Adventure at sea ends with heartbreaking loss

This column was very difficult for me to write. On March 15, Phil and I watched in horror as the Coast Guard shot a thousand rounds of 50 caliber machine gun shells into our sinking boat so she would not be a hazard to navigation. She had been listing severely to starboard for several hours and had finally flipped over as she was being towed behind the Coast Guard Cutter Northland.

Three days earlier, we had left Isla Mujeres, Mexico, bound for Florida. We were motoring rather than sailing due to unfavorable winds and an opposing current. Suddenly, one of the engines began to lose power and then failed. About 30 minutes later, the other engine followed suit.

This indicated a fuel problem of some kind, so Phil began trying to determine the cause. The seas were 5 to 8 feet, causing enough hobby-horsing that it was difficult for him to stay down in the engine room more than a few minutes at a time. He persevered long enough to change the fuel filters on each engine several times, bleed the fuel lines, even take fuel directly from a clean Jerry can of fuel to rule out dirty fuel.

Nothing worked, and the strong diesel smell and high seas soon took their toll on both of us. We raised the sails but could not make any headway.

We were only about 40 miles from Cuba, and we used the VHF radio to hail any nearby boats that might give us a tow. Two boats responded to our “Pan Pan” on the radio, but both were deep-draft boats that couldn’t get us anywhere near the Cuban coast.

Finally, we sent a text to our sons on a satellite texting device that our younger son had gotten for us. After calls to many agencies, they reached the Coast Guard, who said they had a cutter about 300 miles south of us that would head our way to see if they could assist us.

Exhausted from so many hours without rest and disheartened by our lack of choices, we decided we had to get some sleep. We lit up the boat with running lights plus a strobe light at the top of the mast to make sure other boats could see us. The we fell into bed.

Late the next morning, the Coast Guard cutter arrived on the horizon. They first sent a small boat with a crew of three diesel mechanics to determine if they could fix our engines. They worked on the diesels for nearly two hours but, like Phil, could not get them started.

Those three returned to the cutter, and three very experienced sailors were sent to see if they could help us sail toward Florida. The cutter would shadow us on the way. The sailing crew didn’t have much more luck than we had. They got us moving north about 3 knots, then the wind died. They also discovered a steering problem that was going to make sailing more difficult.

Finally, it was determined that we should board the cutter and the Coast Guard would tow the boat to Key West. We set about securing the boat. I managed to close the hatches on the port (left) side of the boat, but the crew members told us not to worry about the rest because a special “towing crew” would get the boat ready.

We earlier noticed the sailing team trying to close the hatches from the outside and warned them that they must close them securely from the inside to make them tight. The Coast Guard crew instructed us to get two days of clothes, toiletries and any medication we needed and get aboard the small boat to be transported to the cutter.

Once on board the cutter, we were treated like honored guests. The Coast Guard personnel could not have been nicer. They took us to the flight deck to see how they were towing our boat and pointed out that a crew member would be stationed there around the clock to make sure the boat was OK. They even set up a special light so they could see it at night. The tow line was long, about 100 yards. We noticed that water was flowing over the bow of our boat as she bobbed in the waves.

We were given a small stateroom on the boat, had dinner with the officers, then went to bed. The next morning, when we returned to the flight deck, we noticed that Sunshine appeared to be listing to starboard a little. Phil pointed it out to the guard on boat watch, who assured us that she was fine. Later that afternoon the captain sent word that Sunshine wasn’t doing so well, and we should come back to the flight deck. We were astonished to see that she was listing severely to starboard, the same side we were told they would secure.

At the same time, we noticed that one of the starboard hatches on the foredeck was open. Waves were flowing over the foredeck and into the open hatch. The reality of the situation became clear, and we knew we were going to lose her. Several hours later, she had flipped completely over.

At that point, the captain told us that they could not leave her floating in the middle of the ocean. We were still many hours from Key West, and he said they had no choice but to sink her completely. The machine gun barrage lasted nearly an hour. She still didn’t totally sink until they sent a crew out with fire axes to finish her off.

We arrived in Key West the next morning. We had lost everything on the boat except what we took with us: two changes of clothes, our passports and our telephones. Phil also had the foresight to grab his wallet. We had assumed we would be getting back on board when we arrived in Key West.

Now back home in Indiana, we have spent our time trying to make sense of what happened, shopping for new summer clothes and making lists for the insurance company of all our personal property that went down with the boat.

Our hearts are broken, but we are thankful to be safe, and life goes on. I cannot imagine a future that does not include sailing. Phil is already talking about getting an RV and continuing our adventures on land. Maybe we will compromise and do both.

I have enjoyed writing about our travels and have appreciated your kind comments. When we get ready to continue our adventures, you will be the first to know.