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Waterlines: Auto-da-Fé

Fuiava and Appel aboard the USS Ashland

Fuiava and Appel aboard the USS Ashland

Why must we persecute bluewater cruisers who get into trouble?

It has become standard operating procedure. As soon as the online sailing community catches word of a cruising sailboat that has been abandoned offshore, the crew of said boat is immediately subjected to a cyber inquisition. Even if facts are lacking, and even if the crew is experienced, hypothetical facts are instantly assumed and decisions made by the crew are roundly condemned as irresponsible. And if any poor sailor who stumbles into harm’s way should happen to be marginally inept or inexperienced, out come the pitchforks and burning torches.

Witness the sad story of Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava, who with the assistance of the U.S. Navy abandoned their boat, Sea Nymph, a Starratt & Jenks 45, some 900 miles southeast of Japan late this past October. They had set out from Hawaii five months earlier, bound for Tahiti, but soon lost their engine and were beset by rigging problems that hampered their ability to sail. They failed in their attempts to make alternative landfalls, but did succeed in repairing a busted watermaker and had plenty of food, so struggled onward. They still hoped to repair their boat when they made contact with the USS Ashland, a Navy landing ship, and Ashland’s crew declared Sea Nymph unseaworthy and evacuated the women and their two dogs.

A Navy tender nears Sea Nymph

A Navy tender nears Sea Nymph

Granted, Appel had only coastal sailing experience, Fuiava had none and the pair no doubt made many mistakes. Appel, an extremely effusive woman, also has a tendency to exaggerate wildly and wanders way off point when trying to tell a tale or explain something. And it certainly didn’t help that the if-it-bleeds-it-leads mainstream media, ignorant of any nuance, immediately misrepresented and sensationalized Sea Nymph’s voyage as a five-month-long survival drift.

Still, the online sailing community’s reaction to the misfortune of these women was shockingly heartless and merciless. In popular sailing forums and on certain blogs, Appel and Fuiava were denounced as lesbian lovers (they aren’t) and were immediately accused of perpetrating a hoax, a ridiculous canard that only gained momentum after it came out the pair had a working EPIRB they never turned on. A stream of insults and calumny followed, which soon bled over into the mainstream media, where so-called “sailing experts” stood ready to publicly accuse and defame them. The situation fully metastasized when the UK’s ever salacious Daily Mail obtained and published nude photos of Appel. From there much of the commentary devolved into simple obscenity.

In the wake of such a reaction, I feel I do have to ask: are we not better than this? I know it is common for online commentary on most any subject to be dismissive and derogatory, but I do not see why sailors, particularly bluewater sailors, need fall into this trap. Jennifer Appel and Tasha Fuiava may have been woefully unprepared, even comically so, but they did display some real courage. They kept trying to fix their boat and never set off their EPIRB simply because they were scared, which is a lot more than some other rookie voyagers can say.

If there is one thing bluewater sailing has never lacked it is enthusiastic novices who have no idea what they are getting into. I have even met many of them face-to-face over the years. I remember, for example, one young French couple I encountered in the Gambia who somehow managed to sail all the way from France to West Africa without ever figuring out how to reef their sails. They were seeking all sorts of advice from the more experienced sailors in the anchorage we shared, making crazy assertions and asking “stupid” questions. However, we never thought to revile or demean them. Instead, we did everything we could to help and encourage them.

People like this are the lifeblood of bluewater cruising. Today’s clueless idiot is tomorrow’s seasoned veteran, generous with his or her hard-earned knowledge and endlessly patient with those who are just starting out. This is, after all, how most of us started out, and the fact that we encounter these people online, rather than in person, should not prevent us from treating them like members of the family. 

March 2018

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