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Waterlines: Down With His Ship

Eric Thiriez in a characteristic pose aboard Alegria, offering food to people

Eric Thiriez in a characteristic pose aboard Alegria, offering food to people

Thanks to my long connection with this magazine I’ve had many opportunities to sail with some exceptional people. One of my more memorable outings came 18 years ago when I was sent down to Colombia to sail in La Ruta de Morgan, a local event that saw a modest fleet of boats racing some 400 miles from Cartagena out to the western Caribbean islands of San Andrés and Providencia. My skipper—commanding a well-worn Jeanneau Sunkiss 47 named Alegria—was a warm, very friendly French expatriate named Eric Thiriez.

Eric was a great skipper, a great sailor and a great human being. He’d built up a very successful business in Colombia making floating pumps he sold all over the world, but there was nothing cold or calculating about him. He had boundless energy and enthusiasm, and I was amazed during our race when he not only stayed on deck through most of our two nights offshore, but also did all the cooking. In the best French tradition, it was very fine cooking, too. Even more amazing was the way he nurtured his young son Massimo, who had Down’s syndrome and made him an integral part of our crew.

Eric was also a great tinkerer and was proud of the massive fold-down bowsprit he’d built and installed on Alegria. Somehow when first deploying it we managed to lose our anchor overboard, trailing it behind us under full sail at the end of 200ft of rode. Through the long ordeal of recovering it (without stopping the boat) Eric maintained his cool and called for a happy round of beers when we finally succeeded. In spite of dragging that anchor for several miles and later blowing up both spinnakers we had onboard, we were second over the line, just minutes behind the lead boat, on the long leg from Cartagena to San Andrés.

Having nothing but fond memories of Eric, I truly was gutted when I recently learned he was lost at sea some 50 miles from Cartagena a few years ago. This was on Friday, April 7, 2017, when Eric and three crew were only 12 hours into a passage to the Dominican Republic aboard Saquerlotte, a 52ft aluminum cutter Eric had purchased and sailed home from Europe six years earlier.

One of the surviving crew, Roberto Reyes, told me the first sign of trouble came around noon that day, less than three hours after Saquerlotte left Cartagena. There was a large noise like something had hit the bottom of the boat, but there was no sign of anything going wrong, so the crew forged ahead, sailing north in a fresh breeze. Four hours later they noticed a small pool of water in the galley on the lee side of the boat but thought nothing of it. Two hours after that, a little after sunset, the water had risen to knee level.

The crew searched frantically for the leak, found nothing and decided to head back to Cartagena. On turning the boat around, however, there was another large noise under the hull, and soon the water in the cabin had risen to chest level. Around 2100, one member of the crew made a satellite call to a family member, describing the situation and the boat’s position. By 2200 the boat was sinking.

There was some problem deploying the liferaft, and the crew had to abandon ship with only life-vests to sustain them. Eric, however, never got clear.

“That thing went down like a rocket,” Roberto told me. And Eric, then in his 70s with limited mobility, went with it. “I could see his face looking up to the surface, looking at me, and then he completely disappeared in the bottom of the sea,” Roberto recalled.

Roberto and the other two crew, Frank Camacho and Luis Miguel Herrera, thank goodness, were picked up by the Colombian navy the following day. But nothing of Eric was ever seen again.

It’s possible it was Eric’s penchant for tinkering that did him in. Though Saquerlotte had served him well through many long passages, he couldn’t resist modifying her and had replaced her fixed keel with a retractable one, a very ambitious project. It’s easy to say any real sailor would like to go out this way, doing what they love. But for those who truly appreciated Eric, his family especially, it is a small consolation. 

September 2021

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