Skip to main content

Storm Season

A spate of storms churned up the Atlantic this fall, putting cruisers and commercial mariners in peril.

A spate of storms churned up the Atlantic this fall, putting cruisers and commercial mariners in peril. These are the stories of the sailors who fought for their survival, the meteorology behind the storms, and a marine pilot who had a job to do

Greg Nelsen, an accomplished West Coast single-hander, had arrived in Georgetown, Maine, the last Wednesday in October prepared to deliver Ocean Planet, an Open 60 racing sailboat, to Charleston, S.C.

Read the other stories in this package: Storm Season - 50-Knot gusts   Storm Season - Jet Stream

Nelsen had more than one problem to overcome. First, when he reached the dock on the Sheepscott River, the boat had no mainsail. He rented a PT Cruiser and drove 40 miles to fetch the huge sail from a storage bin. Then when crewman Keith Rarick tried to start the engine, it overheated and then died. But these were the least of Nelsen’s problems.

More critical was an autumn storm developing around Florida. The forecast was for 60-knot winds offshore on Saturday. While Ocean Planet, on which Bruce Schwab has circumnavigated twice, can do 25 knots or more and has sailed the treacherous Southern Ocean, this was a delivery, not a race, and it would conservatively take Nelsen a day and a half to reach safe haven in New York City. With each hour, the weather window was closing.

Nelsen and Rarick set to work. They mounted the main. They fiddled with the engine. They consulted a mechanic. By late Thursday afternoon they had the problem solved, and Nelsen ordered his crew of three into foulies. Ocean Planet motored across the ripples of Robinhood Cove toward the ocean. Then smoke began billowing from the cabin, and Nelsen turned sharply back to the dock. While in the next 24 hours the engine problems would finally be resolved, Nelsen, displaying great seamanship, called off the voyage. That same day, Coast Guard jets flew out over the Atlantic, delivering radio weather warnings to vessels that might not otherwise receive them. Over the next four days, a true ocean storm blew up the coast — furious but, in the end, claiming no victims.

This was only a prelude, however. In the following month, several sailing vessels would be lost at sea, as gales grew into an unanticipated storm whose winds reached near-hurricane force; seasoned crews battled for their lives. Before it was over, only the courageous efforts of Coast Guard rescue units and the crews of some commercial ships seemed to stand in the way of November joining the annals of legendary lethal months at sea.

Saturday, Nov. 4

Magique, a C&C 44-foot sloop that had begun its voyage in New Brunswick, headed out from Newport, R.I., at 8 a.m., finding good winds and with a great forecast for its trip to the British Virgin Islands by way of Bermuda. On board with skipper Brian D. Cullinan, 56, were three friends, all in their 50s and all experienced ocean sailors. Cullinan had on board a single sideband radio, ham radio, satellite phone and a VHF radio. He could use the phone to load weather information on his computer. He also had checked with weather router Herb Hilgenberg in Burlington, Ontario, as well as NOAA’s National Weather Service, before leaving. On the first day out, winds were 12 to 14 knots, and Magique was on a spinnaker run, making good time. At 3 o’clock that afternoon, Cullinan checked in by radio with Hilgenberg. The weather looked fine.

Sunday, Nov. 5

Brian Lewis, 66, his wife, daughter and a friend left Shelburne, Nova Scotia, in the morning, having waited for the first good weather in November. The insurance policy on Rochelle IV, an Ericson 46, wouldn’t cover a passage south before Nov. 1, and the Lewis family — Sheila is 66; Katrina is 40 and a professional sailor — was heading south, to Bermuda and beyond. This was a trip the family and their guest, David Syer, 66, had made before. They, too, had sought Hilgenberg’s help with a weather forecast, and it seemed perfect. Like the crew of Magique several hundred miles to the south, they had no wind on this day and were motoring toward the Gulf Stream.

Much farther south, the 45-foot Ta Shing cat-ketch Carpe Diem had headed out of Chesapeake Bay, also aiming for Bermuda, and later St. Maarten. On board were owner Larry Manieri, 57, and two other men. Manieri, CEO of a software company headquartered in Nevada, is a Philadelphia native and had kept the boat on the Chesapeake for the summer. Having learned sailing on San Francisco Bay, he was unimpressed with the Bay and was eager to sail on the ocean.

His friend Al Menzl, 59, is a retired airline pilot and rock climber. Josh Walker, 32, a snowboarder from British Columbia, joined Carpe Diem as the third crew member. Menzl, a Nevadan, and Walker both had helmets, so Manieri brought one along, too. They didn’t need them as they motored down the Chesapeake, reaching the Atlantic about 10 a.m. Sunday.

Monday, Nov. 6

Carpe Diem now was sailing due east. The sailing was ideal. They knew a weather system was approaching from the south, but they believed they would be well to its east when it reached their latitude.

Rochelle IV, still motoring and several hundred miles northeast of Carpe Diem, crossed the Gulf Stream — about 80 miles across and flat calm. There was no hint of bad weather south of the stream. The forecast for Wednesday and Thursday was for 20 to 25 knots of wind, well within the yacht’s ability, and the crew expected a good sail to Bermuda.

That night, Magique’s crew saw some debris on their radar. It was not a ship — too small. It could have been a container. Cullinan and crewmember Pat Heeney, 56, went below while Bob Barnes, 59, and Dave Lyon, 59, stood watch in the cockpit.

Aboard Carpe Diem, Manieri had an XM satellite weather system and a satellite phone to augment his VHFs, both mounted and hand-held. As they steered east, the crew was content. If things continued like this, they thought they might bypass Bermuda, turn right and go directly to St. Maarten.

Tuesday, Nov. 7

It was early morning when, in their bunks aboard Magique, Cullinan and Heeney heard a bump. Concerned, they went up to the cockpit only to find that Lyon and Barnes had heard nothing. So the four men checked all around the boat but found nothing wrong. Later that morning, they crossed a flat calm Gulf Stream. Then at 3 p.m., they checked in with Hilgenberg. “He told us there were two fronts forming in Alabama, and we still could make Bermuda nicely,” Cullinan recalls. “We pushed forward. He told people who weren’t to the Gulf Stream to go back.”

Indeed, Hilgenberg was concerned about the developing weather system. “The system was very slow in developing,” he says. “We had a trough lying sort of across northern Florida and running along the Carolina coastline all the way to the Chesapeake, and that was associated with a deep jet stream. The computer models generally indicated low pressure systems would be forming along that trough and moving in a northeast direction across the Atlantic.”

Hilgenberg at the time was in contact with about 50 yachts, half of them in the area between the States and Bermuda. He says the lows “just formed and stayed there and gradually deepened.”

“On the 7th of November, it became apparent that we were going to get a deeper low forming just about Jacksonville,” he says. “I mentioned something to the boats — something is going to develop. The only way you can make Bermuda is head as far south as you can … so you can make more easterly toward Bermuda.”

Aboard Carpe Diem, the three men were unaware of Hilgenberg’s warnings, but they could make their own on-the-spot weather observations. By midafternoon Monday, the crew had seen the weather deteriorate. First, there were thunderheads, and the yacht zigged and zagged to avoid them. Just before sunset, the crew double-reefed both sails on the cat-ketch, each normally the size of a mainsail. The night watches began with minimal sail raised and Carpe Diem proceeding east.

Much farther to the north and east, Rochelle IV was still motoring, without a breath of wind.

Wednesday, Nov. 8

By 4 a.m., Carpe Diem was sailing in sustained 30-knot winds with gusts to 45 knots. No one was getting any sleep, so, in the dark and having never before deployed a sea anchor in earnest, Manieri and crew began setting a 12-foot parachute off the bow on 3/4-inch rode. “There is a big, big difference between practicing something and actually doing it in big waves,” Manieri says. And these waves were coming in sets 20 feet high, with steep faces.

At 4:30 a.m., Menzl and Walker went below and Manieri took the watch until about 9 o’clock, when the others appeared on deck. An hour later, the sea anchor rode parted, and the crew of Carpe Diem decided to lie ahull.

“As the day went on, we decided we’d turn the engine on and motor into this stuff,” Manieri says. He estimates the seas had increased to 25 to 30 feet. “And they were breaking like crazy,” he says, roaring surf on the open ocean. By 12:30 p.m., the winds were sustained at 40 to 45 knots, with gusts to 50 knots. Manieri was below, making a routine check of the yacht’s long, deep bilge, when he heard Menzl shout, “Big wave!”

“I felt us falling. I couldn’t believe it at first,” Manieri says. “The next thing I knew I was on the floor with a big headache.”

Carpe Diem had punched its way under power up the steep face of a wave. When it reached the crest, the wave broke beneath the boat, leaving it virtually suspended in air. The cat-ketch then plummeted bow first through the air over the back of the wave and slammed into the trough.

Gathering himself, Manieri went on deck. The two wishbone booms were flailing, and one had struck Menzl in the head. The helmet had saved him. Manieri saw that the topping lifts had snapped from the booms, which lurched uncontrollably. All of the masthead electronics, including communications antennae, had snapped off, leaving the crew without the VHF radio or the wind instruments, which most recently had recorded 55 knots.

Manieri went below again and found water flooding aft from the forward cabin. The boat’s three electric bilge pumps were on, but the bilge was filling. He guessed the water was coming from the area of the bow thruster. But when he tried to work his way through the inflatable dinghy and all the other gear stored forward, he saw that in the violent thrashing of the boat he could break some bones, so he retreated.

Outside, the wind was howling; darkness was approaching. They could hold off and try to make it through the night. But would another crashing wave sink Carpe Diem, or would the thrashing seriously injure someone? Manieri made a decision: Call the Coast Guard. He picked up the satellite phone.

On board Rochelle IV, with the winds south and east of the Gulf Stream having built to 25 to 30 knots, Brian Lewis, retired from a career in mining, had decided to heave-to. The Ericson 46 rode comfortably.

Closer to Bermuda, Magique was beating into a southerly wind, and Barnes was alone on watch in the cockpit when he called below to ask if something was wrong with the steering. He had the wheel hard over and nothing was happening.

Cullinan searched inside the yacht for an explanation and then went on deck. When he put a mirror over the transom, he saw that where once there had been a rudder there now was but a post. But with the sails balanced, Magique sailed smoothly forward toward Bermuda, less than 150 miles away, with a jib and triple-reefed mainsail.

Then the wind increased to 35 knots, gusting to 40 knots, and the mainsail shredded. Magique could no longer sail herself on course. The C&C 44 carried no spinnaker pole, and the crew was unable to concoct some other emergency rudder. They began calling for a tow from Bermuda, but the tow boats wouldn’t test themselves in the deteriorating conditions. A call was sent out for nearby ships to assist. There was one more than seven hours away, and it agreed to head for Magique. Cullinan and his crew, who had never before set a sea anchor, deployed theirs with no problem and, in increasing wind and seas and approaching darkness, began their wait.

Meanwhile, aboard Carpe Diem, Manieri and his crew waited, too. At first, a cruise ship appeared about a mile away. It called the yacht, but its crew was unable to see the boat in the deep swells. Unseen by those on the yacht, a C-130 Coast Guard aircraft circled above. Within three hours of Manieri’s call, a Coast Guard helicopter was hovering overhead, piloted by Lt. j.g. William Coty from Elizabeth City, N.C., 258 miles to the west. The chopper crew explained the rescue drill. Get on the stern with a life vest on, and when the rescue swimmer arrives jump in the water. One by one, the three sailors were guided into the chopper’s basket and hoisted to safety. After each hoist, the swimmer would wash away from the yacht, so he had to be plucked from the ocean and lowered in front of the drifting boat for the next hoist. “It was like clockwork,” Coty says.

When Manieri left Carpe Diem, seawater was flooding above the cabin sole. He was certain that abandoning her was the right decision.

About this time, the 850-foot tanker Berge Boston was making passes, attempting to pluck the crew from Magique. After the third pass, the yacht banged along the full length of the tanker’s side and then under the stern, which came down on Magique’s backstay. Cullinan, who owns a real estate business in New Brunswick, radioed the tanker captain to stand off. As Magique drifted away from the tanker, Barnes yelled that a line that had been rocketed from the tanker to Magique in the initial approach was wrapped around his leg and was pulling him overboard. Cullinan grabbed a knife and cut the line, which then snagged the radar mast and ripped off one of its metal arms. It was then that the crew saw that the sea anchor line had been severed by the tanker. In conversations with Bermuda Radio, it was decided that Magique’s crew would wait out the storm until the Coast Guard arrived in the morning.

Thursday, Nov. 9

An hour after first light, a helicopter hovering near Magique repeated the drill that had pulled Carpe Diem’s crew to safety the night before. Cullinan set off his EPIRB in hope of locating his yacht when the storm passed.

But at this very moment, farther north, Rochelle IV was poised for disaster. Lewis and his daughter, Katrina, kept a watch in the cockpit while Sheila and Syer tried to get some rest in their bunks, reassured by the lee cloths that rose beside them. Winds had reached 50 knots, and seas had continued to build during the night. Hove-to, Rochelle IV was pointed into the seas when, at about 7 o’clock, a solitary wave approached from the side. They saw it coming, a huge wave that slammed the boat on its side, putting the mast with its double spreaders into the ocean, ripping off its Bimini and solar panels, tearing the reefed mainsail, blowing out the jib sheets, and flooding the engine compartment, where two batteries were loosened from their restraints. The violence of the roll flung Sheila from her aft cabin berth, tossed her above the lee cloth, and slammed her shoulder with crunching force into the yacht’s cabinetry, breaking her shoulder bones.

Rochelle IV righted herself as if unfazed by the sea’s wrath. In moments, another monster wave repeated the slamming, again driving the mast into the water. This one took out one of the large windows over the galley, and seawater flooded in. Lewis and his daughter turned the boat to run downwind, and the able crew began stuffing cushions from the saloon into the broken window. They threw hundreds of feet of line over the stern as warps and tied the shore power cable to them to increase drag. But when they looked up at the mast, they could see that the upper shrouds had gone slack and the mast had begun to wobble. “Scary as all hell when you’re pounding down 30-, 40-foot waves,” Lewis says.

The crew managed to get Sheila on deck and secure her arm. They harnessed her in the cockpit where she would be most safe, even as breaking waves washed forward from the transom. The boom was secured, and as best they could, they tried to cut away what remained of the mainsail.

“Working up on the deck in those seas, it wasn’t worth the risk of going up there trying to do a lot,” Lewis says. “So we called a mayday to see if anyone could come and get us. We were gusting up to 63 knots and steadily over 55. We were just south of the Gulf Stream but blowing back up to it. We let off our EPIRB, got on the single sideband on all frequencies.” Katrina worked the radio that way for two hours before she heard Hilgenberg’s voice.

The weatherman had been listening for the mayday on the 406 frequency, alerted by the Coast Guard, and he had responded each time he heard Katrina. When they finally connected, he became the rescue coordinator. Katrina’s voice was so calm, Hilgenberg says, he had to ask her to speak up. She told him Rochelle IV was being pushed north at a speed of 5 knots. “I said, ‘By the way, the Coast Guard is aware of the situation, and the rescue attempts are now in process,’ ” he says.

By this time, the Lewises’ two adult sons had been notified that the EPIRB had been activated, and they were working with friends and relatives to get help for their parents and sister.

The 750-foot bulk carrier Anthemis was diverted by the Coast Guard, and when it reached Rochelle IV, the captain maneuvered so his vessel would shield the yacht from the wind. “It was utterly phenomenal,” Lewis says. “The waves were washing over the top of the ship,” whose decks were 45 feet above its waterline.

As a Coast Guard C-130 circled overhead, crewmembers aboard Anthemis tried to get ropes down to the yacht, but the effort failed. Life rafts had been dropped to the ship by the aircraft to be used in hauling Sheila aboard. “The idea of getting Sheila off our boat into a life raft in those wave and wind conditions, it’s the last thing you want to do,” Lewis says. Then the aircraft dropped immersion suits to the ship’s crew, which got them to Rochelle IV.

Lewis and crew donned the suits, finding them very cumbersome. The suits had a means of attaching a line, and in the first attempt, Katrina jumped in the water and was hoisted by hand by the ship’s crew. Then the vessels washed apart, and it seemed to take forever before the ship’s captain got the yacht against his bow. As Rochelle IV slid along the Anthemis, the ship’s crew ran along the rail with lowered ropes. First they fetched Sheila from the deck, then Syer and finally Lewis.

As all this was unfolding, another Canadian yacht’s crew was being rescued, unhurt, by a Canadian destroyer 225 miles southeast of Nova Scotia. The La Pierva, a 33-foot sailboat, had been struck by lightning and lost all electronics. And on the same day, the 35-foot yacht La Bella left New York City, headed for Bermuda with a crew from Great Britain. Four days later, the four crewmembers set off an EPIRB and were rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter crew 250 miles southeast of Cape Cod, Mass.

By that time, the storm had blown past Bermuda, and Cullinan and his friends had found Magique and towed her to the island. The crew of Rochelle IV had arrived in Pennsylvania on Anthemis and were flown to Toronto, where Sheila received medical treatment.

Back home in Nova Scotia, the Lewises got an e-mail from a fellow cruiser who had set out from Shelburne around the time Rochelle IV had left. Caught in the same weather, Richard Mason had lost the steering on his 40-foot double-ended sailboat, Eskimo. But he was OK, his e-mail said. He had simply sailed on with no mechanical steering, and four weeks later arrived in the British Virgin Islands.