Avenir lost and found at sea

Avenir Standing on a dock at the Bristol Yacht Club on Tuesday, Avenir skipper, Ron Rostorfer and mate, Cathy Buller hold up a part of the broken rudder assembly that broke off in a storm forcing the crew to abandon the ship shortly after they left Bermuda 14 days ago. Co-owner Linda Murray untangles lines on the ship at right.

Avenir

Standing on a dock at the Bristol Yacht Club on Tuesday, Avenir skipper, Ron Rostorfer and mate, Cathy Buller hold up a part of the broken rudder assembly that broke off in a storm forcing the crew to abandon the ship shortly after they left Bermuda 14 days ago. Co-owner Linda Murray untangles lines on the ship at right.

After spending 13 days without a crew and adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, the 41-foot sloop Avenir was located, secured and towed back into Bristol harbor on Monday night.

“It was two weeks ago today that we left it,” said skipper, Ron Rostorfer who was the last man to leave the boat when the six person crew was rescued by the Norwegian Star cruise ship. “That was an agonizing two weeks for Joe.”

Over that time, the owners of the boat, Joe and Linda Murray of Bristol, monitored the location of the Avenir using the transponder installed for the Newport to Bermuda race. Watching a dot on a computer screen, they talked about the potential to recover the boat.

“Until July 5, it was all talk. And the talk wasn’t good,” Mr. Rostorfer said.

Without the transponder, finding the vessel adrift in the Atlantic would be like “finding a needle in a haystack,” he said.

However, as the boat drifted north, the possibility of recovery was becoming more hopeful. When it was 370 miles south east of Newport, the Murrays hired Tucker-Roy Marine Towing and Salvage of New Bedford, Mass. to find the boat and tow it back to Bristol.

By 8:30 p.m. on Monday, July 9, two weeks after the Avenir left Bermuda, it arrived under tow into Bristol harbor. The 41-foot sloop looked small in comparison to the salvage vessel, four times its length, that towed it home. Among the damages were the rudder, a spinnaker and the floor board that was used to improvise a repair at sea.

On Tuesday, the Murrays spent the day securing lines, stowing gear and throwing out food that had gone rotten while the boat drifted at sea.

“It smells pretty bad in there,” Mr. Murray said, standing over the open hatch to air out the mildew cabin.

Among the food that was being discarded, Mr. Rostorfer said, there was a pot of jumbalaya, the last meal eaten before the crew abandoned ship, that was still on the stove designed to withstand rough seas without spilling.

“It was going to be a good sail back,” Mr. Rostorfer said, standing on the dock next to the Avenir. “The forecast was for 25 to 30 knot winds. When we got back the tall ships would be in Newport,” he said.

According to the forecast, the northwest route from Bermuda to Rhode Island was well away from tropical storm Debbie, whose track was heading toward Texas.

“The storm turned up the Atlantic,” he said. “The wind went up to 40 knots, 47 knots.”

After that, he said, they stopped looking, and focused on getting through the storm.

“Things were great until the rudder broke off,” Mr. Rostorfer said.

Without a rudder to steer the vessel, the boat bobbed at the mercy of the seas. The crew, tethered with a harness to prevent being swept off the deck, suffered bumps and bruises as they attempted to fastened the sails and ride out the storm. Once the storm passed, they thought they would continue home. During the ordeal, Mr. Murray stayed in contact with the crew using an onboard satellite phone. When he learned the condition of two crew members who suffered dehydration from seasickness, Mr. Murray contacted the Coast Guard who enlisted a cruise ship in the area to rescue the crew of the Avenir.

“It was going to be a great sail home. It was a difficult emotional decision,” Mr. Rostorfer said of the order to abandon ship. “But it was an easy one, based on the facts.”

The Avenir will be hauled out of the water to assess rudder damage beneath the boat, as well as any other damages as a result. Ms. Murray questioned their decision to replace the original rudder on their 1985 boat just one month before the race.

“The carbon fiber rudder was supposed to be lighter and stronger,” said Ms. Murray, as a crew member picked up a part of the broken rudder assembly careful not to get cut on the splintered carbon fibers where it broke in half.

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