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Sailboat lost in storm off Nova Scotia

En route to Europe, the four person crew ran into the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto

En route to Europe, the four person crew ran into the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto

The Coast Guard in June found an EPIRB floating among debris about 200 nautical miles south of Halifax, Nova Scotia, but were unable to link it to the crew of a 41-foot sailboat that had sent a mayday from the same area.

“We found an EPIRB that was transmitting a signal, but this one was not registered, which means we have no information indicating that it belongs to the owner of the sailboat or to anyone else,” says Coast Guard Petty Officer Lauren Downs. “When we spoke with the family of the owner of the boat, they said they were unsure about the safety equipment on board, if there was any at all. They couldn’t find any paperwork for the boat and did not know the make or model.”

On June 11 Jacek Bielecki, the 56-year-old owner and skipper of the boat, which was named Free Spirit, and three passengers set sail from Newport, R.I., bound for Europe, according to the Coast Guard. All were believed lost in the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto. The passengers were Bielecki’s 19-year-old son, Jack; Richard White, 34, a friend from England; and Molly Finn, 21, from Newport. Bielecki, a former shipping lawyer, recently had moved to Newport from Suffolk, England, with his son.

Four days into the voyage and sailing toward Nova Scotia, Free Spirit ran into the strong remains of Alberto. The Coast Guard reported seas off Halifax that day were 23 to 30 feet, with winds gusting between 50 and 90 knots. Alberto had started as a tropical depression in the Caribbean June 8, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, and as it moved northwest into the Gulf of Mexico it strengthened to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds reaching 70 mph.

With Free Spirit apparently in distress, Bielecki used his satellite phone to contact his stepdaughter in the United States, according to the Coast Guard. The stepdaughter, Kirsty Scott (identified as Kirsty McKeney in some news reports), called 911 and was transferred to the Coast Guard to report the emergency. No further contact could be established with Bielecki and Free Spirit.

“One thing they did right was to give their exact GPS coordinates to the stepdaughter,” Downs says. “That information is always helpful.”

U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard officials launched a search with helicopters, Falcon jets, cutters and other vessels, covering about 15,000 square miles. On June 16 searchers discovered a debris field in the vicinity of Free Spirit’s last known position. Items found included the EPIRB, a wooden door, bleach bottle, milk carton and gasoline can. Authorities couldn’t determine if the items were from Free Spirit or another vessel.

“We can only link items to the Free Spirit if they were specific to that vessel or had the name of the boat on them,” Downs says. “Because of the bad weather, the debris we found could have come from anywhere. It’s hard to say.”

The Coast Guard suspended the search June 18, assuming the Free Spirit crew hadn’t survived. “Suspending a search is one of the hardest decisions a district commander has to make,” says David Pekoske, commander of Coast Guard’s 1st District, in a news release. “I understand how difficult it is for family and friends to move forward when a search is suspended without the hoped-for outcome.”

As it turns out, a Coast Guard crew that had been searching for Free Spirit June 16 rescued the crew of the Canadian sailboat Dad’s Dream. Caught in the same system as Free Spirit, the 43-footer had a broken mast and was taking on water 115 miles south of Halifax. The three passengers were hoisted to a Coast Guard helicopter and transported to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. A Maine Maritime Academy training ship found Dad’s Dream and towed her to Portland, Maine.

Matt Gineo, manager of Oldport Marine in Newport, says Bielecki, his son and White came in several times last winter to purchase parts for Free Spirit. “They wanted to do the restoration themselves,” Gineo says. “It was my feeling that they didn’t have a real solid understanding of what they were doing, but it seemed to be a father/son bonding experience.”

Gineo says he is unaware of what Bielecki was doing to Free Spirit and has no knowledge of his sailing experience or of the condition of the boat. “[Bielecki] seemed to be a very nice, educated guy,” Gineo says. “He didn’t strike me as the type of person to take a risk, but who knows?

“I figured they’d launch the boat and sail it in Narragansett Bay all summer,” he continues. “If I had known they were planning to sail the boat across an ocean I probably would have said, ‘Hey, maybe you should have someone competent look at this boat before you go.’ ”

Petty Officer Downs says there are lessons to be learned from the disappearance of Free Spirit. “Boaters should definitely register their EPIRBs,” she says.