True Stories: Mayday! Mayday!

Adrift in the Pacific Ocean, two men struggle to stay alive.

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True Stories: Mayday! Mayday!

Jud Baker rested his suntanned hands on the wheel of his 42-foot sailboat, Trinity.

The 48-year-old resident of Kelowna was finally headed home. He and his friend John Davidson had been at sea for six long months, and were now sailing north from Latin America to their port of origin, Vancouver. As Jud stared at the jungle along the Costa Rican coastline, he could think of only one thing: Sherri Henton, his girlfriend of 13 years.

His reverie was shattered by a crash. That’s odd, he thought. Did we lose an air tank?

John burst through the cockpit door. “The boat’s coming apart! Jud! It’s coming apart!”

Jud stared back, baffled. What was John talking about? Why would the boat come apart? It had been through far worse than the large, choppy waves bashing into them now. From the start, the 1976 trimaran – which Jud bought specifically for the trip – had been plagued by mechanical problems that stretched their planned two-month voyage into half a year. Still, Trinity
had always weathered the squalls they’d hit along the way. Now, with a new motor, the sailboat was all tuned up for the return trip – or so Jud thought.

Jud turned to the stern. He sucked in his breath. One of Trinity’s three hulls was lifting away from the rest of the ship at a sickening angle. It was actually ripping off the boat. This is really happening, he thought. We’re going down.

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On June 5, 2010, Jud had left Vancouver with John to sail along the Pacific Coast to an island near Costa Rica. Jud was an experienced sailor: He’d been in the Canadian Navy as a young man and had captained sailboats as a guide in Turkey.

John was a customer at Jud’s motorcycle shop, and over the years the men had become friends. Though he was a relatively inexperienced sailor and, at 64, considerably older, John had jumped at the offer to join Jud’s Pacific sailing adventure. Together they made a good team.

Now John stared at Jud, wild-eyed. “What do we do?”

Jud’s nautical training kicked in. He recalled the emergency protocols that had been drilled into him three decades earlier. He snatched up the radio. “MAYDAY! MAYDAY!”

Nothing. Dead silence. Jud did a series of rapid calculations. They were just 18 kilometres from shore. Their emergency motorized Zodiac dinghy would get them to land in no time. They had emergency radio beacons with GPS that would send a distress signal with their location to the U.S. Coast Guard. They had emergency food, plenty of water and –

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Suddenly his heart sank. The emergency kit and dinghy motor were both packed in the hull that was tearing away from the boat. They would have to abandon ship with nothing but a dinghy, life jackets, the emergency radio beacons and four paddles.
“Get the dinghy into the water!” shouted Jud.

Grabbing a rope, he tied the steering wheel in place, directing the boat towards shore. The two men tossed the six-foot rubber Zodiac into the water and leaped aboard. Jud still clutched a rope tied to Trinity.
“We stay with the boat as long as we can,” he shouted. Around them, dark waves churned.

Though perilously unbalanced, Trinity continued to chug towards land, pulling the dinghy along. But Jud knew this wouldn’t last. “When the mast breaks, look out,” he warned John. “Cables are going to start flying.”

As if on cue, the loose hull finally broke free. Trinity’s aluminum mast gave a hideous creak and bent in half. Cables whipped in every direction. Jud ducked and released the rope.

Under the bluest of skies, at 4:30 p.m. on a sunny Thursday, the two friends watched their boat sink. Jud whispered the phrase that would fill his being in the hours and days to come. “Gotta get to shore.”

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It was right there. Jud could see it! A gentle outline of palm-covered hills, a mere 18 kilometres away. He gazed around at the Pacific. Two-metre swells rolled beneath the dinghy – away from shore and out to sea. Jud knew from years of training that he had to paddle directly into the waves and against the current. Any wave hitting the tiny lifeboat from the side would capsize it.

John took the stern, steering and shouting warnings of rogue waves, while Jud began to paddle. Hard. “Gotta get to shore.” So close. Dip and pull, dip and pull. Minutes passed. Hours.

Darkness fell. Phosphorescent sea life lit the heaving water. They were making progress. Every inch they gained was an inch closer to home, closer to Sherri. “Gotta get to shore.”

At maybe nine kilometres out, a wave crested and then crashed down on the boat from one side. In an instant, Jud and John were underwater.

The two men reached for the capsized dinghy, working together to right it. Jud clambered in first. He tried to pull John in, but the older man was near exhaustion. He hung limply, halfway out.

“John,” said Jud, “kick your legs, man. Kick!”

“I can’t,” said John, “I can’t.”

“You have to. Come on. Kick!” Jud grabbed his friend’s belt and, with what little strength he had left, hauled him into the dinghy. For a moment, the two men lay still. They were disoriented, soaked and shivering in the freezing night air. And they’d lost two paddles.

Jud glanced at the emergency radio beacon strapped to his life jacket. A scary thought nagged him: Why haven’t they found us yet?

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The sun beat down from a cloudless sky. Jud had rowed most of the night to keep the dinghy from capsizing. Now, in the blinding light of day, he could see the shoreline clearly, just a few excruciating kilometres away. It was four o’clock on Friday afternoon – they’d been in the dinghy for a full 24 hours.

The windy chill that had battered the men through the night had been replaced by a searing heat that burned their skin. Water splashed into the boat with every cresting wave, forcing the men to bail with their hands to keep afloat. With a single good paddle left (the other had broken from overuse), all Jud could do was steer into the waves to avoid flipping. His bare arms ached, his legs were cramped from crouching and his feet were raw from prolonged exposure to the pool of salt water sloshing around the bottom of the dinghy. As fatigue washed over Jud, the face of his girlfriend, Sherri, flashed through his mind. He furrowed his brow and shook himself. Raising his broken paddle, he rowed on.

Then it was dark again. What time was it? Where were they? Jud’s hands felt wet. Raising his palms to his face, in the moonlight he saw blood spilling from the blisters that had formed. How long had they been out here? He picked up the paddle again and – A massive rock wall rose suddenly out of the water.

“John, look! The shore! We’ve made it!” Jud turned to his friend with excitement. “We just need to find a sandy cove…”

John stared in the direction of Jud’s gaze. “Jud,” he said, “there’s nothing there.”

“What are you talking about? Right there! Look!” Jud held out his paddle to touch the rock wall. The oar slipped through its surface. Where it had penetrated the wall, the tip began to glow.

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Jud gasped. He fell back into the dinghy and covered his face with his bloodied hands. I’m hallucinating, he thought. I’m losing it.
He turned to John. “Buddy, I’ve got to put my head down for five minutes. I need you to paddle.”

John took up the oar as Jud collapsed on the dinghy’s rubber floor. Freezing salt water sloshed against his sunburned skin. He closed his eyes. He’d been awake more than 40 hours, and now he lost consciousness.

Jud blinked. How long had he been asleep? As he surveyed the horizon, a terrifying chill settled over him. For the first time since Trinity
had sunk, there was no land in sight. Just rolling ocean, spilling endlessly in every direction. John had been unable to battle the powerful current, and the little dinghy had been swept out to sea. Gotta get to shore, thought Jud.

But which way? He and John bickered through cracked lips. Was that an island in the distance? And what was that on the horizon? A boat? A sandy beach? No. Just a wisp of cloud.

That’s when they heard it. A low buzz. Then it became a roar. Suddenly a plane was on top of them, slicing through the mid-afternoon sky. It took all the strength Jud could muster to raise his paddle. He and John stared at each other in disbelief. With hoarse voices, they shouted at the sky, “We’re alive!” The plane criss-crossed above them, dipping its wings to signal they’d been seen. Jud fell back in the dinghy. Was it possible?

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About an hour later, the colossal outline of the Sunbelt Spirit appeared on the horizon. The freighter had been on its way to the Panama Canal when it received word from the American Coast Guard: Two emergency radio beacons had been activated in their area. Two men were likely in trouble.

The ship rose five storeys out of the ocean, towering over the dinghy. How would they get on board? Then, as they watched, a tiny door opened six metres up. A crewmember leaned out and tossed them a ladder. It was all Jud could do to climb aboard and collapse on the deck. John had to be raised in a harness, so great was his exhaustion.

The ship’s Polish captain and Filipino crew greeted the men with great warmth, giving them the shirts off their backs, along with shorts and flip-flops. Someone handed Jud a canteen of water. It was only then he realized he hadn’t had a drop to drink or a bite to eat in nearly three days. Suddenly he was starving. A bowl of simple stew appeared. He inhaled it and chugged litres of water. Intense stomach cramps immediately followed, but that didn’t stop him from wolfing down a generous helping of biscuits and tea. I’m so thin, he thought. He would find out later he’d lost ten pounds.

Fed and clothed, Jud sat on the ship’s deck and stared at the waves. More than three days without water will kill a man, he thought, gazing down at his emaciated, blistered body. I was so close, he mused. I could have lost everything. At that moment, there was only one thing he wanted: Sherri.

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Two days later, Jud and Sherri embraced at the Kelowna airport.

Jud’s ordeal had changed them both, and they realized there was something they needed to do. Less than a month later, after 13 years together, the couple was married in a small ceremony in their Kelowna living room.

Today, sitting next to his wife in that same room, Jud is grateful. “This experience has made me value what I have,” he says.

Will he sail again? “Only if Sherri lets me.”
Sherri smiles. “Only if I’m with him.”

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