Angus Whitaker was a superb sailor of the waters off the East Coast. That's why his disappearance is so hard for his friends to accept

LOST AT SEA

April 28, 1996|By R. EDWARD TURNER

Each year, thousands of boaters venture into the coastal waterways of the eastern United States. Most have uneventful trips, but some have emergencies and must rely on a fellow boater or the U.S. Coast Guard for help in making it safely back to shore. In a few cases, a boater disappears without a trace from these waters. There's no report of a radio transmission, of a "Mayday" call, or of a distant flare spotted in the night. Boater and vessel are simply never seen again. Following is the story of one such disappearance. Night after night, through December and most of January, the radio calls for assistance came over the Coast Guard channel. On the morning of Nov. 5, 1995, a 23-foot sailboat, with a green hull, white deck, white sails, and the name Prudence Plus on its stern, had left Long Island, N.Y., for a voyage down the New Jersey coast, through the Chesapeake Bay, back into the Atlantic Ocean, and south to Key Largo, Fla. Its captain, the only person aboard, hadn't been heard from since.

The Coast Guard's emergency broadcasts asked all boaters along the route to be on the lookout for the Prudence Plus and its captain. Such calls for help normally are broadcast for only two or three weeks. After that, the Coast Guard announces that the request for assistance is being suspended pending further developments.

Why had this emergency broadcast been repeated for so many weeks? Who had taken such a small boat into the Atlantic Ocean with winter approaching? Had the little sloop been washed out to sea? Was the captain stranded on some remote shore in the Chesapeake? These questions stuck in my mind as I listened to the calls on my marine radio.

I was intrigued, and determined to learn something about this missing sailor. I began by calling the Coast Guard in Baltimore. I was referred to the Coast Guard in New York and from someone in that office I found out that the sailor was out of a boat yard in Sayville, Long Island. After a few inquiries, I had the right boat yard and was talking to the owner. With information provided by him and other friends of the sailor (his family declined to speak with me), I slowly pieced together a story.

The first thing I learned about Angus Whitaker was that he no ordinary boater. He knew his stuff. His family and friends, I was told, never expected him to get himself into something he couldn't get out of. Their faith in his sailing skills accounted for the extended emergency calls by the Coast Guard, and for the hope, held by them and the Guard, that, maybe, just maybe, somewhere in the ocean between America and Europe, a tiny vessel with a lone seaman aboard was bobbing around.

'A Beachcomber Type'

On the morning of last Nov. 5, Angus Whitaker waved goodbye to friends he had grown up with, boarded the tiny sloop that was also his home, and sailed off from Long Island toward Key Largo, Fla. It was the last time anyone ever saw the 53-year-old sailor.

No concentrated search was made for the missing seaman, although the Coast Guard did order search and rescue vessels and aircraft to be on the lookout for him during routine patrols over the Atlantic, from New York to Florida.

The end of the Coast Guard's efforts in late January could have meant the end of the story. Almost any sailor would agree that taking on the North Atlantic in a 23-foot sailboat with no motor and with winter approaching is a foolhardy venture. But the missing sailor was Angus Whitaker, a man the sea couldn't easily conquer. His friends weren't ready to stop hoping. Months after his disappearance, some were still speaking of him in present tense.

Mr. Whitaker had sailed the Prudence Plus from his home berth in Key Largo to Sayville, Long Island, N.Y., to attend the 35-year reunion of the Sayville High School Class of 1960. Class members who knew him all his life didn't wonder that he could make such a voyage in a tiny sailboat; it was one of many times he had landed in Sayville from the sea.

His usual route was up the Intracoastal Waterway, into the mouth of and up the Chesapeake Bay, through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal into Delaware Bay, and back into the Atlantic for the final leg to Long Island. He usually spent nights along the way in the homes of classmates Jimmy Ardito of Charleston, S.C., and Les Hanak of Virginia Beach, Va.

They and other classmates had noticed a few important changes in Mr. Whitaker over the years. Said Kenneth Stein, owner of the Sayville boat yard from which Mr. Whitaker had sailed, "At our first class reunion, he showed up looking like an executive, with a three-piece suit and wingtip shoes." (Mr. Whitaker had earned a degree in mechanical engineering and was working in California then.) But as the years went by, Mr. Stein said, his friend and classmate seemed to become more and more "laid-back, a beachcomber type."

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