The crew of the sailboat Zulu was itching to get to sea. After three weeks waiting for a lull in the weather, they found themselves docked six hundred nautical miles south of Nantucket in Hampton, Virginia—but not a mile closer to their final destination in the British Virgin Islands. The wind was gusting from the north, standing up waves in the Gulf Stream that made a late fall crossing anything but smooth sailing. And so they waited. Every square inch of their fifty-four-foot Alden sailboat had been checked and rechecked. Apart from a finicky generator, the Zulu was the definition of shipshape when it finally left port on Wednesday, November 6th. A day later, all this would change.
The three men hired to deliver Zulu to the island of Tortola were all seasoned sailors. Brian Sager, a twenty- six-year-old photographer living on Nantucket, had made this voyage once before and was well versed in the rigging of this particular vessel. Zulu was a handsome sailboat with sleek lines and sophisticated electronics, and Sager considered it the most seaworthy craft he’d had the pleasure of sailing. He was a family friend of the boat’s owner, Nantucket resident Eric Johnson, who had originally planned on making the crossing with the crew. But when the weather postponed their departure week after week, Johnson was forced to return to work and hire another hand.
Filling his spot was Captain Nate Oberg, a thirty- two-year-old professional sailor who just so happened to be in Hampton after delivering the Westmoor Club’s sailboat Bell to its winter digs in the Chesapeake. Oberg had made a career of hopping from one boat to another, so climbing aboard the Zulu on such short notice was nothing out of the ordinary. At the helm was Captain Scott Zaminer, a retired schoolteacher who delivered boats for Johnson several times before and was asked back for this crossing. With cobalt eyes and a salt-and-pepper beard, Zaminer had the sea in his veins. In the hours and days to come, each man would ponder the twists of fate that brought them together aboard Zulu on this late fall crossing.
November is a popular month for sailing across the Gulf Stream, which runs in a northerly direction from the tip of Florida and along the East Coast before moving out to deeper water around Cape Hatteras. Pumping three hundred times faster than the Amazon River, the warm Gulf Stream continues northward until it hits cold water flowing down from Labrador, thus sending its current out over to Europe in what’s known as the North Atlantic Drift.
Sailing across the Gulf Stream can be as pleasant and painless as tacking across Nantucket Sound—that is, of course, if the weather is in your favor. The Gulf Stream’s warm current can quickly become a fueling station for tropical storms and hurricanes, and if the wind blows against it from the north, violent waves wreak havoc like rogue wrecking balls.
With the hurricane season now behind them, many sailors picked November to make their Caribbean migration. Weather aside, insurance premiums for covering such a voyage go down markedly after hurricane season. So when Zulu set sail for the BVIs on the first week of November, it joined 115 other vessels in what was known as the Salty Dawg Rally, a “grassroots non-profit” for blue water sailors that provided members with free weather reports, routing advice, as well as the peace of mind of not being alone on the open ocean. Whether the fault lay in the rally, the skippers, or just bad luck, of the 116 vessels in the Salty Dawg flotilla, seven would not make it across. One would sink.
On Thursday, November 7th, a voice crackled over the Salty Dawg’s VHF radio transmission.
“Is there an emergency?” the operator inquired.
“Roger, has anyone heard from Zulu this afternoon?”
“Don’t think I see Zulu. St. Jude, can you tell me where they are and what they need? Over.”
“Roger. I just got a phone call from the wife of the crewmember on board. They have lost their rudder and lost their steering.”
One hundred twenty-five miles off the coast of North Carolina, Brian Sager was busy stuffing survival gear and small personal effects into ditch bags in the Zulu’s cabin. If they had to abandon ship, Sager could only take what personal belongings he could fit in the pockets of his foul weather gear. He double-bagged his passport, his camera’s memory cards, a small Swiss Army knife and his lucky baseball cap. Suddenly a wave slammed the boat, launching all six-feet six-inches of him into a mounted armchair in the saloon, snapping it at the base. Zulu had been rag dolling like this ever since its crew watched in horror as their rudder inexplicably snapped off and floated away in their wake. Controlling the boat by sail proved futile in the worsening sea state, and with no way to steer, the three men were now at the mercy of Mother Nature.
Unbeknownst to them, Zulu wasn’t the only boat in the Gulf Stream in danger. Two hundred thirty miles east of Virginia Beach, the forty-one-foot Ashima was taking on water and had sent out a distress signal to the Coast Guard. Approximately forty-five miles away from the Ashima, the thirty-eight-foot Nyapa had also sent out a distress signal after losing their mast and taking on water. Another distress signal was made by the Aurora, 230 miles east of Elizabeth City, New Jersey, but its crew later called off the Coast Guard when conditions improved. Aboard the sailboat Brave Heart, a sixty-seven-year-old crewmember lost his purchase on the deck and broke his arm, and now the crew was requesting assistance. The Coast Guard responded by deploying two HC-30 Hercules airplanes, a MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, a forty-seven-foot Motor Life Boat, and the 110-foot USCG cutter Block Island. When the Zulu’s distress call was relayed to them, it was already shaping up to be a pretty busy night for the Coasties.
Back aboard the Zulu, Sager and Oberg jury-rigged a sea anchor out of a five-gallon bucket in hopes of bringing some rhyme and reason to their worsening sea state. Dark had set in long ago, and the crew used the satellite phone to contact family members and the boat’s owner, who had since relayed their coordinates to the Coast Guard. Perhaps the toughest call, however, came when Sager contacted his father. It had been a trying year for their family.
That spring, Sager’s sister Jacqui was running in the Boston Marathon when two explosions on Boylston Street stopped her in her tracks. She walked away unscathed, but the tragedy left the Sager family rattled. Now, six months later, as Sager said hello to his father from the middle of the Gulf Stream, he did everything he could to as- sure him that he was safe and that everything was going to be okay. Just down stream from him, the crew of the Ashima wished they could say the same thing to their families.
Bruce Grieshaber and Becky Meinking had sold all their worldly possessions to purchase the Ashima. Whatever remained of their lives was now packed in the berth of this floating home set for the Caribbean and a tropical retirement. But now as the Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter hovered overhead like a giant halo, the idea of abandoning ship, and everything in it, wasn’t even a question. Savage seas had ravaged the boat for hours, and after radioing the Salty Dawg officials, Bruce and Becky, seasick and exhausted, called upon the Coast Guard for rescue. Bruce watched as Becky plunged into the ink-black waves, kicking hard to reach the open arms of rescue swimmer Petty Officer 2nd Class Chad Watson. As she reached Watson’s embrace and was plucked from the sea, Bruce, the last on board, prepared to leave his world behind.
The 110-foot Coast Guard cutter Block Island arrived at 11 p.m. to the great relief of every- body aboard the Zulu. They’d been disabled for eight hours, and the sight of the Block Island’s running lights cutting through the abyss of night felt as warm as the sun. But their ordeal was hardly over. The wind had kicked up, gusting between thirty and forty knots, and the seas were building four- to eight-foot waves. The Coast Guard and the Zulu crew agreed that it was too risky to execute any rescue maneuvers in these conditions and they needed to wait till morning.
To make matters worse aboard Zulu, Scott Zaminer had suddenly become stricken with excruciating stomach pain that rendered him nearly delirious. On a one-to-ten pain scale, Zaminer put up nine fingers. He had taken a fall earlier in the day and thought that might have been the cause. Zaminer also complained of nausea, fever and extreme exhaustion. Sager and Oberg treated him with water and Pedialyte as the Coast Guard doctor instructed them over the radio. What they didn’t know was that Zaminer’s appendix was about to burst.
The night was long and sleepless. Just after 1 a.m., Zulu’s staysail ripped in the gusting wind, forcing Sager and Oberg to don harnesses and foul weather gear to retrieve it. By this time, Zaminer’s appendix had burst, and although lethal toxins were now spilling into his guts, he was feeling significantly better, and was able to climb into the cockpit and keep a watchful eye on the men as they pulled down the sail from the bow. With the sail stowed, Sager and Oberg agreed to alternate two-hour shifts keeping watch on deck. Staring out to sea, Sager listened as the wind gradually shifted from south- west to the north. Things were about to get rough.
The sun rose with the wind, which was now gusting up to forty knots from the north, running up against the flow of the Gulf Stream. The ocean was enraged, hurling devastating waves at the boat that Sager gauged at sixteen to twenty feet. Without the staysail, Zulu’s sea anchor had broken free during the night, and now the fifty-four-foot yawl was drifting abreast to the swell, rising and falling treacherously. If there was a move to make to save Zulu, now was the time. Otherwise the crew might end up like Bruce and Becky of the Ashima: swimming for their lives.
After a brief powwow over the radio, Sager and Oberg prepared to receive a towline from the Block Island. The bow bucked violently as the two men climbed to the front and watched the Block Island position itself fifty feet upwind from them. A crewmember aboard the Block Island fired a bright red line through the air and into Zulu’s rigging. Sager and Oberg grabbed it with a line hook and began manually hauling it onboard. The skinny line was attached to a much thicker towrope, and Sager thought it felt like pulling in a hundred-pound tuna by hand. They had managed to haul in about fifty feet when suddenly a voice screamed over the radio, “Cut the line! Cut the line!” Before either man could react, the line tore through their hands and whizzed overboard. Fifty feet of line vanished in a matter of seconds.
Sager and Oberg looked down at their hands to find deep wounds, but neither was bleeding. The line instantly cauterized their gashes. Had the towline been wrapped around their feet or hands, they would be in a much worse boat than one without a rudder. They were lucky. On its second attempt, the Block Island swooped in within fifteen feet of Zulu and heaved a throwing line. Sager and Oberg caught it, hauled it onboard and quickly tied it off to cleats on the bow. They then cleared the bow as the Block Island paid out four hundred feet of tow- line. It was 9:00 a.m. and the Zulu was well over one hundred miles from the closest port. So began their tow to safety.
The next thirty-six hours were torturous. Imagine the worst hangover you’ve ever had, tack on three sleepless nights, and then climb aboard a cross between a rollercoaster and the teacups ride at Disney World. The Block Island crept at three knots, pulling the Zulu through wave after towering wave. Over and over, the towline buried itself in the belly of a giant wave, dragging the boat directly through wall of water. Sager was amazed the line hadn’t snapped, and more importantly, that their vessel hadn’t crumbled. They couldn’t read, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t even urinate standing up. All they could do was grimace, and endure, and dream about their first meal on dry land.
In the days and weeks after Zulu reached port under USCG tow, much was written about the ill-fated November crossing. The Salty Dawg Rally came under criticism by the international sailing community for encouraging inexperienced sailors to make the journey in unpredictable weather. Salty Dawg officials responded by claiming that each skipper had to make his or her own decision to go or stay, and the rally was not responsible for inspecting the vessels before departure. Whoever was to blame, the incident was a stark reminder that no matter how many boats are in your fleet, once sailors leave the dock, they’re on their own.
Thanks to the Coast Guard, everyone who left port on the first week of November was accounted for. Shortly after arriving in Norfolk, Virginia, Scott Zaminer was quickly taken into surgery, where his burst appendix was removed. He spent a week in the hospital but made a full recovery. Nate Oberg quickly found another boat to skipper, getting right back on the horse that bucked him. As for Brian Sager, when another family friend asked him if he wanted to help sail a boat back from the BVIs this April, he booked his ticket and packed his bags without batting an eye—because when the sea is in your blood, the sea is in your blood.