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Two are lost in Bermuda rescue

Five people caught in 25-foot seas must jump from their sailboat to cargo nets hung off a ship

Five people caught in 25-foot seas must jump from their sailboat to cargo nets hung off a ship

The 42-foot sailboat Albatross with five crewmembers on board had been at sea for four days and was 260 nautical miles north of Bermuda, its destination, in 25-foot seas when extratropical storm Noel, packing 50-knot winds, arrived Nov. 3.

Some sailors, heeding the warnings of weather routers a week before, had headed for protection rather than challenge the storm. But Albatross had left Greenport, N.Y., Tuesday morning, Oct. 30, and traveled nearly 400 miles in steadily deteriorating conditions. By early Saturday morning, there was enough concern aboard Albatross that someone dialed the satellite telephone and called Bermuda Radio, asking for a weather report.

Matters went downhill from there. Late Saturday night, as a 654-foot ship with a cargo net draped over the side passed along Albatross, all five crewmembers leaped in desperation for the net. Three were hauled aboard the ship; two fell into the Atlantic, lost forever. Two days later, Albatross was spotted by a U.S. Navy vessel, dismasted but intact.

The Coast Guard, which orchestrated the rescue attempt and a subsequent search for the missing sailors, has provided no more information on the case since it suspended that search. It has withheld the names of both the survivors and the lost sailors, citing a recently established policy that protects the confidentiality of those individuals. It says the missing are a 47-year-old woman who is a U.S. citizen and a 44-year-old Swiss man. The survivors are identified as an American and two Swiss citizens.

Vessel documentation records maintained by the Coast Guard list the owners of Albatross, a 1995 Valiant 42, as Andreas and Carolyn Pfanner of Cutchogue, N.Y., a community near Greenport. Telephone calls to the Pfanners went unanswered.

An individual in Greenport familiar with Albatross, who would not speak on the record, says the boat left its slip Tuesday morning, Oct. 30. By that time weather forecasters were aware that Hurricane Noel was headed out into the Atlantic on an apparent course to pass between the U.S. East Coast and Bermuda.

Weather router Chris Parker notes that the National Weather Service five-day forecast Tuesday morning predicted that a diminished Noel with 45- to 55-knot winds would pass west of Bermuda Friday and reach Newfoundland Sunday. “It would be hard to see a prudent mariner going out with that forecast,” says Parker, chief forecaster for the CaribbeanWeatherCenter, a paid-subscription forecasting service (

“We basically held everybody up and told everybody they should not leave until Noel went by,” says George Caras, vice president of New Hampshire-based Commander’s Weather (www.commanders, which had more than 25 boats holed up in Newport, R.I., waiting to head to the Caribbean, some by way of Bermuda. Commander’s Weather stopped boats the Sunday before Noel arrived. “We knew it would be enough that it would cause very strong winds and very big seas, and we didn’t want anybody being a part of it.” Caras says his company wasn’t contacted by Albatross.

Canadian weather router Herb Hilgenberg says he also had told the sailors he was advising to head for shelter on the prior Sunday. “It was already indicated, based on my knowledge, that anyone who would be caught out there — and I think the time frame was for Thursday, Friday — northwest of Bermuda would potentially be under storm [or] hurricane-force wind,” says Hilgenberg, who also says he wasn’t contacted by Albatross. “I don’t know why they left. They shouldn’t have been out there.

“I would think that any person who was ready to depart should have been able to get enough information that they should not depart,” he adds.

Weather experts were following Noel the week before Albatross left Greenport. “I had a vessel that was ready to leave New England, and it didn’t look like Noel was headed in that direction,” says Parker. Then he saw a “little suggestion” that the storm was changing course. “At that point, I told the vessel he shouldn’t go,” Parker says. The sailor took his advice and waited to head south.

Hilgenberg, checking his log, says the strongest winds where Albatross was reached 35 to 50 knots. The blow started Thursday, Nov. 1. “It’s Friday morning when it really started to cook up,” he says. “They couldn’t make any headway toward Bermuda.”

Bermuda Radio watchstanders got the first call from Albatross at 5:35 Saturday morning. The agency says it hadn’t received notice from the skipper that the boat was coming to the island. But now the yacht was 260 nautical miles north of Bermuda, and the caller asked for weather information. What follows is a partial re-creation of the log provided by Bermuda Radio, also known as the RescueCoordinationCenter or RCC Bermuda. (Zulu, or Greenwich Mean Time, is three hours later than local Bermuda time.)

• 0835z: Satellite call to RCC Bermuda from S/V Albatross in position approx. 260 NM north Bermuda requesting weather information. Weather information passed. Vessel hove-to until weather abates. Mainsail lost but enough fuel to motor to Bermuda. Two persons on board suffering from severe seasickness. S/V to call RCC Bermuda in four hours with update on conditions. Five persons in total on board.

• 1103z: Call from skipper of S/V Albatross advising crew wish to abandon vessel. RCC Bermuda confirms vessel in good condition, barring damage to mainsail. Skipper advised to attempt southeasterly heading for Bermuda and remain with vessel for as long as possible.

• 1113z: Call from skipper S/V Albatross advising crew adamant in wish to abandon vessel. RCC Bermuda advise will check for vessels in area and return call.

• 1114z: RCC Bermuda call to RCC Norfolk [Va.] with above information. Had AMVER [automated mutual-assistance vessel rescue] vessel approx. 16 miles from position around three hours ago. Will contact them to assist.

• 1125z: S/V Albatross advised to contact RCC Norfolk, who are arranging vessel to assist. On-scene weather — winds 40-42 knots, seas 20-25 feet. All on board have PFDs and are wearing them.

• 1146z: Attempts by RCC Bermuda to contact M/V Jo Spruce — no response to calls.

• 1250z: USCG Camslant [Communications Area Master Station Atlantic] issues urgent broadcast ref. S/V Albatross.

• 1333z: RCC Norfolk advises communications lost with vessel, also received 406 MHz EPIRB alert from vessel. M/V Martorell is 90 NM south of distress position.

• 1338z: RCC Bermuda re-establishes communication with S/V Albatross by satellite phone. ETA M/V Martorell 5.5 hours. S/V Albatross requested to call RCC Norfolk every hour.

The Martorell, a roll-on/roll-off automobile transporter owned by the Japanese firm Keymax Maritime Co. and flying a Panamanian flag, arrived at Albatross Saturday evening. A Coast Guard C-130 dispatched from Elizabeth City, N.C., circled as the ship prepared to make a pass by Albatross.

“It was during the ship’s initial pass alongside the yacht that, rather than taking additional safety equipment passed to them from the ship, the apparently desperate sailboat crew who were all wearing life jackets leapt across to the ship,” RCC Bermuda says in a press release. “Three of the crew were able to cling to hanging cargo nets and were pulled aboard, while the other two fell into the sea.

“The Martorell immediately began a search of the area,” RCC Bermuda says. Meanwhile, the C-130 dropped a data marker buoy into the ocean to track where the missing sailors might drift. Another C-130 was dispatched, along with an HH-60 helicopter, which flew to Bermuda to stand by for recovery of the missing sailors.

A Coast Guard Falcon jet and the USS Carter Hall, a Navy dock-landing amphibious ship home-ported in Norfolk, later joined the search, which was suspended Monday, Nov. 5, without recovery of the missing sailors.

Martorell steamed to Charleston, S.C., where the survivors were interviewed by Coast Guard investigators and then flown home, according to a shipping agent there. Coast Guard spokesperson Lorraine Brooks says there was no formal investigation because investigators decided, based on those interviews, that there had been no foul play in the loss of the two crewmembers.