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Solo sailor lost in clear, calm weather

Southbound cruiser fell off his Formosa 41 ketch without a life jacket while entering a N.J. inlet

The seeds of Clinton Vanorsdell’s drowning in the Atlantic within sight of safe harbor this fall were planted decades ago, when he first began sailing.

Vanorsdell was making his first passage to the islands for the winter.

“He was a sailor’s sailor,” recalls his sailing friend, Glenn Myette. That means, according to Myette, that Vanorsdell never wore a life jacket and never clipped on to his Formosa 41 ketch, Second Wind.

On the evening of Monday, Oct. 6, after a long day of sailing south along the New Jersey coast, Vanorsdell lowered his sails off Barnegat Inlet, his destination for the day. His body was found the following afternoon floating about four miles to the east in the Atlantic. New Jersey State Police, who with the Coast Guard searched for the Hanover, Mass., sailor, say he apparently slipped, fell overboard and drowned. It was an abrupt end to a longtime fantasy for the 61-year-old Vanorsdell, who friends say was heading south for the first time for a footloose winter in the islands.

“Clint was very much a free spirit,” says Lisa Cadigan, who had been dating Vanorsdell. “He lived life on his own terms.”

Vanorsdell knew there were dangers inherent in sailing single-handed for a long distance, says Cadigan, but he was a “very accomplished sailor” who most years spent six weeks cruising New England, often alone. “Of course, I was a little bit concerned,” she says. “But I talked with him so often, and he was so happy doing what he was doing.”

Cadigan had seen Vanorsdell’s sailing world up close. Last summer, she joined him in Rockland, Maine, and they sailed together for two weeks, she says. “We went everywhere,” stopping in Northeast Harbor and Bar Harbor. “Sometimes we would just anchor in a nice cove.”

Vanorsdell was described as a sailor's sailor.

Once at anchor, Vanorsdell “always wanted to work on the boat,” says Cadigan, who met him at a gym in Hanover, Mass., where he worked as a personal trainer and led group classes on stationary bicycles. Second Wind was an “older boat,” so there was always work to be done, she says.

Last winter, they had installed a wind generator, as well as a new propane range and oven, Cadigan says. A longtime vegetarian who friends say was recently divorced, Vanorsdell had not cooked for himself until Cadigan began showing him how. “He really took to cooking and really started cooking himself,” Cadigan says. Together, they prepared meals with eggs and cheeses and beans. “I had bought a vegetarian cookbook that was on board.”

Vanorsdell planned to leave his home port of Scituate, Mass., in early September, though it’s unclear when he actually got under way. There were three more sailors in Scituate planning to head south for the winter, and they had all shared their dreams. Myette, 60, also of Hanover, has an Island Packet 35 named Gandalf, which he sailed single-handed. He left Sept. 10. Ed Vachon, 58, and his wife, Kendra, 52, who had done a lot of racing on their Catalina 34 tall rig, Degage, left Scituate later in September.

Vanorsdell spent two weeks in Newport, R.I., where he visited the boat show, before heading west along Long Island Sound. He sailed about 20 miles a day. “He didn’t like to move if the conditions weren’t right,” Cadigan says. “Often he would end up staying on anchor longer than he initially planned. Part of that was to not have to use the additional gas and to be able to sail.”

The only schedule Vanorsdell had was his planned arrival in Annapolis, Md., during the second week of October for the U.S. Sailboat Show, says Cadigan. She planned to meet him there and then in Florida at Christmas.

Myette, the retired owner of a string of convenience stores, had an informal plan to meet Vanorsdell along the way and buddy-boat for safety. In late September, Myette caught up with his friend in Stamford, Conn. They then sailed to City Island, N.Y., about eight miles from Manhattan and the East River.

“He called me as he was sailing down the East River,” says Cadigan. “I could just hear [the excitement] in his voice. ‘My god, you should see what I’m seeing! This is just incredible!’ It was all new to him.” Later that day, when he sailed past the Statue of Liberty, he took a picture on his cell phone and sent it to everybody he knew, she recalls.

Vanorsdell and Myette stopped that night in Jersey City, with the skyline of Manhattan as a backdrop. They went ashore to do laundry, using two fold-up bicycles Vanorsdell had aboard Second Wind. On the way back to the boats, tied up at the marina in Liberty Park, Vanorsdell fell off his bike as he crossed railroad tracks. The mishap left him with a broken rib, and his recovery kept the friends in Liberty Park longer than anticipated.

Meanwhile, Ed and Kendra Vachon, who had left Scituate Sept. 29, were making good time on Long Island Sound, putting in long days in an attempt to join Vanorsdell and Myette. They had kept in touch with their close friend, Myette, by phone. “He’d called me to tell me that he tried to leave New London [Conn.] and got spanked and went back in,” Myette says. “So we were all in telephone communications.”

When they stopped in Port Jefferson, N.Y., one night, the Vachons called again and reached Myette in Sandy Hook, N.J. “They said they were hung up … to wait for a weather window to do the Jersey coast,” Ed Vachon says.

Vanorsdell and Myette had tucked into a small anchorage behind the tip of Sandy Hook. There were three other boats there, but they didn’t communicate with them. Vanorsdell was about four days into his recovery from his rib injury, Myette says. “He was not operating on all cylinders,” he says. “He couldn’t take a deep breath.”

To see Vanorsdell in less than top shape was unusual for his friends. He was “extremely physically fit,” says Cadigan, and “very health conscious, as well.” She describes him as “remarkably kind and compassionate and motivational.”

The next day, the Vachons made it to the Statue of Liberty, only 18 miles from Sandy Hook. Again, they called Myette and told him they would be in Sandy Hook the next morning, Monday, Oct. 6.

Later, Vanorsdell called them back. The following day promised good weather, and Vanorsdell told Vachon that he and Myette would have to make their move from Sandy Hook and couldn’t wait. Monday morning was a pleasant day. When they rounded the north end of Sandy Hook and bore south, the skippers of Second Wind and Gandalf found a moderate northerly breeze of about 10 knots, with swells lifting them from their port sides.

Cadigan talked with Vanorsdell several times that day as Second Wind moved down the coast. He told her he was sailing beside Myette and that they had talked with the Vachons. He said he was motoring more than he liked and that the wind was diminishing.

When Vanorsdell was seven or eight miles from Barnegat Inlet, he talked again with Cadigan. He had never before entered the inlet, but he described where he planned to anchor and when he expected to be secure for the night.

Meanwhile, the Vachons had caught the outgoing tide in New York and ridden it a long way. They had been pushing Degage all day in hopes of arriving at the Barnegat Light fuel dock by 5 p.m. When they called Myette, they discovered they were only 10 miles behind Second Wind and Gandalf.

“As the day went on, [the wind] started to thin out,” Vachon says. Later, with the other two boats now in sight, Vachon called Myette on the radio, and Vanorsdell called back. “You’re an animal,” he told Vachon. “I can’t believe you caught us.”

Now the three boats were just off Barnegat Inlet. Vachon turned in before Myette, who looked back and saw Vanorsdell lowering his sails. All of the sails on Vanorsdell’s Second Wind were hanked on, with no roller furling system. The headsail and main were down when Myette entered the inlet.

But looking back again, Myette saw Second Wind, with the mizzen still raised, sail past the end of the inlet. He took up his microphone and called Vanorsdell on the radio. There was no answer to his repeated calls, both on the radio and a cell phone.

A recreational angler nearby on a powerboat heard the calls and volunteered to check on Second Wind, Myette says. The angler found the engine running and the radio on, but no one on board.

Another call brought the Coast Guard in an inflatable. Boarding Second Wind, the crew also found no one aboard. The autopilot was on, and the main halyard was dragging in the water, Vachon says. Vanorsdell’s body was found the next day. He was not wearing a life jacket.

Reached as they sailed south on North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound, Vachon and Myette said the loss of their companion caused immediate changes in their sailing habits.

“It changed our whole theory of sailing,” says Vachon, the racer. “You sail so nonchalant, thinking everything’s so cool,” never bothering with jacklines, harnesses or life jackets. “But that all changed right there.”

Myette says he, too, never bothered with safety gear. “Until I got a wakeup call from [Vanorsdell’s loss.] In boating, whatever can happen will eventually happen,” he says. Now, he says, “I wear the life jacket whether I have to leave the cockpit or not.”

This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.