Experience: Gone Sailboat Gone

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One of the two Sea Tow captains called in to move Eclipse to deeper water assesses the situation

One of the two Sea Tow captains called in to move Eclipse to deeper water assesses the situation

Five days before Christmas, I booked my ticket home. It was evening, at the end a long day in my marine repair shop, BoatRx. After being in Miami a month, it was already starting to feel like home. I reviewed my to-do lists, grateful to be returning to a steady routine as I drove back to the marina where Eclipse, my Tayana 42 and my home, had been moored since I’d arrived from Boston.

The wind was blowing hard when I got there. I went for a run to ease my mind and donned my foulweather jacket before taking off into the darkness. In no time, I was getting soaked by the spray blowing off the tops of the waves with the northeast gale. Luckily, the trip to the boat was both short and a fairly straightforward one—straight out the channel, then left at the red marker toward mooring #91, where I’d see the blue hull of Eclipse.

As soon as I made the left, I knew something was wrong. Mooring #91 was right where it should be, but there was no boat. I raced to the ball and grabbed the plastic thimble. It was intact, but there was no sign of the two lines I’d run through it earlier. Adrenaline shot through my veins as a wave nearly swamped me. I sprang into action.

There was a Catalina nearby. I headed over, shouting for anybody aboard. A kind man named Vernon came out on deck. He called a few friends of his who salvaged boats, but got nothing. We swapped numbers, and I headed downwind, knowing the wind was blowing onshore. Had Eclipse been stolen? In these conditions? How had she managed to break free and then make it through the mooring field without hitting any of the other boats?

I got the skiff up to full speed, pulling the drain plug to empty the water now coming in with the crashing waves. There was soon not a dry spot anywhere. The laptop in my backpack was likely destroyed. Moving downwind, past the mansions in Coconut Grove, I scanned the anchorages and shallows. Keep breathing, use your head, I told myself. You’re OK, even if the boat is gone. I had no light, no life jacket, no paddle, no radio. I had no choice but to return to the marina.

A first glimpse of the stranded Eclipse (left); Eclipse was good and stuck, but otherwise mostly unharmed (right)

A first glimpse of the stranded Eclipse (left); Eclipse was good and stuck, but otherwise mostly unharmed (right)

Arriving at the van, I immediately called the Coast Guard and filed a report. Moments later someone called back. “This is U.S. Coast Guard Sector Miami Beach. You said it was a 42ft blue-hulled sailboat, correct? Yeah, well, we just got a report of one dragging its anchor.” They also sent me a set of coordinates, which I entered into the Navionics app on my phone. The position was upwind of where I’d left Eclipse, but maybe someone had found her adrift and anchored her on the north side of the channel. I stripped down to the basics, grabbed a headlamp and took off again with the skiff into the darkness.

It was late when I arrived at the coordinates. It wasn’t Eclipse, but another blue 40-footer that had dragged anchor and was now sitting off Dinner Key. The boat seemed to be holding steady, so I went back to the van, feeling hopeless and totally discouraged as I climbed into the driver’s seat.

A short while later I phoned my friend Mat, who I’d been renting my shop space from. He and his wife, Lucia, said they’d have the couch ready with fresh sheets when I got there, and after taking another shower at the marina I drove over in the van and settled in for the night.

The next morning, Mat and I headed out again in the skiff. The wind was as bad or worse than ever, but now we had daylight on our side, and I figured we’d see Eclipse right away, probably sitting on her side in the shallows. We buzzed the mooring field, the anchorage and the entire shoreline from Dinner Key to Matheson Hammock Park. Some areas we checked twice. Nothing. I couldn’t believe it.

Returning to the dock, I called the authorities again—the Coast Guard, the sheriff’s department—as thoughts of Eclipse being bashed up against a line of rocks or a sea wall raced through my imagination. I spoke to some Sea Tow captains who warned me that a search would cost as much as $400 an hour given the conditions.

At the marina, I met Jenson, a captain who ran a watersports rental company. With his tactical-style center console RIB and 150hp engine, we were able to move quickly and stay a bit drier than I had aboard the skiff. But again, it was no use. He, too, was billing by the hour. With the wind and waves, it was just too difficult to make any kind of meaningful progress.

Next, I called Paul Columna, a cousin of my business partner, who is a firefighter and retired Air Force pararescue specialist. He had a plane in Fort Lauderdale and was on the runway when we spoke. He said he’d be willing to continue the search by air, but that it would be pointless. The cloud ceiling was too low, the winds too high.

Later that same day, I called off the search. Sitting slumped in the seat of my van at the Dinner Key Marina, I began to feel truly hopeless. Now that the initial shock had worn off, I started wondering whether my continuing to search for Eclipse didn’t represent a kind of denial—denial that the sailboat that had served as my home for the past five years was now either stolen or destroyed. Grief crept in as I thought of all the people I’d had aboard, the over 10,000 miles we’d sailed together, how I’d lost of all my possessions. I found myself wondering what it was going to be like having to start all over again; thinking to myself I should’ve done a better job of securing the boat; that I should’ve insured her again after being dropped by my previous insurance company; how if I’d thought to leave the AIS turned on and my Iridium tracker enabled, they would have led me right to her.

Luckily, my grieving proved to be only temporary, thanks in large part to my friends, my family and my girlfriend, Lisa, whose invariably positive outlook kept me from utter despair. “You’ll find her,” she kept saying, even though it had now been almost 24 hours since Eclipse had gone missing.

Mat also helped me keep things in perspective. “Phil,” he said. “You owe it to this boat to keep searching. Think of all that boat has done for you. Stop feeling shame about mistakes you might have made. These are the types of things that happen to people who are constantly pushing their limits.”

Back at Mat and Lucia’s, I retreated to their couch to write a couple of Facebook and Instagram posts to help get the word out. In the following days, these two posts would be shared over 1,000 times. Little did I know managing the communications stemming from this initial outreach effort would end up becoming one of the more challenging parts of that weekend.

By nightfall little had changed. The winds were still blowing relentlessly out of the northeast, as I fielded calls and texts of support from the many people who had seen my posts. Finally, a total stranger, Michael Harding, wrote to me saying, “I have an airplane in Orlando and would be willing to fly search patterns.” We connected by phone afterward, and he told me a little about the search and rescue work he’d done in the Caribbean. We agreed to stay in touch and keep an eye on weather, as the conditions still made any kind of search impossible. It felt great having someone like Mike, someone I’d never even met before, in my corner.

As the tide comes in, the job of freeing Eclipse from the shoal begins

As the tide comes in, the job of freeing Eclipse from the shoal begins

Another connection I made was with an old friend, Jason Barron, owner of Barron’s Boatyard in City Island New York who put me in touch with a local pilot-boat captain named Bill Rychlicki. Bill and I connected by phone. He seemed to know everyone on the water and contacted every single professional captain he knew currently working on Biscayne Bay to ask them to be on the lookout.

By the following morning, a Sunday, my phone was full of replies, but Eclipse still hadn’t been located. The northeasterly was also still in full effect. I was eager to get back out on the water, but knew it would be impossible—and Bill and Mike agreed. The forecast called for rain overnight with the wind shutting down on Monday. I called my family to let them know I wouldn’t be home for Christmas. With my ever-evolving team helping out, I planned my next steps.

Another friend connected me with Tony Anderson, a seaplane pilot who flies tours in the Miami area. Mike, Bill and Tony all agreed that when the weather broke a seaplane would be my best bet. Tony and I agreed to talk again the following day.

Monday morning, December 23, I woke to find the wind was finally settling down for the first time in five days and learned the rain was supposed to stop in the afternoon. Tony was at the airport fueling up the seaplane. I had another boat and captain at ready as well, if needed.

Mat and Lucia met me at the marina during their lunch break. I jumped in their Jeep, and we went to meet the seaplane. Tony confirmed we’d be good to go around 1230. On the way, I noticed the weather was already clearing. Julio, who worked at the seaplane office downtown, led us to a dock where we jumped in a small runabout. It felt strange having him give us an abbreviated tour of Biscayne bay, pointing out dolphins and manatees as we motored out to meet the plane. I tried my best to enjoy myself, but it was an expensive trip and my boat was still gone. This whole thing could be a waste. Moments later, a single-engine seaplane dropped out of the sky and came to a landing. We pulled alongside. Tony stepped out with a gleaming smile.

Seated in the aircraft, Tony told us where the life jackets were and then asked where I wanted to go. Opening up my Navionics app again, I pointed to an area south of Deering Bay Channel. Tony piped some cool island music through the headsets, which got a good laugh, throttled up the engine, and we took off.

Flying low, we passed over Dinner Key. The skies had finally cleared, and the view was incredible. Barely 15 minutes into our search, I tapped Tony on the shoulder and pointed to a spec a couple miles in front of us. We nodded to each other. I could already tell it was a sailboat, and we all knew a sailboat didn’t belong in the shallow waters off Biscayne National Park. Seconds passed. It was agonizing waiting for the speck to come into focus, but there she was. It was Eclipse.

She was perfectly upright, balanced on her keel and rudder, high above the water, resting in the mud only a short distance from shore. Even my inflatable dinghy was there. Tony set the seaplane down just behind her. We’d barely come to a stop before I was jumping into the water and grabbing the mooring line from the plane to tie us alongside.

Shimmying my hands along the edge of the toerail, I hoisted myself on deck, where I swung open the companionway and took a quick inventory. The hatches were all shut and dogged tight. The battery voltage was still a good 12.6 volts. The fridge was running with the food inside fresh. The bilge was nearly dry. I waved to Tony one last time as he took off.

Surrounded by clear blue water and mangroves, I stood on deck and took a few deep breaths. After that, I walked up to the bow where I knelt to inspect the shredded mooring pendants. Returning to the cabin, I started making a mental list of all the people I needed to call, at the same time putting together a plan to get the boat out of the muck. I also called Lisa. I could hardly believe how lucky I’d been.

At 1900 that same day, a pair of SeaTow Boats arrived at high tide and pulled Eclipse free. The operation involved dragging her on her side nearly a mile across sand and rock, until she was in deep enough water to float on her own. Finally, when I was alone again at the helm, I picked up the phone and booked another flight home. I’d be there for at least a part of the holidays after all. 

The jubilant author takes a selfie with the rescue team

The jubilant author takes a selfie with the rescue team

What I Did Right

• Never gave up trying or gave in to despair

• Enlisted the help of the local sailing community

• Suspended the search when conditions made it impossible to continue doing so safely

• Didn’t compound the situation but getting myself hurt or putting myself in unnecessary danger

What I Did wrong

• Didn’t make absolutely sure the boat was safely moored

• Failed to have Eclipse properly insured

Got a good story to share? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com

Photos by Phillip Gutowski

May 2020

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