The flight from Ottawa to Florida is a long one, but Rudy Snel doesn’t mind as he gazes out the aircraft window at the clouds below. He’s thinking about the next leg of his trip: a voyage on the Sean Seamour II—a forty-four-foot sailboat—that will carry him and two others from Florida to the Azores, then on to Gibraltar and Saint-Tropez. Sailing across the Atlantic has been a dream of Rudy’s since he was nine years old when his family emigrated from Holland to Canada crossing the Atlantic on a passenger ship. In the course of the voyage they encountered a storm that caused the ocean liner to pitch and roll, making just about everyone on board seasick. But not Rudy. He was out on the top deck in the pelting rain having the time of his life, awed by the raging sea around him.
Rudy is now sixty-two years old and recently retired from a teaching career in the public schools. He finally has the time to live out his dream of returning to the sea. A five-foot-nine-inch Canadian with gray hair and a neatly trimmed beard, he is an adventurous soul; the hardships expected on a transatlantic crossing don’t bother him in the least. He owns his own sailboat and often sails the Ottawa River, but he has also mastered piloting small aircraft and parachuting. He has made more than six hundred parachute jumps. On one of those jumps, his parachute did not deploy properly, and when he looked up at the tangled mess during his free fall, his reaction wasn’t one of alarm, but of annoyance. He would have to pull his reserve parachute, and was already thinking ahead to the considerable effort it would take to repack it. He landed safely.
When he saw a notice on a website announcing that a crew was needed for a transatlantic crossing, he was able to tell the captain that while his sailing experience was limited to inland waterways, he wasn’t prone to panic when the unexpected happened. He was capable of standing watch and had never been motion-sick in his life. He explained that he wanted to go on the voyage to learn about blue-water sailing and because it would be an entirely new experience. He didn’t retire from his job just to sit around and grow soft.
• • •
When the plane touches down in Jacksonville, Florida, Rudy disembarks and follows the crowd down to baggage claim. He is met by the captain, fifty-seven-year-old Jean Pierre de Lutz, who goes by the nickname JP. The two men shake hands and then head outside. The warm, humid air embraces Rudy, a welcome change from the cold of Ottawa. It is late April, the temperature is in the mid-eighties, and the brilliant sunshine causes Rudy to squint.
They drive directly to the Sean Seamour II, which is moored at Green Cove Springs on the St. Johns River. Rudy likes what he sees. The Beneteau sailboat has a center cockpit protected by a hard dodger (rigid windshield), a single mast directly in front of the cockpit, with twin guardrails surrounding the white vessel. During inclement weather, the cockpit can be completely enclosed with canvas curtains and windows. It’s a sleek-looking boat—Rudy thinks it’s beautiful.
The third crew member, Ben Tye, emerges from the boat’s cabin. Jean Pierre introduces the thirty-one-year-old sailor to Rudy. Ben is British, with a short, stocky build and a shaved head. He began his career in the tourism industry, but he soon turned his interest to the sea, first teaching inshore sailing on small vessels, and then progressing to yacht deliveries. Now working toward his yachtmaster captain’s license, he is focused on gaining more miles at sea. He has sailed from Europe to the United States, and on this trip he will reverse course. Reserved by nature, Ben tends to take time before opening up, but that night at dinner, he already feels comfortable and is more than satisfied that the threesome will make a good crew. He is impressed that JP has spared no expense in equipping the boat and is taking his time readying it for the crossing. In his quiet manner, JP patiently explains the intricacies of his vessel, and Ben senses that this is a man who never gets rattled.
Ben and Rudy don’t know it, but JP had more than a dozen candidates answer his request for a crew. He interviewed each applicant, narrowing them down to two crew members, relying on his instincts to determine who would be the best fit. He was more than sure that Rudy and Ben were the right men for the job. JP selected May as the optimal time of year for an eastbound crossing of the Atlantic, primarily because it would put them ahead of hurricane season. He’d had a brush with a hurricane in a prior crossing and wanted no part of another.
The voyage is not scheduled for another few days because the Sean Seamour II was in storage for two and a half years, and needs a complete overhaul, cleaning, and provisioning. Some of the equipment was removed and stored in an air-conditioned warehouse. Now that equipment needs to be inspected, replaced if necessary, and secured in its proper position aboard the boat. Rudy and Ben will work under JP’s supervision. Each man will have a private berth; Ben’s will be the forward cabin, Rudy’s the stern, and JP’s the port side, closest to the chart table and the companionway leading up to the cockpit. As they start taking apart the inside of the boat and checking equipment, JP realizes that time and climate have done their share of damage. They order a new wind sensor, cable replacements for the mast, autopilot hydraulic pump, new fuel filters, and a new battery bank. The fuel tank is cleaned and a custom-made auxiliary tiller packed in case of emergency. New life jackets and flares are stowed. JP replaces the navigation and electronics by installing the latest MaxSea weather routing software, which will enable him to receive detailed wind data several days in advance, allowing him to adjust course accordingly. A backup computer with navigation and satellite telephone software is also on board and in working order.
The preparation introduces Ben and Rudy to the inner workings of the boat as they replace lines, clean equipment, and practice using the pumps. As the two men lay out the drogues and their lines on the dock, Ben says, “I hope we won’t need them.” Rudy counters, “Well, I’d like to see a bit of heavy weather, just for the experience.”
The life raft and GPIRB (global position indicating radio beacon, which can send a signal to the Coast Guard, pinpointing the location of an emergency) went out for recertification, and the entire crew reviews their operation before securing the two pieces of safety equipment. The GPIRB is one step advanced from the traditional EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon) because it has an integrated GPS that gives the receiver, the Coast Guard, a faster location fix and does not require the receiver to perform any complex calculations. The GPIRB on the Sean Seamour II is mounted in its cradle inside the cabin for ready access.
Also on board is an older EPIRB from an earlier boat of JP’s. Although it is a somewhat redundant piece of equipment, JP has tested its eleven-year-old batteries and the unit works, so he decides to keep it on board. He installs the EPIRB in its cradle on the inside of the cockpit’s hard dodger, where it is safe from sea spray and wash-downs. The EPIRB does not have a hydrostatic release, but its signal is water-activated, and the captain doesn’t want any false alarms.
JP reviews the heavy-weather contingencies with the crew, making sure they understand exactly what needs to be dogged down in a storm. They examine the location and operation of all safety equipment. One person will be on watch at all times, and they will all wear safety harnesses with tethers clipped to the boat at night and in heavy weather.
Ben is in charge of the first-aid kit because he is trained in emergency medical aid, and he adds all sorts of supplies to the kit, including several medications, along with a needle and thread for stitching. JP jokes that the boat now has its own pharmacy. But the “pharmacy” can’t cure Ben’s hangover after he and Rudy polish off four bottles of wine. The next day Rudy says the drinking served them well as “part of a team-building experience.” Ben fires back, “Well, that may be, but I’m never drinking with a fuckin’ Canuck again!”
The time spent working on the boat has been valuable for the three sailors to get to know one another before heading out to the open water. Rudy is glad for the few days of preparation; if he found anything of concern about his crewmates, he figured he could always back out of the voyage. He knows a transatlantic crossing has its risks, and he wants to feel extra comfortable with his partners. They will be in close quarters for several weeks. Rudy has a good feeling about both men. Ben is a knowledgeable sailor and a fun companion, and JP is soft-spoken, easygoing, and competent.
Departure is scheduled for May 1, 2007, but the men have to wait an extra day for some new batteries. This one-day delay will have significant consequences.
JP on his Boat
A True Story of Disaster, Survival and an Incredible Rescue
A Storm Too Soon
A True Story of Disaster, Survival and an Incredible Rescue
Trying to reach these survivors before it’s too late are four brave Coast Guardsmen battling hurricane-force winds in their Jayhawk helicopter. With waves reaching an astounding eighty feet, lowering the helicopter into such chaos will be extremely dangerous. The pilots wonder if they have a realistic chance of saving the sailors or even retrieving their own rescue swimmer. Soon the rescuers find themselves in almost as much trouble as the survivors, facing one life-and-death moment after the next against the towering seas.
Also caught in the storm are three other boats, each one in a Mayday situation. Of the ten people on these boats, only six will ever see land again.
Spellbinding, harrowing, and meticulously researched, A Storm Too Soon is a vivid, heart-pounding narrative of survival, the power of the human spirit, and one of the most incredible rescues ever attempted.