Loss

The story below was written in fragments during April and May of 2022.  I finally put it together a couple of weeks ago while staying in the Island of Phuket.  It is meant to give closure to my last passage.  

Paris, June 5, 2022

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Northwest and southeast of point 12°03N / 67°38W extends a line of reefs that block the path of the Caribbean Sea creating heavy breakers.  I know this because on the night of March 22nd at around 22:00 I ran ANTARES into these reefs.  At the time of impact, I was asleep, sailing at 6+ knots with the auto-pilot steering a course of 260° that would take us close to the south-end of Bonaire.  I was immediately awoken and rushed outside with my head lamp not knowing what was going on.  At first, I thought it had been an accidental jibe but soon realized I had hit something that wasn’t supposed to be there. The wheel was spinning out of control, and I could hear ANTARES’s hull fracturing as the breakers created by 20+ knots of wind pounded her with violence against what I saw, with horror, were rocks. I brought down the main sail to at least reduce the pressure of the wind but there was nothing to do to save her. Back inside the cabin I removed one of the floorboards to check the bilge.  Water was coming in and the electric pump couldn’t keep up.  Given the circumstances, I activated the EPIRB, pressed the red emergency button of the Yellow Brick, and placed a Mayday call through the VHF radio.  The night was dark, I couldn’t see anything around me but for a faint yellow light far to the west.   All I could hear around me were the ominous sounds of waves approaching and then crashing into to us with vicious force.    

—————————— 

I had left St. Louis Marina in St. Georges Grenada three days before. The dock master and two aids came around 9am to help me with the lines. He jumped on board to handle those at the bow, and we were soon motoring towards the exit of the marina where he boarded a dingy and said goodbye.  I headed towards the port — no big ships moored this time –, turned into the channel, and set the autopilot on a course of 288° towards. That had been the original plan, sailing north of Bonaire and then set a south-west course towards Curacao.  

There was no traffic coming in or out, ANTARES was the only boat on the move.  After stowing fenders and coiling dock lines, I went forward to set the pole with my harness secured to the jack lines.  I wanted to deal with the pole while still protected by the island and not farther out where we would have 6-to-7-foot waves. Even with the smaller waves ANTARES was rolling and heaving, making it difficult to stand at the bow and handle the 12-foot carbon pole, topping lift, guys, and jib sheet without falling overboard. The pole was set nonetheless and soon I had the Genoa flying on the starboard side and Constancia, the wind vane, steering the boat. 

One hour west of Grenada the weather forecast started to materialize.   “Sun20 morning depart Grenada: 060-090@17-23g28k Seas 6-7’/6-8secENE; Stray or Isolated +5k or dry; “ 

I didn’t set the main sail as I had planned, to stabilize the boat,for fear of an accidental jibe, even with a preventer.  This turned out to be a good decision but for now ANTARES rolling was quite severe, particularly when a big wave would catch with us. There was a lot of movement and noise inside the cabin as cans, dishes, wine bottles, cutlery and other objects changed position in space and time; it took a while for them to find a steady state. But ANTARES had things under control and was romping ahead at an average of 7 Kts, sometimes surfing down a wave at 10Kts. Not the most comfortable conditions, but exhilarating sailing nonetheless.  

Our noon position was 12° 02.555N / 61° 58.726W and we had covered 12 miles.  With the pole out we were sailing a bit south of west, which wasn’t the ideal course.  But Constancia was handling very well the big seas and I didn’t want to mess around with the pole in those conditions.  I figured that if the wind didn’t veer, I would bring the pole down and sail higher the next morning.  

I spent most of the day in the cockpit contemplating the sea unfold. People think that the energy the wind transfers to the sea creates chaos and disorder, but the opposite is true.  Order emerges, entropy is reduced, new forms appear in dark colors and a luminous white, deep sounds reverberate like the voice of a baritone. And this voice was carrying ANTARES along. There was the occasional feathered visitor and the unlucky flying fish. During the morning the new bimini provided good shade, and in the afternoon I had my hat on. 

I wasn’t in the mood to do much other than updating the logbook every three hours or so. I had no appetite but ingested much needed calories in the form of a Heineken.  Around 16h I retired inside the cabin for a nap, lodging myself between the bulkhead and the starboard settee to avoid rolling. When I woke up, I read.  I had with me the hard copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita that Natalia had given me while in Paris.  Soon it was time to move back to the cockpit with a gin & tonic. 

Preparing a gin & tonic in land is a trivial undertaking. At sea, it requires careful planning even if you keep it simple and forego ice and lime. In ANTARES the first step was to retrieve the crystal tumbler from a box located in the forward cabin.  This requires reaching the cabin, opening the box without smashing your head against a bulkhead, grabbing the tumbler, closing and storing the box, and making it back to the main cabin this time with only one free hand to hold the handrails.  Then the bottle of gin has to be extracted from the locker where it resides without letting the other bottles fly out potentially knocking you out or breaking and making a mess. The gin must be poured into the tumbler, not an easy feat if you want to avoid spilling scarce ethanol. Now that the gin is in the tumbler the entire operation increases in complexity as you must keep the liquid inside at all times. The gin bottle can’t be left to its own devices, it must go back into the locker. Then one needs to reach the galley holding the tumbler with gin breaking against its crystal walls, open the fridge and extract the tonic water. Equilibria is now quite precarious with no hands to hold onto anything; it all depends on the angle of your body at rest between the navigation table and the galley’s countertop. The cap of the tonic water has to be opened with one hand and liquid poured with extreme care before executing the steps in reverse order to get the bottle back in the fridge. Then the sailor is still left with the challenge of reaching the cockpit with the glass full. 

The gin opened my appetite and I fixed myself a tuna wrap that was eaten in the main cabin.  When the night fell, I turned on the navigation and compass lights, activated the AIS, and went back to the cockpit to look around for boats one last time.  It was a beautiful night, with a full moon and millions of galaxies, stars and planets — no man-made lights.  As expected, conditions started to deteriorate with the wind gusting at 30+ knots and waves increasing in size.  I was lying in my bunk trying to sleep but ANTARES movements had become erratic and more violent, it was impossible to reach rapid-eye-movement (REM).  This was probably a good thing because around midnight Constancia, who must have been exhausted after steering for more than twelve hours, lost control and we gybed. With only the genoa poled out an accidental gybe is not a big deal — it would have been a different matter had I set the main sail.   I went outside and brought us back on course, but it didn’t last. I was about to go back to the bunk when ANTARES gybed again.  It happened two more times; for some reason I couldn’t balance the steering. Reluctantly, given the conditions, I setup the CPT2 autopilot.  This one always surprises me. He did a wonderful job steering a compass course until mid-morning the next day. 

March 21, 2022

Daylight found us some 40 miles north-east of Isla de los Hermanos.  It had been a sleepless night, but everything was in good order — and the batteries had a good charge.  This had been a cause of concern in previous passages but now the new solar panels were producing enough amps, at least during a sunny day. The diesel or generator were never turned on during those three days at sea.   

I drank some orange juice, made coffee, and sat in the cockpit with my spill proof orange mug to watch the sunrise, tired but content. Conditions had improved and, more importantly, there was a certain harmony established between ANTARES, the sea and me. I could anticipate the boat’s movements, I could understand the sounds, I was in this state of mind known as the “flow,” completely immersed in the passage.  By midmorning I was even feeling hungry and prepared an omelet with sardines, a much more demanding operation than fixing a gin & tonic. After eating I took a shower, changed into clean clothes, and went outside to give Constancia another chance.  She steered the rest of the way…

The noon position that day was 012° 05.602N / 064° 03.878W and the distance covered in 24h 156 miles — more, considering that we hadn’t sailed a straight line between noon positions. 

I spent most of the afternoon reading Master and Margarita in my bunkI would argue that most readers of the book like Woland — also known as Lucifer, Satan, Mephistopheles, or el Diablo — and his underlings, specially Behemoth the big black cat.  At some point Woland is on a terrace overlooking Moscow when an envoy from Jesus Christ comes to ask him to please take the Master and Margarita with him – that would be to hell. The reader wonders why punish them; a couple so in love with each other, and after having suffered so much during a long separation due to the Master’s mental illness (it was Woland who brought them back together).  But soon the reader learns that JC holds Woland in high esteem and that hell is not a bad place to be.  When Woland asks the envoy why Jesus doesn’t take the couple with him, he answers that JC did think about it but that it wouldn’t be a good idea because they deserve a tranquil and peaceful afterlife. Woland agrees to take them with him and soon after they travel to hell.  There he personally shows them their new home, a beautiful house in the woods that you reach after crossing a bridge over a small river…         

By sunset I stopped reading because I noticed that our speed had decreased to 5 knots. I was tempted to raise the main sail but I decided against it.  I wanted to have a quiet night and catch-up on sleep.  Instead, I poured myself a glass of gin and drank it slowly in the cockpit while sailing towards the setting sun. When all was dark and ANTARES ready to sail alone for the night I “prepared” dinner.  Freeze-dry pasta Bolognese that was served with a glass of red wine. By 20:00h I was in my bunk and shortly after fell asleep.  

March 22 

When I woke up the following day our speed had dropped to 4 knots or less. After drinking coffee, I went outside, raised the main sail with two reefs and set a preventer.  We were sailing “wing-on-wing,” making 5-6 knots.  I could have carried more sail but Constancia doesn’t like it; too much sail aft and ANTARES loses her steering balance. 

Most of the day we sailed west. Our noon position was 012° 06.433N / 066° 19.138W and the run for the past 24 hours 135 miles.  I started to think about landfall.  There was a work-related meeting on Wednesday morning that I wanted to be able to attend. I also knew that conditions were going to deteriorate; the wind was supposed to increase that night and would be blowing at 30+ Kts from Wednesday afternoon through Friday.

It was then when I decided to sail a direct course to the south-east of Bonaire.  This required bringing the pole down, rolling the genoa that would otherwise have been blanketed by the main, and sailing a compass course with the CPT2. After checking the iNavX chart for potential obstructions given the presence of Isla Larga and other small islets I executed the necessary maneuvers. By sunset I was in the cockpit enjoying my gin, the CPT2 fully in control, ANTARES sailing a course of 260° making 6Kts with the double reefed main.  I had a bowl of chili con carne for dinner and went to bed early expecting to wake up near a way point south-east of Bonaire, where I would change course towards Curacao. Before turning off the lights I called Natalia through the sat phone but she didn’t pick up.  Then I sent an e-mail to colleagues asking them to keep the meeting on; I would make it on time….

—————————— 

ANTARES had been sailing west-south-west, now she was pointing north with her starboard side exposed to the seas and her port hull trapped in the reefs.   It is difficult to describe the force of the seas that were crashing over her as she lay there defenseless. Using the remote control of the new tricolor solar light that I had installed at the bow I activated the flashing mode.    By now the water level was above the floorboards and rising.  I deployed the life raft but it didn’t seem to inflate.  So, I went inside to get life vests; I was wearing mine but without a raft I needed something that would allow me to float with the ditch bag. A male voice came through the VHF radio, somebody was asking me in Spanish for my location.  I gave my latitude and longitude several times, but he couldn’t hear me. Then the voice was gone and would not come back. I called Natalia through the sat phone to tell her about the situation, but she already knew I was in trouble. She had received a phone call from the company in San Diego that manages the EPIRB service and was trying, unsuccessfully, to contact a coast guard. As usual, the connection through the sat phone wasn’t great and our conversation lasted less than a minute.  

The water level continued to rise so I moved to the companion way where I stood with the ditch bag. It had, among other things, my phone, passports, wallet, the Iridium go (unfortunately not fully charged), the yellow brick (also not fully charged), and a hand-held VHF. The boat was heeled some 45 degrees.  The new dodger was the only protection I had from the breaking waves, and I was wondering how long it would last.  Just in case I would not be able to take with me the ditch bag I attached the EPIRB to my harness.  Suddenly, I saw a light on the water.  When I looked, I realized it was the life raft that had inflated but was upside down some 40 feet downwind reflecting the light coming from the bow.  I pulled on the painter and flipped the raft getting completely drenched in the process. I was wearing only shorts, a T-shirt, and my sailing shoes and started to feel cold. So, I went back inside and walking over the navigation table and the settees I reached the head and retrieved my full-weather jacket that was hanging behind the door.  Back in the companionway I sent again a MAYDAY through the VHF but there was no response.  I stayed there waiting and thinking when it would be time to board the life raft, knowing that ANTARES was the safest place to be until it wasn’t.  

From time to time a larger wave would hit ANTARES with tremendous force healing her more and pushing her deeper into the reef. The vibrations created by the impact traversed my spine and collapsed with a flash of pain deep in my brain.  At some point I was standing under the dodger with my feet over the edge of the navigation table. With my headlamp I could look down below and see ANTARES port rails almost touching the shallow water, the light reflecting in rocks of white, green, and black colors. It was now around midnight and the water had reached the quarter-berth.  Soon the batteries would be flooded and the cabin would go dark.  And so it happened, the lights went out and the VHF radio followed.  With the solar bow light though I could still see the contours of the life raft lying now below me, off the port rails at the edge of the cockpit. After each impact of a breaker, I would think whether it would be last before I had to abandon the boat. 

I couldn’t see any light or hear an engine that would indicate that help was on its way.  I was also starting to realize that even if help was under way it would be quite difficult to reach me; I was surrounded by surf, the wind was gusting at 25+ Kts, and the night was dark.  Also, where would help come from? Which coast guard would have received the EPIRB notification? A station in Venezuela, maybe Curacao or Bonaire? The person/boat who received my mayday call should have been within a 25 miles radius, the range of the VHF radio. I should have heard or seen them already.  The situation was not looking good.  ANTARES would collapse at any moment, and I wasn’t even sure the life raft would manage to go through the surf without capsizing or hitting rocks. I knew I was on a reef but since it didn’t appear on the electronic charts, I didn’t know how large or deep it was.  What I knew, at the time, is that downwind there was only open water and the yellow light.

I started to think about death.  Dying was no longer something improbable, it had become a reasonably likely event. I was concerned about the process of dying and hoped it would be something quick.  Once dead, there was nothing that could concern me, I would simply cease to exist. But I thought about how my death would affect others, my daughters in particular. I didn’t want to die, I wanted to see them again.  I told myself that if I was rescued, I would go to Ecuador and ask them to join me there in Casa Blanca.  I imagined been there with my wife, children, and parents having meals and watching the sunset together.  I would stay for a while, I would spend some quality time with them, I would love them. 

At around 3:30am a large breaker was the last blow that took ANTARES’ life, and I boarded the life raft without hesitation.  The rails were now under water so it was a simple thing to do.  I had with me the ditch bag, the EPIRB, and a knife I would use eventually to cut the painter.  The inside of the raft had a couple of inches of water but I didn’t mind; a decision had been taken and there was nothing else to be done.  I kept the life raft anchored to ANTARES which even in death was offering me protection from the violence of the seas.  When a breaker hit her bottom though, it created surf around her and water would come inside the raft. Thus, after securing an extra line to one of ANTARES handrails I closed the canopy and stayed there seated, immobile, in total darkness.  At some point I wanted to check the survival gear and supplies that were stored in the raft, but it was something that could wait.  

It was close to 4:30am when I heard a voice saying “Amigo. Está ahi?”   I immediately emerged from my stupor, turned on the head lamp and answered “Si, aqui estoy.  En el raft.” I was almost euphoric.  “Suelte la boya, yo lo tengo” the person screamed, asking me to release the lines holding the raft to the remains of the boat.  I opened the canopy and saw a man swimming in the surf with no life-vest or any equipment that could help in a rescue.  Yet, he wanted me to let the raft go.  “Pero usted está loco, viene a rescatarme nadando sin nada ni nadie!” I said.  He told me he was a good swimmer and that a boat was waiting for us not very far away.  So, I took my chances and cut the painter and line.  He swam while pulling the life-raft towards a small boat where five other men were waiting. I got out of the raft and boarded the boat with their help.  Then they pulled the raft aboard. In the meantime, the man who retrieved me had swam back to the boat to see what could be salvaged. From all the things he came back with the battery of the Torquedo.

The men introduced themselves and so did I.  I learned that my rescuer and three of the other men were fishermen, the other two worked for the Venezuelan coast guard; I was in Venezuelan waters. They were taking me to a small islet not too far where the fishermen had set a camp; they lived there and fished for two to three months at a time before sailing east back to their families in the islands of Roques. At the camp they took me to the kitchen area which was an open space with a roof made from bamboo and palm leaves. One of the fishermen gave me dry clothes I changed in to, even if they were two sizes too big.  The cook of the camp came and started preparing Gallina Blanca a sort of porridge that turned out to be quite tasty.  They also opened a bottle of rum and I drank a few shots.  Although my phone didn’t have access to a network, I knew the YB tracker would have sent a signal indicating that I was safe in land.     

One of the coast guards explained to me what had happened. It was their captain who answered my MAYDAY call and asked for my position. The yellow light I saw was coming from their station based in an islet to the west.  Even though they couldn’t hear me well they could see ANTARES’s bow light flashing at the distance.  They knew where I was and soon they had a small motor-boat under way to rescue me with a team of six.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t reach me given the conditions.  The night was dark and they almost drove their boat into the reefs.  The captain decided to go back to their base and try again the next day. He, however, had the prescience to leave two of his crew in the islet where the fishermen had their camp to ask them if they could help — since they have a much better knowledge of the surrounding waters.  The fishermen, in fact, could also hear my mayday calls but were not able to reach me.  They had already been planning a rescue and were waiting for the moon to be high in the sky to illuminate the reefs. That day this only happened after 4am when they took one of their boats and went to get me. I am very thankful to them.  

We didn’t sleep that night.  We talked and drank rum until daylight when the captain of the coast guard station and two crew landed on the islet.  They had come to take me to their base where I would wait for a boat from the army that would bring me to Valencia in continental Venezuela. I thanked my saviors one more time and agreed we would meet later in the day to see what they could salvage from the boat.  The coast guard station was only some 20 minutes away. I had quite a welcoming there even if undeserved.  After taking a few pictures while still on the boat the captain invited me to their kitchen and I was served a large bowl of fish soup and coffee.  After I ate he took me to one of the barracks and suggested I get some sleep. But I couldn’t sleep, I was restless.  Instead, I spent the day walking around the islet and talking to the men who live and work there.  They are all part of the Venezuelan army and rotate in and out of the islet in one month-shifts. Their lives depend on monthly deliveries of provisions, fuel for the generators, and fresh water. Some of the fresh water and fuel they trade for fresh fish. 

The fishermen who rescued me came in the afternoon with some of the gear they recovered from the boat including the Jordan series. Most of it was useless to me back then and I told them to keep it. Things like the brand-new solar panels, the radar, the Torquedo, Constancia and others I am sure served them well.  I did get my carry-on bag which had some clothes in it and a pair of boots.  I washed them in fresh water and put them to dry in a plot of grass. Late that afternoon I sat under a tent by the sea with half a bottle of rum the captain had given me and large quantities of ice.  When the night fell we all had dinner together and then I went to bed. I slept, but not well.  

The next day I got up at first daylight.  There was already somebody in the kitchen preparing coffee and arepas — a classic Venezuelan type of bread made from corn flower. I poured myself a cup of coffee and walked to the station to charge my phone.  The captain told me that the boat that was coming to take me to Valencia had left the previous night.  They had been sailing for hours in 30+ Knots of wind and were expected to arrive around 7am.  I thought about what the crew had to endure that night to come and get me.  The captain explained that it was a big (100+ foot) and powerful boat and that the conditions were not that bad.    By 7:30 a small craft with four men on board left the station to meet the army boat and help them moor to a large, yellow floating buoy on the south-west side of the islet. Its captain came ashore and had breakfast with the station’s captain. After some formalities, a few more pictures, and goodbyes the two captains, two crew and I boarded the small craft and motored towards the army boat.

They installed me in the cabin where the crew gets together when they are off watch. They told me to relax and enjoy the passage and played a movie for me:  Pelé.  I was allowed to walk around and at some point I was in the “pilot house” with the crew on watch.  It was, indeed, a large, modern boat that had been recently donated by the Dutch government.  The control room resembled an airplane’s cockpit with several controls and displays providing information about the status of the various systems. I was told that one of the engines was overheating and we were motoring at half the normal speed; the trip to Valencia would take a little more than six hours. It was still blowing 30+ knots, there were large seas from north-east, the boat was rocking but not much.  The boat was not only long and heavy but also tall.  The control room was high-up and very seldom would a wave break on the windshield that, in any case, had a pair of hyperactive wipers ensuring proper visibility at all times.  What a different experience I told to myself — a windshield with wipers instead of a dodger. When I came back to the crew cabin they served me a dish of pasta Bolognese that I ate with gusto.  After they played and I watched another movie, Flintch with Tom Hanks; highly recommend.

Landfall was around 14:30. The commandant of the navy in Valencia was at the port to welcome me along with the honorary French consul. I thanked them profusely for all they had done.  Frankly, it made little sense that so many resources had been spent to rescue somebody who choose freely to go out to sea alone and who got into trouble because of negligence; I felt ashamed. Still, following protocol, I was taken to a hospital nearby for a quick check up and then the consul drove me to a hotel where I spent the night. Natalia had already bought an airplane ticket to fly to Quito-Ecuador, via Panama, the next morning.    

—————————— 

I spent the month of April in Ecuador. As planned, the girls and Natalia came and we moved to Casa Blanca in Same. As the days went by, I started to piece together the different events that had transpired the night of March 22nd-23th.  Although I was rescued thanks to my MAYDAY call, many people on land, across continents and timelines, were concerned and trying to help me.  Natalia had been able to reach the coast guard in Curacao but they told her they could not rescue me because I was in Venezuelan waters and they didn’t want to risk a conflict with the government. The relationship with Venezuela was already volatile, precisely because of territorial disputes involving the very islands where I was stranded.  She also contacted my friend Webb Chiles to see if a private rescue could be attempted but this was a very long shot.   My mother had seen the yellow brick distress message and told my son Juan David and my sister Gabriela that something was not right.  Juan David contacted the French embassy in Venezuela and eventually the consul who was very kind and helpful, coordinating my transfer to Valencia and eventually my trip to Ecuador.  Gabriela got in touch with a colleague of hers now working as an advisor to the Venezuelan government.  He mobilized the central authorities although by then I had already been rescued. My sister Carla and my ex-wife Isabelle, who at some point learned the news, spent time reaching out to their friends in the sailing community to see what could be done. Neither of them slept that night.  The EPIRB signal did reach the Venezuelan central rescue systems as intended, but it took a while for the instructions and information to trickle down. 

As to why on earth I wasn’t aware of the presence of the reefs, there a simple answer: I had not uploaded in iNavX the electronic chart for that part of the Caribbean Sea.  I owned the chart but didn’t activate it because it was linked to Venezuela’s northern coast, and I wasn’t planning to sail in those waters.  A few days after my arrival to Quito I activated the chart and could see, in great detail, the islands and reefs where I lost ANTARES. If I hadn’t rushed and cut corners sailing directly to Curacao and sailed west towards Bonaire instead, none of this would have happened either, but that is now a moot point.   

I am writing this from Phuket Island where Natalia and I have spent the last week.  A couple of days ago I learned that the insurance company is not planning to cover the accident because it took place in Venezuelan waters. ANTARES ‘s insurance policy clearly states that there are exclusions:  the waters of Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba and Haiti.  Learning this was another blow for I had started to think about the possibility of buying another boat and continue my voyage. 

What will I do now, I do not know. I am still processing and dealing with the grief of ANTARES loss.  She was more than a close friend, part of the close family.  When departing Grenada she was at her best and looking so beautiful with newly painted decks, a recent coat of varnish, a new dodger and bimini, and her new solar panels. She was meant to be sailing in blue waters and she deserved better.    

As many tell me, the important thing is to be alive, I take that.  And as Webb Chiles wrote to me a couple of weeks ago:

I have been thinking about recovery from such an experience and loss and for me the answer has been a cliché:  time.  Sometimes it has taken me a year.  After the loss of Jill and RESURGAM even longer.  One thing I have done is write.  Some of my most published articles have been written in the depths of despair.  Running and working out and using your body is certainly good.”  I intend to follow that advice.  

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