Blown Away - German sailor's accidental dinghy voyage from Trinidad to Venezuela
Every few years we hear another story of sailors blown out to sea in dinghies. Often it occurs while attempting to return to the yacht from shore on a windy night. It could happen to any of us, and it behooves us to remember that bad judgment and alcohol are often contributing factors.
A tragic case happened several years ago when three sailors went missing while attempting to return to their yacht anchored in Phuket, Thailand, after a New Year's party ashore. When their outboard motor broke down they were unable to row the clumsy inflatable dinghy against the strong northeast monsoon, which quickly blew them out to sea. Early the next morning they were reported missing on the Southeast Asia Maritime Mobile Net (also known as Rowdy's Net). At that point it might have been a simple job to rescue them if even half the yachts in the anchorage had made a coordinated search by sailing side by side directly downwind. Sadly, no help was offered and all three eventually perished. More often, the cruising community does come to the assistance of fellow mariners in trouble, yet this one unfortunate incident should be a warning to all of us that we can't always expect assistance when we need it.
Several things could have saved these three sailors from this tragedy: they might have carried a handheld VHF or flares to call for assistance, they might have chosen a dinghy that was easier to row and carried a set of flippers since it's easier to tow a dinghy swimming with flippers on than rowing against strong winds, or they could have followed a course that kept them upwind of their target in case of unforeseen trouble.
Another more affirming dinghy drama occurred a couple years ago in Trinidad during Carnival. Whatever Gods normally look out for visiting sailors who join the drunken revelry of this annual celebration must have been looking the other way when 42-year-old German sailor Wolfgang Bunjes attempted to return by dinghy to his catamaran Double Trouble, anchored in Trinidad's Chaguaramas Bay. Despite the fact that his boat was moored to shore with a stern line and the dinghy dock was less than 100 feet away, Wolfgang somehow managed to get lost and drift out into the Gulf of Paria. Three days later, near dead, the sailor swam ashore almost 55 miles away in Venezuela.
"I guess I had a little too much to drink and lost my bearings," Wolfgang admitted when asked how he could paddle right past his 31-foot cat and out of the crowded anchorage. "Don't forget, it was damn windy that night," he added.
He sobered up quickly when he realized that his set of small plastic oars could not move the eight-and-a-half-foot plywood pram against the 20 to 30-knot offshore winds. He finally gave up the effort and drifted until morning when he felt sure a passing boat would find him. However, by sunrise the continuing strong northeast winds had blown him far offshore and no boats were visible. Then the rising seas broke over the dinghy and carried away one of his oars. All he had now in the dinghy was one oar and a towel. He was wearing a T-shirt, shorts, canvas deck shoes, and a money belt containing $300 strapped to his waist.
As Trinidad faded from sight, he tried to visualize the chart of the Gulf of Paria. "I still hoped a passing ship would pick me up. If not, I knew I would eventually drift to land somewhere," Wolfgang said. To increase his rate of drift he lashed his towel to the oar and raised it as a crude sail.
That night a passing shower allowed him to partially quench his thirst by licking the salt-contaminated rainwater from the floor of the dinghy. He spent the remainder of that miserable night crouched on the floor shivering under the wet towel. The next morning his spirits sank lower when an oil tanker passed nearby and ignored his shouts for help. "One of the crew on deck even waved back at me, but they didn't want to stop," Wolfgang recalled with understandable bitterness.
By afternoon he could see the low, tree-lined coast of Venezuela several miles ahead. He passed near an oil-drilling platform, but the currents carried him away before he was seen. Now began his real battle for survival as he drifted toward a vast river delta of shifting sandbanks, strong currents, and breaking seas. At sunset a freak wave capsized the dinghy. His arms and legs were badly cut by barnacles as he pulled his heavy, large-framed body onto the bottom of the dinghy and used his weight to roll it upright. He crawled back into the flooded dinghy and spent hours bailing it out by hand as the seas washed over him. When it was nearly empty, a large wave capsized him again. Before he could swim over to it, another wave righted the dinghy and the wind carried it away into the night. In a desperate attempt to stay afloat, he cast off his shoes and money belt. The rest of the night he fought to keep his head above the breaking waves as his mind struggled with cruel hallucinations.
"I kept seeing sailboats circling me and an old man with long white hair standing on a pier saying, ‘Give up. You will drown anyway.' I became so weak I tried to find a quick death by diving under and inhaling water. But it wouldn't work. I kept coming up gasping for air so I waited awhile and tried it again later."
|"I kept seeing an old man with long white hair standing on a pier saying, ‘Give up. You will drown anyway."|
Then the miracle happened. As he went under again, his toe touched the sandy bottom. What had been hopeless despair was now turned to renewed determination to survive. When the imaginary man now said he would still drown him by raising the water level, Wolfgang replied, 'No, you bastard, I will hop here on my toes for the rest of my life if need be.' In the dark early hours of the third morning, the delirious half-dead sailor tumbled through the surf and crawled up the beach of Cotorra Island in the Pedernales River delta.
"I came ashore at a village where people were eating and drinking and having some sort of voodoo party. An old man said to me, ‘You made it ashore, but you will starve.' A girl handed me a bottle of water that turned to sand as I tried to drink it. Finally, I walked down the beach and came to a military camp where a cantina was serving the soldiers breakfast. But I couldn't get past the fence and dogs. I remember going to sleep and then spending another day searching for water."
Some of these incidents were the hallucinations of a man approaching death. Wolfgang had actually been on the uninhabited island only about 12 hours when by chance a passing Venezuelan coast guard vessel saw him sprawled unconscious facedown on the beach. They carried him back to their base at the riverside town of Pedernales where they revived him with food and water and treated his lacerations.
Meanwhile, back in Chaguaramas, it wasn't until two days after his disappearance that Wolfgang's friends noticed he was missing and alerted the Trinidad coast guard and announced his disappearance on the cruiser's VHF net. Not realizing that Wolfgang had already stumbled ashore in Venezuela, several local and visiting yachts searched for signs of Wolfgang or his dinghy for two more days along Trinidad's west coast and off-lying islands. Because of the longstanding border dispute between Trinidad and Venezuela over oil drilling and fishing rights, the two country's coast guards are more inclined to exchange gunfire than share information on missing sailors.
Although Wolfgang speaks Spanish, it took him several hours to relate his story to the skeptical authorities who insisted on taking him from one office to another for two days of repeated interviews. Finally, he was taken to a cargo boat that brought him back to Trinidad five days after his unexpected journey began.
"I feel like I've been granted a second life," Wolfgang said as he belted back another beer at the marina bar in Chaguaramas Bay. A couple months later, the unsinkable Wolfgang departed Trinidad on his second attempt to sail Double Trouble single-handed against the prevailing wind and current back to his home in south Brazil.