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In the clutches of a powerful storm

Coast Guard airlifts nine sailors from three boats in 100-knot winds and 50-foot seas off CapeHatteras

Coast Guard airlifts nine sailors from three boats in 100-knot winds and 50-foot seas off CapeHatteras

The forecasters and weather routers had this one nailed. Three days before a storm with hurricane-force winds hit off Cape Hatteras, N.C., May 7, the pros were warning boaters to steer away from that notorious neighborhood. But even as a strong high-pressure system dangerously bore down on an entrenched low, four yachts sailed directly into the meteorological cross hairs.

In the early, dark hours of that Monday morning, the fronts collided. The winds roared to 100 knots. The seas swelled chaotically, with breaking waves as tall as 50 feet. Electronic distress signals from three of the sailboats shot up to satellites above the fury and bounced back to the ground, sending Coast Guard C-130 aircraft and HH-60 helicopters into the maw of a storm that would last 48 hours.

The toll was horrendous. Two boats — one sailed by a 75-year-old couple and their 45-year-old daughter, the other by a crew of three professionals — were abandoned, one eventually driven aground. A third boat — with an American, a Canadian and a British sailor aboard, according to a report in the Cape Cod Times — sank 225 miles out in the ocean, leaving its crew of three in a tattered, tiny life raft. All nine sailors on these boats were, over the course of eight daylight hours, hauled out of the ocean by Coast Guard helicopter crews.

The fourth boat, an immaculate and rugged 54-footer owned by an energy company executive, gave off two EPIRB signals over three hours and then disappeared, taking with it its professional, licensed captain and his three seasoned crewmembers.

The apparent deaths and the heroic rescues didn’t have to happen, according to the weather experts. “There was no reason for anyone to get caught,” is the blunt assessment of Florida-based weather router Chris Parker. Herb Hilgenberg, who transmits weather reports to offshore sailors from Ontario, says he told boats heading to Chesapeake Bay, “No way; turn around.” He says he began delivering that message on Friday, three days before the storm hit.

Of the four boats, the one whose skipper may have had no choice was one Mr. Dixon, a 75-year-old who called the Coast Guard from off North Carolina Sunday, May 6. Seaker, the 37-foot sailboat owned by Dixon and his wife, Mea, was 12 nautical miles off Oregon Inlet. The Dixons and their daughter had been surprised by the building wind. They didn’t ask for help but said they were anchoring in shoal water. The Coast Guard set up an hourly communications schedule and waited.

Farther offshore, the high-pressure system joined the low that weather experts had been watching since Thursday, and at 3 o’clock Monday morning, the Coast Guard received the first EPIRB signal. Checking the beacon’s registration, the agency learned it was from the sailboat Lou Pantai, owned by Jean Pierre Delutz. That was all the information they had, except for a telephone number. They called, and the woman who answered said the boat was headed across the Atlantic for the Azores. From the EPIRB signal, it was determined Lou Pantai was 225 miles southeast of CapeHatteras.

Just 28 minutes after the first EPIRB signal was recorded, a second came in, from the 54-foot Little Harbor sloop Flying Colours, based in Annapolis, Md. It was 200 miles east of CapeFear, about 30 miles east of the Gulf Stream, and bound for Annapolis. On board were two licensed captains and two crewmembers.

It took the Coast Guard a little more than an hour to launch the first C-130, which was directed toward Lou Pantai’s location. It was at 5:30 a.m. — two hours after Flying Colours’ EPIRB was first triggered — when the next C-130 took off to look for that boat. There had been no more EPIRB signals from Flying Colours since the first, but eight minutes after the C-130 was airborne, a second signal was detected.

As the aircraft made their way east and south, buffeted by high winds, the Dixons called in. Their anchor was dragging and Seaker was headed for Diamond Shoals. They asked to be rescued and gave their coordinates.

At about the same time, a third EPIRB signal was received, this one from the 67-foot aluminum cutter/sloop Illusion, being delivered to Newport, R.I., by a professional captain from Scotland and two crewmembers. Illusion was about 50 miles west of Flying Colours’ last known location.

Coast Guard Lt. Cdr. Daniel Molthen got his HH-60 helicopter off the ground at Elizabeth City, N.C., at around 6:30 a.m., flying toward Seaker in 45 to 65 knot winds and reaching the yacht at 6:45. “They were pretty much dragging anchor and getting pummeled by these 30- to 40-foot waves,” Molthen says. The Dixons were huddled inside Seaker, but when the chopper got overhead, Mr. Dixon looked out and answered the radio. Molthen told him the rescue swimmer was coming.

As the swimmer, Michael Ackerman, prepared to clip onto the cable inside the chopper, Molthen hovered near Seaker. Suddenly, the chopper rose sharply as Molthen sought to avoid the sailboat’s mast, thrust up like a spear by the huge seas. “It might have impaled us,” he says.

Ackermann is the rescue swimmer who, in the black of night, had saved two survivors off a capsized catamaran in mid-February in 45-foot breaking seas east of Bermuda. This time it was after dawn, and as he sat in the chopper door he saw similar huge sets of waves foaming across the Atlantic. “I could tell the waves looked difficult,” he says. “They were pretty danged big, maybe 30, 40 feet.”

Ackerman rode the cable down to the water as Molthen watched from above. “It was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen,” says the pilot. “It’s pretty tough swimming out there in the Atlantic in those waves. It took him a couple of seconds to swim that 40 50 feet [to the boat]. He grabbed the back of the boat and just pulled himself up into it. I was impressed by that. Almost like Spiderman.”

Within minutes the Dixon family was aboard the helicopter for a short flight to land, where they were pronounced in good health. Even as this rescue was flawlessly unfolding, the C-130 that was searching for the Lou Pantai spotted flares fired by the yacht’s crew — DeLutz, 56, the American; Rudy Snel, 56, the Canadian; and Ben Tye, 31, from Great Britain — who were clinging to a life raft with no canopy in 50-foot seas. At 7:11 a.m. the aircraft began circling. In Elizabeth city, a helicopter crew was summoned, getting into the air a half-hour later.

It had been more than two hours since the last EPIRB signal had been received from Flying Colours, so the Coast Guard issued its first Urgent Marine Information Broadcast, asking anyone at sea to keep a lookout and report any sightings. Almost simultaneously, at about 9:30 a.m., a helicopter commanded by Lt. Nevada Smith and flying in sustained 70-knot winds reached the Lou Pantai, and a C-130 crossed the Gulf Stream and arrived at Flying Colours’ last known location, where it conducted a fruitless visual search and dropped a marker buoy into the sea to begin plotting the speed and direction of the yacht’s likely drift. Seas there were 35 feet and winds 45 knots, the aircraft crew reported.

When rescue swimmer Drew Dazzo reached the life raft with the three Lou Pantai sailors, he found that one was suffering from broken ribs. He put that man in the basket first. It was 9:30 a.m., more than 200 miles out to sea. By the time the final sailor was aboard the chopper, another HH-60 was being launched from ElizabethCity. Pilot Lt. Scott Walden flew the chopper southeast, fighting the wind and rain, but turned back to the coast to refuel when he got a report that the C-130 hadn’t found Flying Colours. He would wait on land several hours before getting new orders.

Leitch, who couldn’t be reached for this story, told that he had been delivering Illusion from the Bahamas to Newport when the crew encountered winds gusting to 50 knots off North Carolina. He said he turned to run with the wind in 20-foot following seas, trying to get away from the coast. About 40 miles southeast of CapeHatteras, he furled the sails, planning to motor through the increasingly violent winds. But the engine failed, as did the boat’s generator, he later told the new owners, Gerald Rosen and his wife, Barbara Widett, of Massachusetts. They had bought the 14-year-old yacht six days before the storm.

Illusion ran with the wind for the next 16 hours until, at 4 a.m. Monday, in unmanageable seas, the boat lost its steering. In 45- to 50-foot seas and sustained winds of 70 knots, gusting to more than 100 knots, the two anchors fell off the bow, one of them punching a hole in the aluminum hull. Illusion began taking on water, and Leitch feared the boat would sink. That’s when he triggered the EPIRB.

The conditions Illusion reported were within the range that forecasters and weather routers had predicted. “This did come up fairly quickly,” says router Parker. Through the previous Thursday, May 3, there was “little indication there was going to be a problem in that portion of the Atlantic,” he says. There had been a high-pressure ridge off the southeast coast. “What changed was that by Friday morning most of the forecasts picked up on an upper-level low … that was going to trigger a surface low. That was a pretty significant change in the forecast.”

Hilgenberg says that by Saturday, most of the world weather forecasting models agreed that trouble was ahead. He did his own analysis. “These gale- to storm- to hurricane-force winds were in all quadrants except the southeast quadrant, and that’s where I sent all the boats,” he says.

Chopper pilot Walden, waiting on land for orders, was sent out to Illusion at 1:30 Monday afternoon and arrived at the yacht about an hour later. He recorded seas of 30 to 40 feet — “rollers with occasional larger sets and an occasional breaker,” he says — and sustained winds of about 50 knots. “They had a little bit of sail exposed,” he says. “The sailboat was moving west [at] 5 to 6 knots, so we determined we were not going to be able to get the swimmer on board.”

So Leitch and his crew were instructed to put on their life jackets and, one at a time, jump into the sea, where the rescue swimmer would meet them. Leitch was the last into the helicopter. “They were all in good health, a little dehydrated,” Walden says. “They had had a rough night the night before.”

With Illusion’s crew headed to shore, where their yacht would eventually join them by grounding near Kure Beach, N.C., all thoughts turned to the crew of the still-missing Flying Colours, a boat that Newport Little Harbor broker John Perkins calls the “queen” of the Little Harbor fleet.

Patrick “Trey” Topping, 39, had talked with the yacht’s owner, J. Robinson West, before he left St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands on his way to Annapolis. “We have always encouraged the captain to do it at their own pace, use their own judgment,” says West, chairman and founder of PFC Energy in WashingtonD.C. He describes his skipper as a “very experienced” sailor. “He had sailed all over, was a very widely traveled guy, extraordinarily fit, a semiprofessional bicycle racer,” he says.

Topping and his first mate, Jason Franks, 34, were both licensed 100-ton captains, West says. Like the other crewmembers — Rhiannon Borisoff, 22, and Christine Grinavic, 26 — they were from the Newport sailing community, West says.

Topping was “safety first,” says John Petrini, owner of the Annapolis marina where Flying Colours had a permanent, exclusive berth. “Couldn’t find any better captain. … He’s a hands-on guy,” he says. “You could turn him loose in the shop, and he’d do anything. Craftsman, too.” And, he adds, “Trey was a really good guy.”

The Coast Guard searched for Flying Colours for six days, covering 282,000 square nautical miles. “Sadly, the threshold of survival seems negligible,” said Coast Guard Rear Admiral Larry Hereth when he halted the search.

“My sense is that something massive and catastrophic” happened, West says. “The effort made by the Coast Guard was Herculean.”