely out of the boat and feels the ocean tugging, trying to separate her from the lifeline of her safety harness. She kicks to the surface and screams.

Loch and Tom are pinned in the overturned cockpit, underwater. When the boat comes back around, the first thing they hear is screaming. They know it's Kathy, but in the darkness it takes them a few seconds to realize she is outside the boat. They locate her in the water and grab her safety harness, but don't have the strength to pull her aboard.

Below, 70-year-old Ron Burd has been thrown into the deck head, nearly knocking him unconscious. Chris, who had been resting in the galley beneath two windows, narrowly escapes death when one of the windows shatters and torrents of glass and water rain down on him. Chris hears the shouting from above and scrambles topside and, together with Loch and Tom, manages to pull Kathy back into the boat.

The book hit stores March 18.

Tom inspects the battered condition of the vessel and the rising water inside, and makes the decision to activate the EPIRB and abandon ship by way of the life raft.

In the next few minutes, things go horribly wrong. As the crew assembles in the exposed cockpit with life jackets and emergency supplies, Tom inflates the life raft, but the wind blows it out 30 feet from the boat to the end of its tether, which is so thin the men cannot get a good enough grip to pull it back toward the boat. Minutes go by as they work to secure the tether to a winch, then bring the life raft to within 5 feet of the boat. Loch dives into the life raft to secure a heavier line. Just then another rogue wave, perhaps 50 feet, slams into the Almeisan, breaking the raft from its tether. The life raft does a complete 360, and hurls Loch into the sea. Tom and Ron are also thrown from the boat. The stanchion that Tom's safety harness was clipped to broke, and he and Loch are engulfed by the breaking seas, but they swim to each other and clip their safety harnesses together as the seas sweep them far from the boat and into the void.

On board Almeisan, Ron is outside the vessel, but hanging onto the rail. Chris pulls him aboard, dragging him into the cockpit. With no life raft, the three sailors on the Almeisan must keep the boat afloat until help arrives - it is another eight hours before a tanker responds to their mayday. The ship sees the sailboat and pulls alongside, dropping a line that Chris secures to Almeisan. Just when it seems like Kathy, Ron and Chris will be saved, the ship crashes into the sailboat, putting a gash in its hull. The sailboat drifts to the stern of the ship and just 3 feet from its massive swirling propeller. The terrified sailors think the end is at hand as they struggle to free Almeisan from the line connecting them to the ship. They do so with only a second to spare.

After 20 hours in the water, it was the 2-inch strobe light on first mate Lochlin Reidy's life jacket that attracted the Coast Guard and led to his rescue.

Hours later, a Coast Guard helicopter arrives and drops a rescue swimmer into the maelstrom to assist the three trapped sailors. They are hoisted from the boat and taken to safety.

*    *    *

Meanwhile, Tom and Loch are buried by avalanching waves, but in the troughs of the waves the men are able to talk of rescue, survival strategies and their families, knowing the odds of escaping from their predicament alive are slim. As each hour goes by, the men are weakening, especially Tom, the older of the two. After 10 hours, Tom dies in Loch's arms.

Loch vows to bring his friend's body home and his fight to live during the next 20 hours is one of the classics of maritime survival. Eventually, the tiny 2-inch strobe light on his life vest saves his life. Incredibly, a Coast Guard plane spots the light and Loch is later rescued by the crew on an oil tanker.

*    *    *

Michael Tougias is the author of "Overboard"! as well as three other true maritime thrillers: "Ten Hours Until Dawn," "Fatal Forecast," and "The Finest Hours."

Tougias talks

Meet Tougias and see his free slide presentation on “Overboard” on the following dates:
March 31 — 6:30 p.m., Dover (Mass.) Public Library
April 15 — 7 p.m., Norfolk (Mass.) Public Library
April 28 — 7 p.m., Milford (Conn.) Public Library
May 4 — 7 p.m., Plymouth (Mass.) Public Library
May 9 — 2 p.m., Natick (Mass.) Public Library
May 20 — Noon, Springfield (Mass.) Museum at Quadrangle
July 6 — 7 p.m., Truro (Mass.) Public Library

See related article:

- Almeisan's lessons

This article originally appeared in the New England Home Waters Section of the April 2010 issue.