Survivors of March 6 shipwreck were all but lost at sea

Annapolis sea captain and his first mate stand by their decisions

  • Pat Schoenberger, right, a sea captain from Annapolis, and his first mate, Jim Southward, were ferrying a sailboat from Severn, Va., to Pensacola, Fla., when they had to be rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter.
Pat Schoenberger, right, a sea captain from Annapolis, and… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
March 27, 2013|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

It started as the kind of delivery Pat Schoenberger, an Annapolis sea captain, had made many times: Pick up a client's motor sailboat, ferry it to Florida and return home in a few weeks' time.

A brilliant morning sky beckoned as Schoenberger and Jim Southward, his friend and first mate, left Severn, Va., for Pensacola, Fla.

Thirty-eight hours later, a Coast Guard helicopter rescued them off Cape Lookout, N.C., amid pounding rain, 55-knot winds, 30-foot waves and the sensation, Southward said, that the ocean was tossing their 15-ton craft, Andante II, "like a cork in a hot tub."

What happened in between was a story of how, even in an era of high-tech sea mapping and navigation, the wisdom of seasoned mariners still can be no match for an angry sea.

Schoenberger, 38, and Southward, 40, seemed dazed and relieved in an interview as they sifted the choices they'd made along the way, including the one no sailor wants to make: to declare Mayday, call for rescue and abandon ship.

"I've seen the awesome power of the ocean firsthand, and I will never again question that power," Southward said.

"The sea doesn't care about you or your plans," Schoenberger added.

Then he thought a moment.

"But somebody up there does."

Why even go?

Schoenberger grew up in Annapolis, where his father, a sailor, "bungee'd" him onto a catamaran as a toddler. He attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York and served seven years as a third officer, qualifying to work on vessels of any size anywhere in the world.

Southward was 2 when his dad, an Air Force lifer, put him on the family boat. He learned sailing on Puget Sound, worked vessels out of Lake Erie and moved to Annapolis after seeing a boat show there in 2009.

"I knew pitch and roll before I could walk," he said.

They met at the outdoor ice rink in Quiet Waters Park where both worked offseason. When the owner of Andante II hired Schoenberger, he hired Southward.

For the trip, they'd be at sea about 15 days aboard Andante II — an Island Packet SP Cruiser that would cost more than $480,000 new — and net maybe $7,000.

They'd leave Mobjack Bay in Virginia early Tuesday, March 5, cross the Chesapeake Bay into the Atlantic, then head south along the Outer Banks, those 200 miles of narrow barrier islands that guard most of the North Carolina coast.

Averaging 8 knots, they'd make Morehead City, N.C., by Wednesday afternoon, then bunk for the night.

Both knew forecasts called for a serious storm to move across Virginia, Maryland and the north-central Atlantic by late Tuesday, but every weather model said waves would top out at 4 to 6 feet — bumpy, but manageable.

"Even my father has said, 'Why go out in those conditions? Why not wait a few days?'" recalled Southward.

"As professionals, our job is to deliver the vessel as quickly and safely as possible," Schoenberger said.

The first night at sea, Tuesday into Wednesday, was surprisingly rough. As they passed Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, N.C., to starboard, a steady drizzle fell.

The 300-pound Southward was resting below deck after midnight when a wave jarred the hull, knocking him from his bunk. Another broke the glass inside a microwave.

Schoenberger decided they'd seek safe harbor until the weather passed.

He'd have to pilot Andante through Oregon, Hatteras or Ocracoke inlet — among the few small, sandy gaps in the long barrier islands— to reach the calm of Pamlico Sound.

At 6 a.m. Wednesday, winds had reached a steady 25 knots and waves a height of 10 feet when Schoenberger radioed the Coast Guard for help navigating through Ocracoke.

"Ocracoke Inlet is shut down for dredging," a voice crackled back.

Decision points

Every sea voyage is a network of choices, each narrowing the options to come.

If Schoenberger could have parked Andante II like an 18-wheeler, he would have. As it was, he had just three options.

He could make for Hatteras Inlet 20 miles away, though reports said waters there were tricky. He could seek Oregon Inlet, where water was calmer, but 10 hours back north. Or he could bolt for Morehead City, 70 miles farther south but through lethal shoals.

Checking his iPhone, he saw that the storm was not expected to fully rile up for 12 hours, time enough to reach Hatteras. Authorities told him a motorized Coast Guard lifeboat would meet them near Hatteras Inlet in three hours and guide them in.

By 10 a.m. they'd pulled within a mile and a half — they could see the beach houses of Hatteras village.

"In our minds, this is almost over," Schoenberger said. "In an hour, we'll be standing on the deck with a cold drink."

At 10:30, the Coast Guard called.

"We recommend against" coming through, a voice said. There was no safe channel through the churning waters.

Schoenberger, a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, has no quarrel with that recommendation. But he believes that if the Coast Guard had known what awaited Andante at sea, they'd have gotten the green light.

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