Sailing on a shoestring to find riches

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Two men feared lost at sea turn up in South Carolina, blown off course in a storm that nearly killed them

Two men feared lost at sea turn up in South Carolina, blown off course in a storm that nearly killed them

Along with their dreams, the two Canadian sailors had plenty of provisions when they set sail from Norfolk, Va., headed for Charleston, S.C. They had many containers of Beefaroni, peanut butter, Pringles potato chips and a freshly bought loaf of bread on board — enough to last way past Charleston.

They had charts and electronics and some local knowledge that said they’d do better offshore than trying to plow through the Intracoastal Waterway with the 6-foot draft of their 1973 Columbia 30. And they had weather reports that, they thought, showed nothing but good sailing for the foreseeable future.

In the dream compartment, they carried a vision of riches. Their destination was Panama. They were modern-day conquistadors on a shoestring. There was money to be made in Panama, boat owner PaulShore and his mechanic friend Brock Argyle, both 51, believed. In Panama, the sailboat would be their home base and launching pad for the fortune that lay ahead.

Six days after their Dec. 2 departure, the Coast Guard began a three-day search for a sailboat thought to be named Pride and its two Canadian crewmen. When the search ended, family and friends in Canada got the bad news: Argyle and Shore were presumed lost at sea.

They weren’t lost at all, but they had taken a significant detour thanks to a gale that struck their first night at sea. The boat, which bore no name on its hull but which Shore had renamed Oceanus II, was in tatters after passing through storm-force winds and huge seas. And by the time the Coast Guard called off its search, the men were well on their way back to shore after finding themselves 300 miles east of Savannah, Ga.

By that time, Oceanus II had no working radio and only a rudimentary hand-held GPS. Argyle and Shore hadn’t heard the Coast Guard pan-pan calls asking mariners to be on the lookout for the sailboat Pride. And it was a day after they finally made landfall in Georgetown, S.C., that the sailors learned of the search.

The two Canadians certainly could have died out on the Atlantic, and they came ashore with a load of lessons for anyone contemplating an offshore voyage.

***

“I’d been to Panama four times in the last year,” says Argyle. “It is a very growing opportunity area. We made a decision to go down and see if we can get involved in the economy down there.” They hope to make their fortune in the country’s fledgling tourism, hospitality and marine industries.

Shore and Argyle, who had sailed together on Lake Erie for five years on a Luger 26 (extended to 30 feet), decided to combine their talents with those of Argyle’s “partner” Catherine De Jager. Shore has worked in the hospitality business, where he met De Jager, who worked in a restaurant. Raised in a boating family, Argyle is a mechanic who had made money buying boats in Florida and selling them in Canada.

Shore says he found the Columbia 30, then called Pride of New Jersey, in Sayerville, N.J., last summer. The engine was seized, but the boat otherwise was in good condition. It had two mainsails, a half-dozen headsails and a spinnaker.

About two months after they bought the boat and fixed the engine, Shore and Argyle began their journey. But the engine quit off Barnegat Inlet, N.J. They sailed ashore, diagnosed the problem and then — after Shore had towed the boat back out to sea with the 11-foot inflatable with an 85-hp outboard — Argyle sailed alone to Lewes, Del., where he hauled the boat and began looking for a replacement Atomic 4 engine.

With the new engine installed in late November and one of the mainsails in a shop for repairs, the men were ready to resume their quest. They told family and friends they expected to be in Charleston in seven days. Sailing and motoring overnight, they arrived in Norfolk on the afternoon of Dec. 1, ran out of gas and, at sunset, sailed up to a fuel dock, content the engine had passed its shakedown test.

“We had talked to a number of people,” says Argyle. “The wind was supposed to change from west to south. I asked locals, and nobody put up any alarms. Quite a few people said with a 6-foot draft, we should probably hire a tow boat to go with us [in the ICW.]”

Shore says they listened to NOAA weather forecasts before deciding to head offshore. “The inland weather for that day was actually worse than what the ocean weather was,” he says. After eating breakfast ashore, they left the dock at about 10 a.m. Sunday morning, Dec. 2. They had a laptop on board with

e-mail, but they hadn’t contacted friends or family and hadn’t left a formal float plan.

***

The description of what happened over the following 11 days is based on interviews with Shore and Argyle, as well as a friend who eventually spoke with the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard member who talked with the friend.

Sailing past the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Argyle and Shore found perfect sailing weather. They were greeted by lots of other boats and proceeded to settle in for a “nice, lazy sail.” They set a course to avoid Cape Hatteras, N.C., to the south, and Shore took the wheel. Argyle, the more experienced sailor, took over steering after Shore allowed the boat to broach a couple of times.

Early in the evening, the sailors began hearing a new forecast on NOAA radio. As Shore understood the broadcasts, there were going to be gale-force winds on Chesapeake Bay. He was relieved that the Bay was behind them. Argyle remembers hearing forecasts for gale-force winds from the west four or five hours after they had left the Chesapeake. “Well, it’s going to blow us out to sea,” he told Shore. “There’s nothing to the east we can hit.” Argyle felt there was no point in trying to beat back into the wind, since they were already well offshore.

As evening closed its curtain over the Atlantic, the winds arrived, strong but not yet gale force. On the radio, the men heard a Navy aircraft carrier warning vessels in its area that its aircraft were practicing “touch-and-go” maneuvers. They wouldn’t be doing that in 50-knot winds, Argyle says.

But by 11 o’clock Sunday night, conditions had deteriorated, and the boat was in a driving storm. “It was the ride of a lifetime,” Shore remembers. “It was better than any Disney ride I was on with my kids.”

However, a two-week-old $500 chart plotter had stopped working, leaving the men to navigate with their old hand-held GPS. There was no autopilot, and in the building seas, Argyle was tethered to the boat and stuck at the helm. Shore became the errand boy, taking orders from his friend. His duties included working with the paper charts down in the cabin.

At one point when he was in the cockpit, Shore looked up to the masthead. It was the last time he would do that for the next couple days. The mast on the Columbia measures 37 feet, with 2 feet of antennae above that. The crest of the wave was even higher. Averting his eyes, he decided he didn’t want to see that again.

Argyle steered to keep the rising wind on the boat’s starboard quarter, luffing the sails to spill out wind. Despite the storm’s fury, he felt the ride was relatively comfortable. Nor were the men cold, despite an air temperature in the 40s. They both wore foul weather gear over warm clothing, and atop the rain suits, each wore a life jacket for insulation and another jacket.

If relatively comfortable by Argyle’s standards, the ride wasn’t always smooth. Both men spent several hours seasick, unaccustomed to the motion. Occasionally the boat would be slammed by the waves, and the following seas from time to time dumped 6 inches of 70-degree water in the cockpit.

Down below, the Columbia is arranged so that the backs of the settees can swing up to horizontal, creating two extra berths. Shore was using the one on the starboard side as a chart table and had a paper chart spread out there when, in 50- to 60-knot winds, a violent set of waves attacked. Shore went airborne, flying across the cabin, his right side smashing into the raised port settee back, which broke off its hinges. He fell to the cabin sole with two broken ribs. They sailed through the night on the same tack, Shore struggling to breathe through the pain and seasickness, trying to help his friend who was confined to the helm.

Monday’s daylight brought some moderation to the seas, but the going remained rough. By late-afternoon Shore retreated to the cabin, lying on the starboard berth and pulling the hinged upper berth that he’d been using as a chart table down to wedge himself in place. It would be more than two days before he returned to the cockpit.

At the wheel Monday afternoon, Argyle steered straight up the back of the wave he was overtaking and then veered to starboard, again and again, trying not to let the bow slam into the back of the next wave. He didn’t take note of the size of the seas; there was too much else to do. As night came, he struggled to stay awake, dozing when the need overpowered him.

When daylight appeared Tuesday morning, the topping lift that runs from the masthead to the aft end of the boom had come loose, and the long cable was whipping about with the motion of the boat, lashing the leech of the mainsail and beginning to shred it. Alone on the helm, Argyle made no repairs.

***

Wednesday morning, Dec. 5, Argyle began to worry about Shore, who remained hunkered in his berth. He decided it was time to try to get back to shore for medical assistance. The wind had shifted to the south, and he thought he could shoot for an inlet below CapeHatteras. By his calculations, they were about 300 to 350 miles east, but on the same latitude as that cut. He turned west into what was left of the storm waves.

In one full day of sailing, however, the boat made little progress, losing whatever mileage Argyle had gained when he passed out in the cockpit and the boat drifted. At one point, he tried to drop the sails, but the shredded main was tangled in the spreaders and wouldn’t come all the way down. He slid the foot of the sail forward, reefing it as best he could against the mast. He dropped an anchor overboard and fell asleep. The sun awakened him the next morning. The wind was definitely down, but he realized with a quick reading of the little GPS that he was back where he had started the day before.

Making a calculation, Argyle figured he could run the engine for 16 to 17 hours. He started the Atomic 4 and let it run until the fuel tank was empty. But now a new problem surfaced: There was water splashing in the bilge. He started the electric bilge pump.

But he hadn’t turned off the ignition switch. When he next tried to run the engine — they had additional fuel in a jerry can — there wasn’t enough juice in the battery to get it started.

It was Thursday. The food was holding out, Shore was still in the cabin, and with no engine it was time to sail again. Argyle set the jib, then raised the main as far as he could and reefed it so it provided some lift. Still 300 miles offshore, he decided to sail southwest in the warm, beautiful day. The wind returned with some strength, and the boat began making 5 or 6 knots. He turned on the VHF radio, and from 7 a.m. until 11 a.m. he made mayday calls.

The day got even better when Shore stirred from his berth and had his first food in three days. With some help in the cockpit, Argyle was able to inspect the boat for the first time since the storm. He found that the turnbuckle on the port upper shroud, which supports the mast top from that side, had worked loose. Most of the wires of the starboard upper shroud had broken. Only three or four of the original 19 strands were intact.

Argyle settled into a “get-to-the-next-day mode” and began scanning the horizon to see if anyone was responding to his maydays. Only later would he learn that the radio had stopped working.

Friday was the day for repairs: jury-rigging shrouds, bailing seawater from the bilge, inflating a life raft inside the cabin as a place to keep perishables dry and as a bunk for Shore, who now manned the helm as Argyle fixed things. At one point Shore called out, “Look at that! Am I seeing something?” To the north, Argyle saw the same thing, a roll-on/roll-off container ship, white with a light blue panel but no other markings. It was to the north of them but sailing south.

Argyle fired a single flare. The freighter was close but didn’t change speed, so he fired a parachute flare. Now, Argyle recalls, the ship slowed as it passed abaft the sailboat. The only ship they had seen since entering the storm gathered speed and continued to the south.

Friday also marked seven days since the men had left Delaware. It was the day friends and family ashore expected a phone call or e-mail. There were neither. There was only enough electricity to run the hand-held GPS, and that was a help because it meant they could navigate. With two sets of hands to steer, they now hoped to make daily progress toward shore.

Argyle was certain that Savannah was almost due west. The friends began counting down degrees, a ritual that only emphasized the slowness of their progress. Repairs to the boat allowed them to raise the mainsail all the way. They hoisted a drifter in place of the jib and boosted their speed from 3 or 4 knots to 5 or 6 knots.

***

Ashore, Andy Strelive, a sailor who has known Argyle for 15 years, had been getting phone calls from a worried Catherine De Jager for days when, on Saturday, Dec. 8, he became concerned. He knew Argyle and Shore had set out from Lewes, so at 4 p.m. that afternoon he called a Coast Guard station there to get the name of the local marina. The Coast Guard member with whom he spoke told him that on the weekend Shore and Argyle left, four boaters were lost on two boats in the same storm.

Operations Specialist Second Class Faith Wisinski was next to speak with Strelive. “After finding they were more likely to take the ocean side rather than the ICW, we looked at the weather for the past week,” Wisinski says. “There was a pretty bad storm that had gone through. Looking at that, that’s when we decided a search needed to be done.”

First, the Coast Guard issued the pan-pan and began calling Shore’s and Argyle’s cell phones. They called marinas and bridge tenders along the coast. Getting no information, the Coast Guard initiated a search Sunday morning. Helicopters and C-130 aircraft searched from Lewes to Florida. After more than two days of fruitless searching, no trace of the boat believed to be named Pride was found. The effort was suspended on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 11. The Coast Guard called family members in Canada, letting them know that Shore and Argyle were presumed lost, according to the men.

Meanwhile, the sailboat had drawn within a couple of hundred miles of shore, even as the search aircraft returned to their bases. Argyle and Shore were still steering for Savannah when they entered the Gulf Stream and realized they were being carried north. So they adjusted their goal, aiming now for Charleston.

As Thursday dawned, they were north of that target but realized that Georgetown would suit their needs. They emptied their food locker that morning and consumed their last meal: peanut butter between two Pringles. In the distance, they spotted the first signs of land — two smokestacks — and later, with the coast very much in view, they hailed a small boat with three anglers aboard. The fishermen called a tow company, and that afternoon, Dec. 13, Shore and Argyle were tied to a dock in Georgetown.

After returning to Canada to comfort their worried relatives, Shore and Argyle made improvements to Oceanus II, intent on continuing their voyage. They arranged for a “GPS locator device that is monitored 24/7,” Shore says, adding that he will never buy another product from the company that made the chart plotter that failed. He and Argyle also were adding a backup means to charge the boat’s batteries.

Shore told friends and family to wait at least two weeks past his anticipated arrival date before beginning to worry. “Other than that, I will stock the boat with lots of ravioli and Beefaroni, along with more Pringles,” he says.

They ditched the chart plotter but kept many good memories from their adventure. “One of the days, there was a whole group of whales heading south, which was nice,” says Shore. “And lots of dolphins or porpoises. I don’t know the difference. One day, Brock saw a bluefin jump out of the water,” he says. Shore also recalls “probably the most amazing sunsets and sunrises you could see. The nights were clear. The stars were unbelievable.”

In March, Shore and a friend set sail from Charleston, aiming for Fort Lauderdale and, later, Panama. But two days out, a piece of the rigging failed, and the trip was stopped short in Savannah, Ga.

A month later, Argyle and De Jager were engaged and already in Panama, where Argyle had taken a job as a marine mechanic. Shore was back in Canada, working to save money. He had sold Oceanus II to a friend in Charleston. He still planned to join his friends in Panama, but not with his boat.

“I don’t think my poor baby wanted to go any farther,” Shore says.