Twice-lucky sailor cheats death at sea

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First, wrongly installed EPIRB activates, then, swimming blindly in the dark, he bumps into a life raft

Dennis Clements is the luckiest sailor alive.

Dennis Clements had placed his manually activated EPIRB backwards in its bracket, which is why it went off automatically when it got wet.

Had it not been for an improperly mounted EPIRB that wound up activating on its own, he would probably be dead today. Had he not blindly bumped into a life raft dropped by a Coast Guard HC-130J, he would probably be dead today. "When I found myself alone in the dark," he says, "I knew they would never find me."

Clements, indeed, is lucky to be alive.

Battling gale-force winds and 30-foot seas for four days, Clements was tossed from his Cal 39, Gloria A Dios, when it was knocked down about 250 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C. "I couldn't see anything," says Clements, recounting the Jan. 2 incident. "These were big waves, man, and it was dark and the wind was blowing like 40 knots. I was just floating there, trying to conserve heat."

Responding to the 55-year-old sailor's EPIRB signal - which Clements later learned only went off because he had mistakenly placed the beacon backward in its bracket - the Coast Guard dropped two life rafts from an HC-130J Hercules aircraft. But Clements couldn't see the rafts, and the aircraft was low on fuel and flew away.

Clements started to pray. "I said, 'Lord I'm going to believe in you until I take my last breath,' and I kicked off my boots and just started to swim," he says. "I don't know why. I couldn't see anything."

In a stroke of luck, Clements bumped into one of the life rafts, which had capsized. "I was able to flip it over and somehow get in," he says.

About an hour later a Navy helicopter, dispatched from the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, was on the scene and a rescue swimmer was in the water. Winds were blowing 50 knots, with 10-foot seas and driving sleet and snow.

"I heard the chopper and a voice that said, 'Jump in here, buddy,' " says Clements. "And I said, 'Here I come, man.' I was so happy to hear that voice."

This Coast Guard infrared image shows Clements' Cal 39 being tossed by big seas.

Clements was en route from Hampton Roads, Va., to the U.S. Virgin Islands when he ran into heavy weather. His 10-year-old EPIRB activated when a wave crashed through the port side of the cabin and soaked the beacon - another stroke of luck because it was a manually activated model that normally would not go off in that situation. But because Clements had mounted the EPIRB improperly in its bracket, the beacon sent a signal when it got wet (see sidebar).

The distress signal came in to Coast Guard's Fifth District headquarters in Portsmouth, Va., around 5 p.m. Jan. 2, and the HC-130J Hercules was dispatched. After hoisting the Navy swimmer and Clements from the water, the helicopter flew 130 miles back to the aircraft carrier, with another Coast Guard Hercules aircraft overhead, according to public affairs specialist Andrew Kendrick. Authorities also diverted a commercial ship participating in the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue system, or AMVER, but the rough seas prevented it from maintaining course, says Kendrick.

Bad to worse

Clements, who bought Gloria A Dios in 1994, had made only one other long passage - a 740-mile cruise across the Gulf of Mexico from Tarpon Springs, Fla., to Galveston, Texas. The sailor says he properly planned and prepared for the trip to the USVI.

"I spent a month refitting, provisioning, checking everything out, making equipment upgrades," he says. "The recommended time to make this trip is [after] November, when hurricane season is over. That's really the main concern for an offshore run like that."

The weather forecast for the week after Christmas was good, says Clements, so he departed Dec. 26 from Hampton. "Saturday was mild and variable, and Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday was 10 to 15 [knot winds] or 15 to 20 [knot winds] from the west or northwest," he says.

On Wednesday, Dec. 30, the forecast changed - a gale warning was up, with sustained 40-knot winds, he says. After battling the elements for 12 hours, Clements went below to get something to eat. A wave struck the 1969 sailboat, knocking out the starboard cabin window and throwing Clements across the cabin.

"A hundred gallons of salt water came aboard," he says. "I lost all electronics and something happened to the batteries. I had no way to restart the motor."

Engineless in worsening conditions, he was battered in the wind and seas for days.

On Saturday, Jan. 2, a wave slammed the port side, knocking Gloria A Dios on its side and holing the port side of the cabin. "I was very nearly upside down and took in a couple of hundred gallons of water," says Clements. "It was a struggle."

Clements lost his boat, which was uninsured.

A number of personal events in 2009 led to his decision to sail to the USVI. His mother died in September, his youngest child turned 19 and left home and the company he worked for "closed its doors and sent everybody home," he says.

"There were changes going on and, when my mother passed away in September, I just really wanted to go sailing."

See related article:

- Why Clements' EPIRB activated

This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue.