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Report: preparation a factor in tragedy

A New Hampshire man and his son were not properly prepared when they set off on an end-of-season sail from Maine to New Hampshire last October, according to the Coast Guard’s final report of the incident, which was released in February.

Stephen Woods, who was 55 and of Stratham, N.H., fell overboard from his 41-foot ketch, Niobe, in rough weather off Maine and drowned. His son and only crewmate, 20-year-old Asher Woods, spent five days aboard the boat, unable to sail it, before he was rescued 130 miles off Cape Cod. The Woods were attempting to deliver the sailboat from Rockland, Maine, to a boatyard in Rye, N.H., for winter haul out.

During interviews, Asher Woods told investigators neither he nor his father walked through the vessel or checked its electrical and mechanical condition; the fuel level was not checked; and the two never discussed the weather before getting under way. Woods stated that he and his father discussed on the drive to the boat whether they should sail all night or put into BoothbayHarbor, but no decision was made.

At no time during the voyage did the crew wear a PFD or use any of the safety harnesses and tethers on board, the son told investigators.

Stephen and Asher Woods left Rockland Harbor Boat Yard in Maine around noon Oct. 15 for a scheduled haul out in Rye on Oct. 17.

According to Art Lester, with the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, a small craft advisory was issued at about 7:30 a.m. Oct. 15, and a gale warning was posted until the following evening. At about 9 p.m., sustained winds near Portland, Maine, were about 23 knots, with gusts to 33 knots, Lester says. Seas were running about 7 feet.

The weather worsened as the day wore on and the men decided to put into BoothbayHarbor, the son told investigators. Stephen Woods was unable to start the engine — a 50-hp Beta/Kubota diesel installed the previous winter, according to the Rockland Harbor Boat Yard owner — and he told his son the rough weather had probably stirred up sediment in the tank that clogged the injectors.

Asher Woods told investigators his father decided to sail out to sea in order to avoid the rocky coast. Near 10 p.m., about 13 miles southeast of Boothbay, Stephen Woods was having trouble furling the first jib and crawled out on the bowsprit, his son said. At that time, the boat was broadsided by a wave and the elder Woods fell overboard backwards on the port side of the boat, still holding onto a line.

In the water Stephen Woods continued to hold onto the line, and his son said he managed to pull his father to the boat but could not haul him aboard. Woods told his son to bring the boat around, but Asher Woods, who said he had never been on board Niobe before that day and had not sailed in about two years, was not able to turn the boat. The son told investigators he released the dinghy, but soon lost sight of his father.

At the time Woods fell overboard, NOAA Gulf of Maine Observing System weather buoy Station 44032 (about 18 nautical miles from Niobe’s location) reported winds 31 knots gusting to 34 knots with 11-foot seas and a water temperature of 54.7 F.

Since he was unfamiliar with the electronics on board, Asher Woods said he tried calling 911 from his father’s cell phone, but the phone did not have service, the report says. He then tried using the fixed-mount VHF, but was unsure if it was functioning properly because he did not get any “feedback.” The following day, Asher Woods said he located a handheld VHF and again tried calling for help, but the batteries only lasted about a half-hour.

Niobe’s sails were left in tatters from the storm and Asher Woods was unable to start the engine, according to the report. The boat drifted for five days and Asher Woods apparently became depressed and even contemplated suicide, according to the report.

At about 10 a.m., Oct. 21, the crew of a Coast Guard Falcon Jet spotted Niobe about 130 miles off Provincetown, Mass. Asher Woods shot off a flare. The Coast Guard crew radioed a nearby fishing vessel about Niobe and said it would send a helicopter to the scene.

The crew of the 82-foot Amy Philbrick steamed eight miles to reach Niobe and found Asher Woods on board. He took a life ring that was thrown to him and was pulled aboard the fishing boat. A Coast Guard helicopter airlifted 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.

Stephen Woods had purchased the boat four years earlier for $17,500. The boat was built in the 1970s, and because of its age was not insured or surveyed.