Bruce Moore thought he’d be in the Caribbean this week. The Atlantic had other plans, so now he’s just glad to be back at his Garner home rather than at the bottom of of the ocean with the sailboat he boarded in Virginia.
Moore and three others attempting to sail from the Hampton, Va. area to the Virgin Islands hung tight about 250 miles from land as a storm in the Atlantic pounded their boat. When the Coast Guard rescued them late on the night of Nov. 7, the boat had taken on a foot of water and Moore, who loves sailing, had taken on enough adventure for one trip.
In what he said was a tense if not panicky situation, rain, gale-force winds reaching 25 knots and huge waves pounded the boat for more than 24 hours. The 41-foot boat, built in 1984, started breaking up – a Coast Guard release reported 10- to 12-foot waves; Moore said they had been over 15 feet – and the concern was that one of the large waves occasionally putting the boat basically on its side would be followed too closely by another.
“I’ll be honest, I was scared,” Moore said. “I do remember wondering, at one point, whether this would be where my story ended, and I think I decided that if it was, then this was as good a way to go as any. But I tried not to dwell on that too much.”
Moore, 65, had been recruited to help sail the Ahimsa 4 as part of the Salty Dawg Rally. Boat owners who spend time in the Caribbean often move their boats north at the start of hurricane season in May and move them back in November. The rally consists of about 115 boats making that trip (allowing for safety in numbers and for the Coast Guard to be on alert for just such an instance). After departure, different speeds and headings eventually leave the boats visually isolated.
Boat owners often recruit experienced sailors to help move boats. Bruce Grieshaber and his significant other, Becky Meinkingand, owned Ahimsa 4 and needed two more sailors. For their help, crew get to sail for free; Moore said the captain and his wife were also going to allow him to stay on the boat for five days of free lodging in the Virgin Islands before his flight home. They also provided the food for the planned 12-day trip.
It turned out to be much shorter.
‘We took a real beating’
Moore, who picked up sailing when he was 60, had earlier set three sailing goals: make a blue-water crossing (through open ocean rather than staying relatively close to the coast), sail on the Caribbean and cross an ocean. The Salty Dawg trip would knock out two of them.
Since picking up the pastime, he had been taking classes and improving his skills. A West Point grad and retired lieutenant colonel, he had retired after 22 years in the Army in 1994. He retired from his civil service career in 2010 before moving from Washington, D.C. to Garner; close enough to get to the coast for the occasional trip.
Before this trip, his longest voyage had been from Annapolis to New Bern. He met the captain and his wife through a website that helps boat owners find qualified sailors when they need help, and on Nov. 5 they departed, hoping to average 150 miles per day.
Aware of the storm early, they tried to get out of the gulf stream along with other boats. The timing of the event’s launch generated criticism of Salty Dawg planners. Although individual captains ultimately choose when to set sail, Moore, as the least experienced blue-water sailor, didn’t factor into that decision. Ahimsa 4 couldn’t move as fast as most; it and four others also got caught and sent distress signals. (The others had varying damages.)
“Tuesday night was beautiful,” Moore said. “Wednesday was when waters started getting choppy, and by Wednesday evening, the waves built up heavily. For the next 24 hours we took a real beating.”
The boat made little progress amid wind and waves, and was eventually stuck more than 200 miles from the U.S. coastline and about 300 miles west of Bermuda. By late Thursday the captain knew they’d make neither in that boat.
“We were getting beat to pieces. Literally the boat started breaking up, the boat started taking on water,” Moore said. “It was kind of like explosions on the bow when the waves were hitting.”
Moore said the captain sent out the first emergency alert to the Coast Guard at 3 p.m. on Thursday. Hours later they decided to evacuate, and the Navy and Coast Guard mobilized to help.
Eventually a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk Helicopter rescued the group around midnight (Atlantic time, one hour ahead of Eastern time), one at a time, lowering a rescue swimmer into the water. The stranded crew members had to swim out in their life vest, have the rescuer attach a harness while bobbing in the waves, and be raised to the helicopter in the middle of the rain and wind.
“I’m an average swimmer. The waves were high, so it was a struggle,” Moore said. “These young men that are the rescue swimmers are just incredible. Incredible condition.”
They were ultimately taken to Elizabeth City; none required medical attention upon arrival.
‘A beautiful thing’
Though he picked up the hobby late in life, Moore said he had always wanted to learn how to sail. He likes that it’s challenging, physical and exciting.
“There’s something about the sound of the wind and the waves. It is very serene. Peaceful. Except when there’s a storm in progress,” Moore said. “I like the idea of using the wind and not just an engine; there’s something cool about that.”
His family seems to have a taste for big-thinking adventure. His daughter Stacy, 30, completed a 605-day backpacking trip around the globe last year. She saw dozens of countries in Australia, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe while sticking mostly to ground transport and shying from anything touristy. Her proverbial sailing, on the whole, went smoother than her father’s literal sailing in this case.
Yet the ordeal has not soured Moore on sailing, and he didn’t hesitate when asked if he’d go back out to the open water – once he gets new gear to replace what now sits on the Atlantic floor.
“I’m sure I will. It’s just such a beautiful thing. This was not a pleasant experience, but I’ve had so many that were,” Moore said.