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At the mercy of the sea… and the sea showed no mercy

2008 January 17
In the annals of sailors lost at sea-and that is a long and terrible history of shipwreck and death-I don't think I've ever come across a crueler story than the sinking of the 35-foot sailboat Jason. Three sailors died, two of them in a desperate attempt to save the third. A raging sea destroyed their boat and, in savage irony, flung their bodies on the rocks of a breakwater that could have been their safe haven.

The Jason story was told in last month's SAILING, and we've heard from readers about it. Some found fault with the seamanship of the victims; others thought their first mistake was putting themselves in harm's way. A note from Christine Sammel of Evanston, Illinois, (not far from the scene of the tragedy) suggests that in this column I should "address the issue of thinking you have to go out when conditions are dangerous." She concluded, "It appears such thinking recently cost three men their lives."

A lot of people would agree with Christine. The three would be alive if they had not decided to sail the J/35 from Chicago's Monroe Harbor to Calumet Harbor in a strong wind and high seas on a cold October evening. But I tend more to admire them for being so enthused about sailing that they were up for making the 12-mile passage on a rough fall night. Yes, it was heavy weather, but conditions were not more severe than what a sound boat and reasonably experienced sailors should have been able to handle-the sort of weather that, if you were caught in it suddenly while cruising or racing far offshore, you would just deal with.

When Jason left the harbor with owner John Finn and three friends aboard, a NOAA weather buoy in the middle of southern Lake Michigan was recording north winds up to 30 knots and waves as high as 9 feet. Off Chicago in a norther, with the waves energized by a 300-mile fetch, conditions can be similar to the North Atlantic in a blow. Where Jason met her fate, the seas were bigger, built up passing over shoals near the Calumet Harbor entrance. The Coast Guard officer who coordinated a rescue attempt estimated wave heights at 10 to 12 feet. And without a doubt the sea state was more confused in this zone where waves rebounding from the breakwater collided with fresh seas rolling in.
The Jason crew apparently had no illusions their outing was going to be just a casual jaunt to deliver the boat to a yard for winter storage. Three of them wore Type 1 PFDs-the big, bulky kind with maximum flotation-and the fourth wore an inflatable life vest. They were conservative, too, in their choice of sails-they set only one sail, a No. 3 jib.
For some reason, safety harnesses weren't used. Even if only the lone crewman who left the cockpit near Jason's destination had been tethered to the boat, it might have saved everyone.

I can imagine what it was like on Jason before everything went wrong. It was fun. It was fast downwind sailing. Even with the small jib, the boat was surfing on the big waves. There probably was some cheering when the knot meter shot past 10 knots. The season was ending on a high note.

The fun came to a terrible end in the chaotic seas off the entrance to Calumet Harbor. Crewman Alexander Childers went forward to douse the jib and fell, or was washed, overboard. Then the dominos started to fall inexorably. Finn turned the boat and called the Coast Guard. Against the odds, he and his crew reached the man overboard. But it was a fleeting victory, merely a prelude to the awful outcome of this shipwreck story. Before they could get Childers back on board, they were all men overboard. The breakwater that offered protection from the seas had the boat been able to enter its gap was now in effect a deadly lee shore. The waves drove Jason onto the breakwall's jagged riprap, where the boat was smashed to pieces. The men were kept afloat in the 54-degree water by their life preservers, but with one exception it didn't preserve their lives. The four of them were found by the Coast Guard, 45 minutes after Finn's radio call, splayed on the riprap. Joseph Sunshine was alive. Finn, Childers and Adam Kronen did not survive.
Anyone who can imagine the exhilaration of the Jason crew's ride with the breeze and the seas behind them can also visualize the horror of their experience in the maelstrom at Calumet Harbor. They were in every way at the mercy of the sea, and the sea showed no mercy.

If this is to be not just a sailing horror story but a cautionary tale as well, we have to ask to what degree were the victims responsible for their cruel fate. They should have used safety harnesses, of course. But even that mistake might not have been fatal if they had not decided to take their sail down in the worst place imaginable.

I think we sailors sometimes forget that our boats are sailboats. I can understand the thinking on Jason: The wind that was almost benign when astern was fierce when the boat turned toward the harbor entrance. The breakwater gap was narrow, and the cross seas steep. So douse the jib and power in slowly.

That may be seductive reasoning out in the angry lake, but the reality is that the boat should have been able to sail safely through the gap. Speed could have been controlled by luffing the headsail if necessary, but speed would have been a friend, adding to maneuverability. The jib could have been taken down in calm water on the shore side of the breakwater.

If the lesson of Jason were that sailors shouldn't venture out in rough weather, I'm afraid we would miss some wonderful experiences. A sailor who was out in his 34-footer on the same night as Jason, sailing a parallel course, told SAILING, "I didn't feel it was dangerous out there. It was a pleasure sail for us; a beautiful fall sail with the full moon."
We could say the lesson is that sailors in challenging conditions have to make good decisions, but we knew that. Better to consider this story of cruel shipwreck a warning to all of us that when one thing goes wrong in those conditions, the best laid plans can fall apart and everything else can unravel at astonishing speed.