3 on yacht rescued as hurricane rages GORDON: EYE ON THE STORM

November 19, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

As 20-foot waves crashed down on the disabled sailboat 100 miles off Norfolk, and 57-mph winds from Hurricane Gordon turned the boom into a flailing guillotine, two Maryland sailors and their crew mate contemplated leaping into the sea.

Thirty feet off their stern, in a cascade of light from a hovering helicopter, a 30-year-old Coast Guard rescue swimmer named Michael Thomas treaded water, waiting to help them into a tiny basket dangling on a cable.

In between were heaving mountains and valleys of green water.

The choice was simple: either plunge into the ocean and swim for their lives, or stay behind and face Gordon alone, in the darkness, in a failing boat.

One by one, Ron Frey, 44, of Baltimore, Mike Browne, 23, from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and Capt. Mike Auth, 55, of Chestertown, Md., crept to the stern of the 49-foot yacht, Pilgrim, and stepped off into the deep Atlantic.

The boat was a two-masted, $400,000 Hinckley ketch, which they had been hired to deliver from Bermuda to Oxford, Md. In the pounding from waves and wind, the engine had quit, the sea anchor had broken away, and the mainsail had shredded because it could not be reefed, or taken in.

"I thought I'd had an adventure this [past] summer, sailing to Greenland," said Captain Auth. "I didn't have anywhere near this type of excitement." The captain described the hair-raising adventure from the North Carolina motel where the men were resting yesterday after being examined and declared in good health.

They had set sail from Bermuda Monday. A veteran of 65 or 70 boat deliveries, Captain Auth had no reason to think this one would be different.

The Pilgrim belonged to Jon Hulseman of Easton, who had left it in Bermuda after he was "badly shaken" by a series of storms during an October crossing from Maryland. The storms persuaded him to give up on what was to have been a cruise to the British Virgin Islands.

Before sailing from Bermuda, Captain Auth and his crew -- all experienced blue-water sailors -- made thorough checks of the boat and the weather.

They had hired a private meteorologist to send them reports, and the Pilgrim also carried sophisticated communications and weather facsimile gear that provided regular weather updates.

The forecaster's predictions all said Tropical Storm Gordon, then near Cuba, would not be a problem for the Pilgrim if the yacht left by Monday.

"If it passed Cuba to the east, it would go out into the Atlantic," Captain Auth said of Gordon. "If it passed to the west . . . he indicated the storm would stay down there and pose no threat to us" during the four- or five-day trip.

They were more concerned about winds in the Gulf Stream. The forecast called for winds there of up to 40 mph, with 12-foot seas.

When Gordon confounded predictions and headed up the East Coast, "that really got our attention," Captain Auth said. Even so, the sailors thought they could safely cross the turbulent Gulf Stream to calmer waters.

"We were 120 miles from the Chesapeake Bay when we encountered severe weather, much more than any of our weather faxes projected," he said. "We could have turned around, but the storm was projected to go to the northeast," which meant that it would intersect their path back to Bermuda.

That was Thursday morning. The Pilgrim remained sound, so they pressed on. But their luck was fading. By nightfall, the winds were worse, and the crew were having trouble with the roller mechanism that retracted the mainsail. Thirty percent of it remained in the gale, putting violent forces on the boat and making it difficult to sail.

"We were literally surfing off some of these seas," Captain Auth said.

Turning back east into the wind to attempt repairs, the sailors found their engine was dead. A sea anchor deployed to steady the boat tore loose.

"At that point it was getting crucial that we make a decision whether to call the Coast Guard and ask for help," Captain Auth said. "We were becoming very apprehensive about the whole situation."

They weighed several options, including seeking a tow and repairs from nearby ships. But Gordon was now a hurricane. Few repairs could be done at night, and by morning the storm would be on top of them.

So they called the Coast Guard. Their mayday was relayed ashore by the aircraft carrier USS America.

More than 100 miles to the west, Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Mike Brady, 27, and his three crew mates scrambled their HH60J rescue helicopter and headed east toward the last position reported by the Pilgrim. Their escort and radio relay was a C130 airplane. It was 10 minutes to midnight.

"I've flown in some fairly bad weather, however nothing the likes of this," chopper co-pilot Brady said. Flying just 300 feet off the water to stay beneath the overcast, the helicopter crew nevertheless flew much of the way on instruments, aided by night-vision goggles.

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