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'Son, if you go out in that ocean, you're going to die'

Two months after a 36-foot 1970s-vintage sailboat was abandoned 550 miles off South Carolina, the ketch wound up on a beach on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

Running Free begins her 700-mile odyssey, as seen from the tanker that recsued Heldenbrand.

This note-in-a-bottle tale of a wayward boat aptly named Running Free, which drifted 700 miles from May 4 to July 6, made headlines in local newspapers, but the more interesting story is of the man who abandoned her. Bill Heldenbrand’s thirst for adventure, combined with his contrarian nature, led him far offshore, where the novice sailor found himself both surprised and overwhelmed by a storm.

The 67-year-old retiree bought the 1976 Pearson 365 — his first boat — at a DIY yard in Green Cove Springs, Fla., in December 2012 from a man who was abandoning a restoration project. “He had done a lot of work on it already,” says the RV-traveling free spirit who lists Florida, Missouri and Utah as home bases. Heldenbrand finished the job in five months using skills he acquired through the years as a handyman and the owner of a motorcycle repair shop and a rental property. (He raced motorcycles, too.)

He has a degree in science and engineering and, earlier in his life, designed fuel-cycle management systems for Babcock & Wilcox, which supplied components for the nuclear industry, he says. His passion is ultramarathon running, in which participants run incredible distances for times that range from 24 hours to seven successive days, depending on the race. “I know it sounds crazy, but there are a lot of people that do it,” Heldenbrand says. “Last year I was able to set the American record for my age group — 113.6 miles in 24 hours.”

After running many 24- and 48-hour marathons, Heldenbrand had his sights set on his first six-day marathon — the British Ultra Fest, beginning Aug. 11 in London. “Whoever can go the farthest in six days around a 400-meter track wins,” he says.

At 67, he knows his ultramarathon days are numbered. “So I had to have a passion in reserve for when I get too old to run,” he says. “Sailing seemed like a good choice.” He also chose to sail across the Atlantic for the London race. “I thought it would be more fun to sail over there than fly in a plane. I suppose I bit off too much.”

Heldenbrand’s circle of family and friends told him the voyage was a “bold move, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time,” he says.

‘You’re going to die’

As he prepped for the solo trans-Atlantic passage, with a stopover in Bermuda, he says he found plenty of naysayers. “The old-time sailors at the boatyard said, ‘Son, if you go out in that ocean you’re going to die,’ ” he recalls. “So after somebody tells me that I have to go out and try. Maybe that’s not a good philosophy, but my tendency is to doubt conventional wisdom. I don’t know why that is.”

Given what happened, perhaps he should have listened. Heldenbrand set off from Green Cove Springs on May 4 with ample provisions, a GPS/chart plotter, an AIS receiver, a fixed-mount VHF, a CPT autopilot and flares. He carried no EPIRB and had no means of getting weather reports other than by radioing passing vessels. “I left Florida with six days of forecasts, and the weather was good for those six days,” he says. “After that, it was unknown.”

He got off to a fine start. “One day, hundreds of dolphins were playing in my wake, and at night it would get so dark, and the stars were so bright. … I was just enjoying it,” he says.

Seven days in, storm clouds came up, and conditions started to worsen. “It just kind of crept up, early afternoon. I thought it would pass, but I looked at my barometer, and it was falling,” Heldenbrand says. “By midnight it was a lot worse, and the barometer was still falling.”

Winds rose and the seas built. Exhausted, he hove-to and went below to get some sleep and ride out the storm. When he awoke the following morning, the storm was worse, with what he estimates were 20-foot breaking waves and winds of more than 40 knots, although he had no wind gauge. “I’m out there in the ocean bobbing up and down, and my jib is flailing itself to pieces,” he says.

Heldenbrand says he wasn’t frightened and didn’t believe he was in danger at the time. As fate, or luck, would have it, his AIS receiver alerted him to a nearby ship. He radioed the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker, Overseas Sifnos, to request a weather update. “They told me that the system was 300 miles in diameter and was going to last for several days,” he says. “They said it was going to get worse and asked me if I wanted assistance. I asked, ‘How are you going to help me?’ They said, ‘We’ll rescue you.’ I hadn’t thought about that.”

Heldenbrand (center) made fast friends with his rescuers.

Heldenbrand says he had to think fast because the 600-foot tanker was steaming north at 10-plus knots and would quickly be out of his 5-mile radio range. “I thought about the value of the boat and thought about the opportunity to live a little longer, so I took their offer,” he says. “It’s a funny thing when you’re in a situation like that. You make rational choices, and fear doesn’t enter into it. I made a choice, and that was it.”

He grabbed his wallet, passport and cellphone, donned a life jacket and waited for the ship to maneuver to his weather side to block the wind and seas. The all-Filipino crew lowered a rope ladder, and Heldenbrand climbed aboard and watched Running Free disappear from view. He figured he’d never see her again. All of his belongings were on the boat because he had planned to stay in Europe for about a year. The boat was uninsured. “It would take a stupid insurance company to insure me,” he says. “They’re smarter than that.”

During the six-day passage to Quebec City, Quebec, Heldenbrand says the crew treated him like royalty. He dined with the captain and received a personal tour of the ship. He worked out daily in the gym. “I had a ball on that tanker. I had a great adventure and made a lot of friends,” he says. “I try to make the best of every situation.”

Meanwhile, in New England

Heldenbrand returned to life ashore and was preparing for a 24-hour race in Georgia when he got a call from a friend who told him Running Free had washed up on Martha’s Vineyard. He ran the race the next day, then hopped into his RV and headed north.

He hired a TowBoatUS crew in Falmouth, Mass., to get his boat off Norton Point Beach. It’s a tricky spot for salvage because the water depth is only 6 to 7 feet at high tide for about 800 feet offshore, says Mark Brown, of TowBoatUS Falmouth.

This 36-foot Pearson washed up on a beach on Martha's Vineyard two months after the owner abandoned it at sea.

The first attempt, July 7, was unsuccessful, as was a second attempt a day later, which damaged the towboat. “The seas were too rough, and we ripped the tow bit out of the deck,” Brown says of his 30-foot aluminum RIB powered by twin Honda 225-hp outboards.

A third attempt, July 12, got the boat off the beach, but by then looters had stripped Running Free of anything of value — electronics, anchors and most of what was on board. “They left some T-shirts and underwear and socks,” Heldenbrand says.

He had hoped to get the boat back so he could restore it. “When I got out there and saw it was stripped, that was the tipping point, and I’m just looking at salvage,” Heldenbrand says. He won’t say how much he paid for the boat or how much he put into it. “I’m losing money, I’ll say that, but that’s just the way it is.”

In the end, he gave Running Free to the salvor, Tucker Roy Marine Towing & Salvage. “I was just trying to make the best of a bad situation,” he says.

A lot of things seem obvious, in retrospect, he says. “If I had to do it again, I would have scuttled the boat before I got off of it, but I had other stuff on my mind 550 miles offshore,” he says. “I never will know how it would have turned out otherwise. I know now, but didn’t know then, that the boat would have kept floating.”

He says he’s not giving up sailing, but he’s putting it aside for now to focus on the big race in London and others to follow. “I’m real happy to just focus on something and work toward it,” he says. “I always try to look to the future and not the past.”

Heldenbrand says if he ever did venture offshore again, “there might be some fear there, since what I’ve been through.” And he would sail with at least one other crewmember, and carry an EPIRB and some means of receiving weather forecasts.

Asked why he thought he could across the Atlantic with little sailing experience and limited technology, Heldenbrand is sincere in his answer. “I’d read too many books, I guess. I just figured if Joshua Slocum could do it with what he had that maybe I could, too.”

September 2013 issue