The Disappearance of the Nina
ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE SEPTEMBER 2013 ISSUE OF SOUNDINGS
The 85-year-old staysail schooner Niña, a fabled 50-foot (LWL) ocean racer that once was the flagship of the New York Yacht Club, disappeared without a trace on the stormy Tasman Sea with its American owner, his wife and 17-year-old son, and four crewmembers.
Niña left Opua in the Bay of Islands on New Zealand’s North Island May 29 bound for Newcastle, Australia, 1,500 miles away — an eight- to 10-day voyage, as Niña’s owner of 25 years, David A. Dyche III, reckoned on his Facebook page. The schooner was last heard from June 4, when she was 370 miles west-northwest of Cape Reinga, the northwesternmost tip of North Island. Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand reported 26-foot seas and 50-mph winds gusting to 70 in the vicinity that day as the first of a string of brutal winter lows marched through the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand in early June.
It wasn’t until June 12, at the urging of friends and family who reported the vessel overdue, that the search for Niña began, according to the coordination center. The rescuers suspended their search July 6 after overflying 737,000 square nautical miles of ocean — one of the largest searches ever for the agency — and stretches of North Island shoreline where it hoped to find survivors or debris.
Flying a Royal New Zealand Air Force P3 Orion, helicopters and commercial fixed-wing aircraft, searchers found “no sign of vessel or crew,” says coordination center operations manager John Seward. “The search has been extremely thorough, and we are confident that had the yacht or life raft been within those search areas, we would have found them.”
Niña’s crew was identified as Dyche, 58; his 60-year-old wife, Rosemary; their son David, 17, who was to leave the boat in Australia to go away to college in the United States; Kyle Jackson, 27; Evi Nemeth, 73, a retired University of Colorado professor, author and international authority on computer systems administration; Danielle Wright, 18; and Briton Matthew Wootton, 35.
Dyche had owned Niña since 1988. He was a commercial mariner and diver who worked 90 days on, 90 days off as the captain of anchor boats, typically 200-foot ships that set anchors and work supply for oil rigs, his sister, Cherie Martinez, told reporters. Given Dyche’s extensive maritime background, the coordination center judged him an “experienced skipper” capable of sailing Niña under adverse conditions.
He had expected to leave New Zealand in February, well before the June onset of the tempestuous winter season on the Tasman Sea. But in a Feb. 8 Facebook post, he wrote: “Our efforts have failed in making the crossing to Australia because of the loss of our main propulsion. … We will be staying in New Zealand another couple of months as we endeavor to repower Niña with a new engine that will provide us with reliability, safety and make her better than ever before.” The coordination center says Niña had been repowered with a brand-new 150-hp Cummins diesel as she sailed from Opua.
Based on satellite phone communications from Niña and the absence of any emergency alert from her, the coordination center had by June 14 — three days into the search — grown “deeply concerned.” It took the view that Niña probably had sunk in a catastrophic event during one of the storms that had swept through the Tasman. Still, the agency remained hopeful that the crew had been able to abandon ship on a raft off North Island.
Call from a crewmember
About 11:50 p.m. June 3, Bob McDavitt, a New Zealand meteorologist and router for Pacific cruisers, received a satellite phone call from Niña. Crewmember Evi Nemeth, a veteran skipper who had sailed her 40-foot sailboat, Wonderland, across the Pacific to New Zealand, said the weather had turned nasty and asked where Niña should go to escape the storm. McDavitt told the Associated Press he requested that she call back in 30 minutes while he prepared a forecast.
She called, and he advised Niña to go south and heave-to until the swells abated, according to the coordination center, but be prepared for “strong winds and high seas.” The next day, he fielded a text message from Niña: “Any update 4 Niña? Evi.” McDavitt told the AP that he advised the beleaguered yacht to ride out the storm where it was for another day. He texted Niña daily for several days afterward but received no replies.
The yacht was carrying a manually activated EPIRB, a Spot beacon, which the coordination center says also had to be activated manually to send regular track signals, a satellite phone, parachute flares and a VHF radio. The coordination center says it had not thought Niña was in distress until family reported her overdue because it hadn’t receive a mayday via satellite phone or VHF, or a Spot or EPIRB emergency alert, which in hindsight strongly suggested that Niña sank quickly before the crew could react and call for help.
One indicator that Niña was fighting a seesaw battle in the treacherous winds and seas: Three days before the search was suspended, satellite phone service company Iridium turned over to the coordination center an undelivered text message from Niña. Who its recipient was, the coordination center didn’t say. It was sent at 11:50 a.m. June 4, the day Nemeth texted McDavitt, and it established Niña’s position at that time as 370 miles west-northwest of Cape Reinga. It read, “Thanks storm sails shredded last night, now bare poles. Goining [sic] 4kt 310deg will update course info @ 6 p.m.”
There were no follow-up messages, the coordination center says. “The text message clearly indicates that the Niña was affected by the storm but gives no indication of immediate distress,” says Nigel Clifford, the coordination center’s general manager of safety and response services. “While it shows that Niña had survived the storm up to that point, very poor weather continued in the area for many hours and has been followed by other storms.”
Dyche grew up on Key Largo, Fla., and graduated from Coral Shores High School. His mother, Caryl, told reporters that he used to sail to the Bahamas by himself as a teen. He went on to work as a tug captain in the port of Miami, owned his own professional dive service and had been working as an anchor ship captain off Brazil, which gave him time to cruise. His family stayed on Niña in New Zealand while he was working in Brazil, and he had recently returned to make the voyage to Australia.
Under Dyche’s ownership, Niña had cruised to the Mediterranean Sea as far as Istanbul, Turkey and the Black Sea, and through the Caribbean as far south as Granada. By most accounts, he had been a careful steward of the classic yacht. In a Nov. 3 posting on his Facebook page, he described his work on the schooner as a “labor of love, yes, unconditional. After 23 years of this relationship I have never gotten discouraged by even the most major setbacks, [whether] a row of floors deep in the bilge need replacing or a new deck.”
Dyche recently had replaced the deck and mast steps, according to Facebook entries, and was working to replace floors and cabin sole frames, as well as motor mounts. His next project, he said, was the bowsprit. Yacht designer William Atkins described Niña’s construction as white oak for the keel, 1-3/4-inch Mexican mahogany hull planking (double-planked, according to one former owner), frames of steam-bent white oak, decking of Burmese teak, and deck beams made of white oak. Her hollow wooden spars were replaced by aluminum ones.
Dyche expected a tough passage to Australia. On May, 26 he wrote on Facebook: “The Tasman Sea is shooting gales out like a machine gun, living up to its reputation. We are shooting at leaving out after the first one this week. No doubt we will be dancing with one or two of them.”
The grand old dame already had proved her mettle in weathering the Kiwis’ infamous storms. On Jan. 7, 2012, Niña raced — and won on handicap — the 37th annual Bay of Islands Tall Ships and Classic Invitational Race in a 45-knot blow that knocked many much younger raceboats out of the competition. From her conception, she was ordained to be a fast, sturdy ocean racer for the ages.
Built by Ruben Bigelow in 1928 on Monument Beach, Cape Cod, Mass., Niña was designed by Starling Burgess to win the 1928 Queen of Spain’s Cup, a 3,900-mile trans-Atlantic race from New York to Santander, Spain, which she did handily in 24 days. Story has it that King Alfonso was waiting for her at the finish in his launch, and as he came alongside Niña he waved his cap and shouted, “Well sailed, Niña, I congratulate you! I am the king of Spain.”
Designer Atkin described her as one of the early “modern” schooners rigged with a large triangular fore-and-aft staysail on the foremast instead of the traditional fisherman’s gaff rig. Atkin characterized her as one of the “great yachts” in a class with America, Mayflower and Britannia.
She went on to win the 1928 Fastnet — the first American yacht to take home that trophy — after a 600-mile sprint through the stormy English Channel and Irish Sea. Niña’s owner, Paul Hammond, temporarily retired her in 1930 to campaign in the America’s Cup, but four years later she found a dedicated owner in New York banker DeCoursey Fales, who raced and carefully groomed her for 32 years. Fales became New York Yacht Club commodore in 1949, and Niña was the club’s flagship for three years.
Under Fales’ ownership, she won the New York Yacht Club Astor Cup in 1939 and 1940, and just before World War II she won for the first of many times the 233-mile Vineyard Race on Long Island Sound. In 1962, Niña — the oldest entry at 34 years old — and Fales — the oldest skipper at 72 — won the Newport Bermuda Race in an historic upset.
After Fales’ death she served five more owners, including the King’s Point Merchant Marine Academy as a training yacht. After Dyche acquired her, Niña won more races, among them the 1989 New York Mayor’s Cup and her schooner class at the 1994 Antigua Race Week. The Dyches began their circumnavigation in 2008 in Panama City, Fla., their home at the time. On their Facebook page Rosemary Dyche summed up their determination to do it while they were able: “Don’t take time out of your life to sail, but put time in your life and Do It!”