“Poor choices make for good stories,” said sailor Bill Heldenbrand, whose sailboat washed ashore this week after he abandoned her near Bermuda months ago.
On July 5, After 54 days at sea, Heldenbrand’s 1976 36-foot Pearson ketch, Running Free, landed on a sandy spit of land on the south side of Martha’s Vineyard. That morning, beach goers on the idyllic beach, surrounded by blue-green turbulent water, found the vessel. The jib was shredded to nothing but napkin-sized bits hanging on for dear life and the boom was broken, but all the electronics were still on working, and the solar charging system was still working.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see her again. I’m amazed,” said Heldenbrand.
Running Free managed to drift almost unscathed since mid-May through the bustling East Coast shipping lanes, avoiding the New England rocky shoreline and outcrops, and safely beach herself 700 miles from where she was left on her own.
Heldenbrand, a self-professed rookie sailor, was sailing from Jacksonville, Florida, to the U.K., with a planned layover on Bermuda. About 400 miles west of Bermuda on day seven, he encountered weather with 40-knot sustained winds accompanied by 15-20 foot waves.
“I battled the weather for 18 or so hours, but then I had to sleep, so I hove to and got some rest.”
When he woke up, the weather had worsened, and the jib sheet had chaffed enough to break, leaving the jib to flog. The only weather predictor on board was a barometer, and his fear was that the storm would outlast him.
Luckily, Heldenbrand’s AIS alarm alerted to a nearby oil tanker two miles from his position, cruising about 15 knots. He radioed the tanker to find out that the weather system was 300 miles wide and would probably last for several days.
“In retrospect, not having a way to check the weather was a bad decision, but I guess that’s what makes for good stories later.”
With the tanker soon to be out of radio range, Heldenbrand was forced to decide fast if he wanted to be rescued.
“Do I sacrifice the uninsured boat containing all my belongings for a better chance at living?
Moments later, the tanker changed course and plucked the sailor from his boat, and dropped him off at their destination of Quebec City.
It seems his life has been fueled by a love of adventure and a dogged approach to learning new skills. A retired nuclear engineer, turned motorcycle racer, turned ultra marathon runner, Heldenbrand was turned on by the idea of sailing by a fellow runner. When he heard about a new 100-mile ultra foot race in England, he decided to marry his new passion for sailing with his current passion of running ridiculously long distances. He purchased the Pearson in December 2012 and spent the next five months outfitting the boat for the trip and teaching himself how to sail.
“I thought to myself, if others can do it, so can I.”
Heldenbrand is currently on the Vineyard, waiting for Running Free to be towed to the mainland. TowBoat U.S. was unable to extract her from the beach and plans on returning with more horsepower in the form of a tug.
Upon visiting his boat, he found that looters had stolen two anchors, all the radio and GPS equipment, winches, his binoculars, tools, the power wheel – anything of value.
“It is was it is,” was his response.
Heldenbrand seems unscathed by his ordeal, and still plans on racing in England, but will travel via plane. As for Running Free, he plans on giving her away, but will continue sailing.
“Ya know, I had seven good days of sailing solo, being followed by dolphins and watching the stars at night. It was a pretty cool experience. I did it because I wanted an adventure, and I got it.”