Everest Horizontal Capsized
It wasn't supposed to end like this.
On May 5, 2003, I'd finished the Around Alone race. My Jim Antrim-designed Open
50, Everest Horizontal, had carried me to second place in Class II, and I was
delighted. We'd performed far better than my own-or anyone else's-expectations,
and I was looking forward to relaxing a bit and planning the future, which I
already hoped would include the 2006/7 Around Alone on an Open 60.
Shortly after the race, my good friend Rick McKenna and I decided to compete in
the Bermuda One/Two, an event that runs from Newport to Bermuda solo, then
doublehanded on the return trip. It was perfect; at just under 700 miles, it
wasn't too long, but it had enough challenge to get both of us excited. Everest
was ready, and so were we.
The less said about my performance in the solo leg, the better. Due to
obligations at home, I arrived in Newport three days later than I'd planned,
less than two days before the start. There was a fairly extensive list to be
tackled, including adding the safety equipment required for racing with two
people on board. I added a Man Overboard Module and a Lifesling and did a long
list of maintenance chores in two very late nights of work. I then slept
through my alarm the first night of the race, went 25 miles in the wrong
direction, and was beaten to Bermuda by Tim Troy's Open 60, Margaret Anna, and
Steve Pettengill's Hunter HC50. Rick and I had some work to do on the return
By the time Rick arrived, with less than a day to the start, the boat was ready
to go. Before the race, there was a lot of discussion among the sailors about
how to tackle the Gulf Stream on the way north. There was a large contrary
meander in the Stream right on the rhumb line; the choice was to go east to a
narrow spot in the Stream or west of the meander and get a boost from the
Stream. Along with the bulk of the fleet, we chose the longer, potentially
faster western route. This decision almost certainly saved our lives.
The sailing was fantastic. We had about 15 knots of breeze and were
close-reaching at around 11 knots. Once we got the boat settled down, I plugged
in all of our waypoints on my laptop; I used MaxSea all the way around the
world and loved the precision it allowed in plotting courses. I then downloaded
the latest weather forecast and overlaid it on our chart. It predicted that the
weather would allow us to sail a close reach to the Gulf Stream, then head
nearly on the rhumb line to Newport. The routing software backed up our plan.
We were expecting a front to arrive at nightfall, bringing 35 knots of wind,
still on a close reach. Everest reveled in these conditions, and Rick and I
were both looking forward to a fast, breezy night.
Our time for calling in our position was 1900 Eastern Daylight Time; we
contacted race headquarters on our Iridium satellite phone and learned that
Margaret Anna was four miles ahead and slightly east of us. The wind was up to
22 knots, and we were still holding the full main and solent, or working jib. I
checked the trim on all the sails and told Rick that we would be looking at
putting in a reef when the wind hit 25 knots true. The boat was flying along at
13 knots with the autopilot driving. Nightfall was approaching, and I slipped
into my Around Alone routine and started the engine to charge the batteries.
With everything under control, I sat down under Everest's lovely hard dodger
and started to read The Miami Herald's sports section. I remember thinking that
this is about as good as an ocean race can get: great boat, great speed, great
friend, everything under control. And then, suddenly, it wasn't.
Pounding on a close reach, Everest's stiff carbon hull sounds like the inside
of a drum, and I'd become used to it. So when Rick and I heard two sharp bangs,
I looked up, but I was unconcerned. Rick asked, "Was that the keel?" I snorted
derisively, "No, that's not the keel," and went back to my sports page. But
Rick was right; it was the keel. Everest was mortally wounded and began to show
it by heeling sharply.
When Everest hits a big puff of wind while sailing closehauled, she frequently
overpowers the autopilot and rounds up. I assumed this was happening again, so
I reached over and killed the autopilot and took the tiller in hand, trying to
bring her back in control. No dice; the boat continued to heel over until the
mast and sails were in the water. Rick was below and had to duck as cooking
utensils rained down on him. I jumped below and killed the engine, then
returned to the cockpit. The boat was well beyond 90 degrees of heel at this
point, making it difficult to maneuver in the cockpit. I had on my safety
harness/inflatable life jacket, as I always do when sailing shorthanded, so I
clipped and unclipped my way to the transom for a look at the keel.
It's hard to describe how I felt when I peered past the hull and saw that the
4,200-pound bulb was missing from the keel. I knew that Everest would never lie
down like this, so I wasn't too surprised. Almost a year of dealing with
seagoing emergencies had taught me to deal with such situations calmly, but
this disaster chilled me deep inside; we were going to have to abandon Everest
I got back to the cabin a lot faster than I made it aft; time was vitally
important now. I told Rick that we'd lost the keel bulb and were going to have
to call for help. Rick said, "Look over your shoulder!" I did, and I saw a most
welcome sight. There on the distant horizon, lit like a small city, was a
cruise ship. Under the companionway steps were two watertight boxes, one of
which was loaded with flares. He handed me one box, and it was filled with
emergency water packets. As he handed me the second, I asked him for a
headlamp, which I'd gotten used to during the Around Alone race. It was getting
dark, so reaching for a headlamp was instinctive. This, too, would prove to be
a lifesaving decision.
As we lay there on our side, I pulled a parachute flare out of the flare box. I
read the instructions and fired off the first rocket. The rocket exhaust filled
the cabin with smoke, but we'd gotten off our first flare. I closed the box,
then asked Rick for the EPIRB and the spare handheld VHF, both of which were
right next to the companionway. But it was too late. Everest Horizontal
finished her capsize and rolled upside down.
Later, Rick told me that as the boat started to roll over, I said, "Get out of
here now!" I don't remember saying this, but it was certainly what I was
thinking. As the boat went over, I was unceremoniously dumped into the water
under the cockpit. I was still tethered to the boat and had a death grip on the
rope handle of the box of flares. I blew the quick-release shackle on my tether
and started to swim under the boat aft. Twice the box of flares got hung up on
ropes hanging down in the cockpit; twice I untangled the box. I wasn't letting
go of those flares. To my relief, Rick was bobbing in the water near the
transom when I surfaced. I was never so glad to see another guy in my whole
Everest's twin rudders provided a great place to perch. We each clambered onto
the upturned bottom of the boat; Rick took the starboard (now port) rudder, and
I took the other. We each swung a leg around our rudder and held on. Without a
radio or EPIRB, it was critical to attract the attention of that cruise ship
with flares. I switched on my headlamp and got to work getting those red,
rocket-propelled parachute flares into the air. The headlamp was a godsend, as
the instructions on the flares were printed in tiny black letters on a red
background. I took off my glasses and put them in the box; they were covered in
salt water and useless.
In South Africa, the Around Alone organizers had sent us to a very useful
seminar at an offshore survival school at which, among other things, we were
instructed in the proper way to fire the SOLAS flares that each boat had on
board. While I didn't have the chance to fire a red, rocket-propelled parachute
flare, Bermudian entrant Alan Paris did, and he warned us about the kick of the
rocket. The instructors showed us how to use the odd triggering mechanism and
told us to fire the flares into the wind so they'd stay on station above us. I
remembered their instructions as I got to work.
After the second flare, it was clear that the cruise ship had turned toward us,
and our spirits lifted. It was getting rough; at one point, a wave swept Rick
off the bottom.
"Hang on tighter!" I yelled at him as he swam back to the boat, providing
encouragement where clearly none was needed. After firing off several flares,
with the cruise ship coming our way, I started to wait about 10 minutes between
flares. As it got closer, I started to conserve the SOLAS flares and fired off
a mini-flare. What a mistake; the thing was incredibly loud and almost removed
my thumb. As the cruise ship closed on us, we started to use handheld flares:
white anti-collision flares and red handhelds.
Finally, the cruise ship was upon us. The boat came to an almost complete halt
when it drew abeam of us. We were about 100 feet from the port side. We could
see the decks and windows jammed with people looking down at us; dozens of
flashbulbs were going off as people took photos. As we drifted slowly by the
ship, we asked each other how the heck we were going to get aboard this
behemoth. No word came from the ship, and we finally drifted aft of her.
Suddenly we heard a small diesel engine start up and shift into gear. A cheer
went up from the ship, and we saw one of the ship's lifeboats heading toward
us-that was how they intended to get us on board! We got an idea of how rough
it was when the lifeboat approached. On its first pass, it got thrown into
Everest right next to Rick, who scrambled out of the way. The crew chief, who
we later learned was Chief Officer Robert Kennedy, asked how many of us were on
board. Each of us held up two fingers, and they got on with the business of
getting us into the lifeboat.
I indicated that Rick should go first, and they approached his side of the
boat. As they closed, again a wave threw them into Everest (the captain later
told us that at the time that we were picked up, the wind was blowing 35 knots
and seas were 8 to 12 feet). The lifeboat backed away once more, then
approached slowly. The crew threw a life ring with a rope attached toward Rick;
needing no encouragement, he dove off the boat and swam for the ring. Once he
reached it, he was hauled into the boat. One down.
I'd been wearing my Mustang life jacket/harness for a year without ever needing
to trigger it. I felt that this was as good a time as any to see if it worked,
so I jerked the line to activate the jacket. It filled with a bang as the life
ring was thrown my way. I dove off Everest and swam to the ring. I was hauled
to the ladder on the side of the lifeboat; as soon as I was halfway up, hands
grabbed hold of the straps of my life jacket and hauled me headfirst, like a
dead mackerel, into the lifeboat. I got up from the bottom of the boat, thanked
the crew, gave Rick a high five, and sat back, overwhelmed.
So happy was I to be alive and safe that I never even glanced back at Everest,
the plucky, sturdy, swift, wonderful boat that had taken me safely around the
The lifeboat returned quickly to the port side of the cruise ship, Nordic
Empress. Our crew quickly reattached the pulleys to the davits that hauled us
in the lifeboat up six levels to the lifeboat deck. Here we had a moment of
light comedy as we briefly stopped adjacent to the porthole of a passenger's
cabin just as its occupant, an apparently well-fed gentleman, stepped from the
shower. We couldn't contain our laughter at the shocked look on his face as he
raised a towel to cover himself. A second later, we were lifted out of his
As soon as the lifeboat arrived on the boat deck, ready hands wrapped us in
blankets and hustled us off to the ship's infirmary. The ship's doctor and
nurses took our temperatures and blood pressures and asked the standard
questions. Rick's temp had dropped to a dangerous 92.6 F. Had our 90-minute
ordeal lasted much longer, hypothermia would have surely set in. My temperature
was near normal, and my blood pressure was typically low; the nurse bluntly
told me, "You're a freak."
After being released from the infirmary, we were handed Royal Caribbean
T-shirts, shorts, and sweatshirts and escorted to our private cabins. We were
allowed free phone calls to family and friends at home. Although Rick tried to
assure his wife, Germaine, that he was fine, she couldn't stop crying. I found
my daughters and ex-wife (and chief Around Alone supporter) Cheri on her cell
phone at the Milwaukee Yacht Club pool. I could only imagine the stories being
told around the pool later that evening.
We had a lovely meeting with the captain of Nordic Empress and his wife in
their stateroom. There, we compared notes on our respective strategies from
Bermuda. Nordic Empress had left Hamilton, Bermuda, some three hours after we
left St. George. It turns out that we were both using oceanographer Jenifer
Clark's Gulf Stream analysis, and to save fuel, Nordic Empress was headed for
the same cold eddy south of the Stream that we were on Everest Horizontal. Our
westward course had placed us directly in the path of Nordic Empress, saving
our lives in the process.
After our meeting, we were given the run of the ship: free drinks and food for
the day-and-a-half trip to New York City. You really can eat all day on a
cruise ship, but Rick and I weren't all that hungry, nor, to my surprise, was I
the least bit eager to overindulge at the bar. Everything around us seemed
tinged with a distinct aura of unreality: the cruise ship under our feet, the
casino, the bar, the food, our cabin-everything.
We entered our slip and docked in New York right on time; had we arrived even a
few minutes late, the dockhands on shore would have been eligible for four
hours of overtime pay. After a cordial and heartfelt thanks to the wonderful
crew who saved our lives, it was time to re-enter the United States with no
identification. For me, it was time to re-enter the world with literally
nothing. Everest was uninsured; virtually everything that I owned was aboard
her when she capsized: clothes, laptop computers, tools, mementos-everything.
But we were whisked through customs and into the cavernous landing area before
anyone else, there to meet Germaine and my girlfriend, Danielle. Later in the
day, we'd fly home to Milwaukee, and I'd be reunited with my children and
And I began to think about recovering Everest.
In Part II, in CW's next issue, Around Alone sailor Tim Kent describes the
dramatic recovery of Everest Horizontal. Noise abatement