Islands' Sounder


An ocean rescue of a man and his boat

Islands Sounder Reporter
March 12, 2013 · 8:54 AM

It’s amazing what you don’t see when at sea. In its vastness people can be lost forever.

It’s also amazing what you do see, according to long-time shipmaster Thomas Crawford. He has witnessed everything from remnants of the Fukushima nuclear disaster to slow-moving grey whales to a refrigerator so long discarded that its doors are encrusted with barnacles.

Sometimes you are lucky enough to find another seaman in distress and you are able to save a life, and sometimes you are picked up by a shipmaster who is crazy enough to not just save you, but also your boat.

In Derk Wolmuth’s case he was fortunate enough to have both.

“People do get saved at sea. It’s not extremely uncommon to pick someone up. What is uniquely different about this situation is that the boat also made it,” said Crawford, an experienced seaman and a Lopez resident. “Routinely what would happen is that the boat would be damaged in the transfer or in some cases the ship will scuttle [sink] a yacht so no one hits it.”

How it happened

Last June, Wolmuth, of Victoria, British Columbia, was competing in the Singlehanded TransPacific Yacht Race, a 2,200-mile passage from San Francisco to Kauai. He and his boat, the Bela Bartok, a 31-foot cruiser, were making good progress until a boil on his upper leg became infected. Within a few weeks, Wolmuth – who was without antibiotics – became sick enough to call for help using a distress radio beacon or “EPIRB,” which is a tracking transmitter to aid in detection and location.

The U.S. Coast Guard picked up the signal and asked the nearby Matson Navigation’s 860-foot RoCon MV Mokihana, captained by Crawford and en route to Oakland, Calif., to see if they could lend a hand.

After backtracking about 80 nautical miles, Crawford was able to pick up Wolmuth.

“He was in pretty bad shape. I don’t think he would have lasted another day,” Crawford said. “He was very thin, emaciated and dehydrated.”

After getting Wolmuth into the Mokihana’s hospital bunk, Crawford started talking with the sick man. Wolmuth told him that his boat was his home, basically everything he owned in this world. This started the wheels turning in Crawford’s head. He wanted to give Wolmuth some hope.

“The guy was not in good shape and the worst thing would be to tell him his ‘house is burning down,’” Crawford said.

He soon found out that the Bela Bartok was equipped with a self-steering monitor. Crawford had already instructed Wolmuth to prep the boat before boarding the Mokihana by adjusting the monitor wind vane and trimming the jib.

“Well, maybe we can save your boat,” Crawford told Wolmuth. “… he must have thought I was nuts.”

So the next morning, on July 15, they turned the Bela Bartok around and pointed it onward to Maui. Crawford maneuvered his large ship  – using gantline hauling, which involves a line rigged to a mast, engine commands and the helm and bow thruster – to get Bela Bartok on course to Hawaii.

The Mokihana started back on its course to Oakland and within a few days on antibiotics, Wolmuth’s condition started to improve. On July 18, they arrived in Oakland. Meanwhile, the race committee in Hawaii used a tracking device to follow the cruiser during its solo journey.

For four days the Bela Bartok glided over the open ocean, without a captain, like a ghost ship sailing forth from ancient tales. After traveling 450 miles, it arrived in Maui on May 19.

A reunion

Several months later, Crawford was at work making the trip from Oakland to Honolulu and back again. While on the island he met up with a fit and healthy-looking Wolmuth. They have stayed in touch since, emailing one another about once a week.

On March 1, Crawford flew to New York to receive the 2012 Rod Stephens Trophy for Outstanding Seamanship by the Cruising Club of America. The award is given “for an act of seamanship which significantly contributes to the safety of a yacht or one or more individuals at sea.”

“It was definitely a surprise,” Crawford said. “I’ve had a life time career of laying low. I guess I’m not doing a great job.”

As Crawford reflects on the experience, he said that on the sea the “good Samaritan” concept is more like you can’t turn your back, you wouldn’t know how to sleep at night and your crew wouldn’t want to work with you.

He credits the crew and the race committee for the rescue of the man and his boat.

“In my opinion it was as perfect as it gets,” Crawford said. “Everything went off without a hitch … it was a good hat trick.”

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