An Experimental Sea Craft, A Virgin Voyage, and A Story of Survival

I began to ponder the sharks. I figured I would swim out as far as I could and then slash my leg with a pocketknife. But he’s got his whole life ahead of him. I've had a great life. I'm ready.

— Sandy W.

A Brief Introduction

How do I begin to describe Sandy? We first met in 1990 when he transferred from his office in Texas to our District headquarters in Tacoma, Washington. He is…a research scientist, a great organizer and leader, a crazy-good bowler, a grill-master, a Christian, a wonderful father and grandfather, an amazing friend, and a man who loves life on the water.

Miami Beach
Miami Beach

A Love of the Ocean

Sandy loves the ocean; he was born near the Atlantic coast in Argentina and raised just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean near Palo Alto, California. He often joked that saltwater flowed through his veins. An avid sailor, he began sailing with friends in high school, and as a student at Berkeley he and his future wife pooled $1,100 to purchase their first of many sailboats. However, their first trip to San Francisco Bay in their newly purchased craft did not end idyllically. They ended up towing a disabled boat to shore.

That’s always the ways it’s been for me and sailing—trial by fire”

Upon graduation Sandy began a 35-year career with the U.S. Geological Survey. He and his wife had tours of duty in California, Texas, and ultimately Tacoma, Washington where he retired in 2010. Husband and wife still loved boating and wanted to share their passion with others. Using some of their carefully-managed retirement funds they opened a boat brokerage.

Wanting to Share the Passion With Others

One of the crafts Sandy and his wife had been pitching was the HeliCat—a 21.5 foot Argentine fiberglass craft that resembled “the love child of a helicopter and a catamaran”. Two hulls supported a central open cockpit shaped like a helicopter without blades. Sandy purchased molds for the design, adjusted the blueprints, and created a 2,200-pound version that would top out at 33 knots on twin 60hp engines. A jet ski that handles like a boat. Price tag $70,000.

Ultimately they invested a quarter of a million dollars on the project, but it had never been tested on the open ocean. That is where our story begins.

Sandy's helicat
Sandy's helicat

Selling the Dream

Sandy travelled to Florida with his creation, hoping to lure buyers at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. But first, he would pilot the HeliCat 50 miles to Bimini, just to prove to the world, and himself, that it was a viable product. However, he didn’t want to ride solo; an opportunity like this seemed just too precious to not share with someone. So he contacted the local Florida branch of the USGS, asking if anyone would be interested in a day of exploit on the sea. In moments he received a response from Corey, a young field technician happy for an invitation to a random adventure. He had experience with skipping air boats over the Everglades, but this would be something entirely different.

show route and directions
A markerMiami, Florida -
Miami, FL, USA
[get directions]

B markerBimini -
Bimini, The Bahamas
[get directions]

selfie
selfie | Source

The Adventure Begins

On a bright October morning, Sandy and Corey met at the marina; the time was about 8.am. They boarded the bright-yellow HeliCat and quickly headed out toward a sun wrapped with clouds. Weather reports were iffy—winds expected to be 8 to 10 miles per hour, increasing to 10 to 12 by mid-afternoon. But Sandy believed in his craft, estimating that it could easily reach Bimini in a little over 3 hours.

With Sandy at the helm and Corey in the back seat, the HeliCat surged forward at a steady pace of 15 knots. Both men were quiet, thoughtful. Sandy recalled thinking that Corey was about the age of his own four children. After about an hour, Sandy checked his GPS and found that they were still about 60 percent away from their destination.

Then the unforeseeable happened—Sandy noticed that a small hatch had ripped clean off of the left hull. Water was rushing in and anchor ropes and inflatable fenders gurgled out. Sandy shouted at Corey to turn the boat around so that they could search for the missing piece. But, as they turned course, the storage space filled with water. In an instant 500 pounds of weight were added to the HeliCat. If that were not enough, soon incoming waves bashed the right hull as well, and the second hatch was also torn away. Now both hulls were filling with water—FAST.

Auto Pilot

Sandy knew his boat was no longer salvageable—rather than sail to Bimini he and Corey would need to fight for their lives. "Corey," he said, "Get the locator beacon out and press the button."

"You know that's going to call the Coast Guard?"

"Yeah, that's exactly what I want it to do."

TEXT—Into the Sea

Into The Sea

Sandy and Corey prepared for their next move—to abandon ship and hope for a rescue at sea. Corey strapped on a life jacket; Sandy gathered a length of rope, his duffle, and a flotation cushion. Then the boat capsized and both men were in the cold water. It was 9:45 a.m.

This wasn’t the first time Sandy had been required to think-quickly in a dangerous situation. As a teen he had been pinned underwater in surging rapids; once he had been caught in a freak lightning storm on Mount Rainier. But now he was bobbing in the ocean, and responsible for not only his own safety but for the life of another human being.

Every move was a calculation. The boat was slowly disappearing--Sandy could try to retrieve his life vest, but doing so would expend extra energy. His cell phone was still powered up-- but he had no signal. The pair could swim east to obtain cell coverage—but that was probably 4 miles away.

Text messages might work! So Sandy sent a message to his brother and wife – “911, sunk, 15 mi off.”

Forty-five minutes later, the situation was worse. The boat had completely disappeared. Gone. Sandy began to pray, imploring God to "allow me to see my children and grandchildren once again”.

No rescue was in sight. An hour after seeing his investment sink to the bottom of the sea, Sandy was treading water in 6-foot swells 15 miles from Miami. Meanwhile, Corey was shivering. Without the life jacket he would have already drowned. It was cold, and he was lean—not a lot of body fat to keep him insulated.

What Are the Odds?

Would the emergency beacon work? Would Sandy’s family report him missing? Rescuers might be en route, but would they realize that the Gulf Stream had nudged the pair north of where the boat had sank?

And then Sandy thought about the sharks .If they came, he resolved to act as a decoy. "I would swim out as far as I could and slash my leg with a pocketknife. I've had a great life. I'm ready."

Rescue!

At noon exactly, there was elation. A red dot appeared in the sky and grew into a Coast Guard chopper. Then, as suddenly as it arrived, it buzzed away. Their hope deflated. A minute later, the dot reappeared. It again grew into a chopper. Then it again shrank out of sight. On the third pass, the chopper hovered directly overhead.

Sandy and Corey high-fived as the recue diver hit the waves.

Yes, This is a True Story

Sandy and I continue to keep in touch and will forever be friends. I have not used his last name here because although he has a booming voice and infection grin, he is a quiet, private man. He still works with boats. He is a sailing instructor and Owner/broker at WORD Yachts

The Argentine company HeliCat is no longer in business.

© 2016 Carb Diva

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Comments 14 comments

bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 7 months ago from Central Florida

What a scary time! I would have been petrified of the possibility of a shark encounter. Thank God the Coast Guard arrived! I wonder why they came by air and not by sea. Sandy is a wonderful person to put his passenger's life first. I wonder how many other people would have done that?

I think I've heard of HeliCat. When did they go out of business?


lawrence01 profile image

lawrence01 8 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

Linda

Great story here. The Coastguard and Air Sea rescue are real heroes. Corey did the right thing wearing the lifejacket from the start!

Lawrence


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 8 months ago Author

Rachel - Like you, I am not a huge fan of stories about outdoor sports. But this one is special--Sandy is such an amazing human being. I thank God that his life was spared and he is still here with us.


Rachel L Alba profile image

Rachel L Alba 8 months ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

That was a very interesting story. I usually don't have to patience to finish reading one, but this one I kept reading. Thanks for sharing.

Blessings to you.


Jackie 8 months ago

You are in. They usually notify you facebook if you have an acct there but sure someone will be in touch soon or you can just go there. The Creative Exiles


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 8 months ago from The Beautiful South

Don't worry! Won't be long. You do have to be voted in but that will be no problem and won't take long...unless someone is sleeping! lol


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 8 months ago Author

Hi Jackie, and thank you. I have sent a request for an invite to the FB page. Still waiting.


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 8 months ago from The Beautiful South

Wow what a story! Are you joining Jodah's poetry and writing site? Hope you will, he is looking for the best and you are certainly one of the top!


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 8 months ago Author

Thanks Bill. I'm with you 100 percent. I'll stay on terra firma thank you very much. Sandy is an amazing Christian man--he's big as a bear, and has an even bigger heart. When he speaks of the moment he considered taking his own life so that this young man (who he had met just hours ago) could be spared, he breaks down and sobs.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 8 months ago from Olympia, WA

Wow! That kind of adventure is not for me, but I admire anyone willing to undertake it. Great story, Linda. Thanks for sharing with us.


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 8 months ago Author

Thank you Eric. I hoped you would enjoy it.


Ericdierker profile image

Ericdierker 8 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

Cool, how exciting. I just new it was true when I started reading. What a great story and perfectly told.


Carb Diva profile image

Carb Diva 8 months ago Author

Thank you Shadrack2. Most of my articles are related to food and food history, but once in a while I like to branch out a bit. This story seemed just too good to not share. I'm glad you liked it.


Shadrack2 profile image

Shadrack2 8 months ago

Great piece. I like it. I will be happy to read more of your articles.

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