An Experimental Sea Craft, A Virgin Voyage, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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 Linda Lum