Captain fears hurricane took Pilgrim to bottom

November 29, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

A three-day airborne search has failed to turn up any trace of the 49-foot sailboat Pilgrim, which was abandoned 100 miles east of Norfolk, Va., Nov. 18 after crew members radioed the Coast Guard to rescue them from Hurricane Gordon.

The $400,000 Hinckley ketch, which was equipped with an estimated $30,000 worth of navigational gear and other electronics, was afloat when abandoned. But its captain suspects that it went to the bottom. "The boat was somewhat secure when we left, but it could easily take a rogue wave into the cockpit," said Capt. Mike Auth, 55, of Chestertown. The crashing waves, or water from leaks, most likely overwhelmed the Pilgrim's failing pumps and sank it.

Captain Auth said yesterday that he now believes that he and the other two crew members were in far greater peril from leaks and damaged rigging than they knew at the time, and he no longer feels lingering guilt about giving up the yacht.

"I feel a lot better about it now than I did at the time," he said. The loss of the Pilgrim was the first for the former engineer, who said he has made more than than 65 voyages since beginning a second career delivering boats.

"I'm a little stubborn, and I did not see it, necessarily, as a life-threatening situation. Now I do. We could have been in very serious trouble."

The Pilgrim was insured for its full value by the Aetna Insurance Co., which plans at least one more search flight as soon as the weather permits. "As far as we're concerned, it's not abandoned," said Dan Reynolds, an Aetna marine surveyor in Norfolk. Aetna's search will scan the Atlantic coast from Delaware to Cape Hatteras for the boat or its debris.

The boat's owner, Solo Cup Corp. President Jon Hulseman of Easton, had left the Pilgrim in Bermuda after a series of storms persuaded him to break off a cruise to the British Virgin Islands. He hired Captain Auth; Ron Frey, 44, of Baltimore; and Mike Browne, 23, of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, to sail it back to its home port in Oxford.

Four days after leaving Bermuda on Nov. 14, the crew encountered 40-foot waves and winds topping 60 mph -- far more severe than anything predicted by their sophisticated weather communications gear and updates from a private forecaster.

When the boat's engine and the roller mechanism used to retract the mainsail both failed, Captain Auth radioed the Coast Guard for help. A helicopter crew reached the boat just after 1 a.m. Nov. 18 after a flight of almost 90 minutes from Elizabeth City, N.C.

Unable to fly close to the Pilgrim, or to lower a rescue basket onto its deck because of the violently pitching mast and rigging, the rescuers dropped a swimmer into the ocean, then radioed the sailboat's crew to jump from the yacht one by one and swim out to him. Each was then hoisted into the helicopter.

Looking back, Captain Auth has gained a new respect for the storm his crew encountered.

He now believes that the Pilgrim was caught in conditions that would be rated at Force 10 on the international Beaufort scale. That's a "whole gale," with winds of 55 mph to 63 mph. Hurricane-force winds -- a Force 12 storm -- start at 73 mph.

Sixty to 90 minutes before the three sailors left the yacht, Captain Auth said, the winds had broken the mainsheet traveler, a device that restrains the mainsail boom. The metal cleat that secured the device to the deck simply ripped out.

That created two more problems. First, the boom began flailing and threatened to break one of the stays, or wires, that support the mast. Had that happened, the mast might have fallen over, leaving the 20-year-old boat listing and more vulnerable to the pounding seas.

Second, Capt. Auth said, "water was coming in through the hole in the deck where the cleat pulled out." The 4-inch hole was just above and behind the boat's navigation station, which housed all its radio gear and electronics.

There was so much noise from the wind and waves, Captain Auth said, "you couldn't hear what was going on. So when the cleat ripped out of the deck, we didn't even hear it."

Crew members were continually wiping seawater from the electronics as they gave the Coast Guard updated reports on their position. But they could not pinpoint the leak.

"That's scary," Captain Auth said. "We could have lost all our electronics, including communications with the Coast Guard, at any time."

Water from the hole in the deck, and from other leaks in the boat's hatch, was being pumped out. But the pumps would have failed after the boat's batteries ran down. If the storm continued, the incoming water would have sunk the boat, taking the crew with it had the men not decided to leave.

After just a little more than 24 hours on dry land, Captain Auth and his crew were in the air Nov. 19, and all day on the 20th, searching for the Pilgrim.

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