The Anegada Drop, Atlantic Ocean, 3 miles NNE of Anegada, British Virgin Islands, September 14, 2007
As he approached the yacht, Leroy Harrington felt growing unease. Even the sense of space, sapphire and horizon of this Caribbean morning failed to diminish his trepidation, because what he saw before him was just plain wrong. As the fishing cruiser, Silver Fin, drew closer through the shimmering glare, Leroy slowed the boat and steadied his binoculars once more to his weather-lined eyes.
Although dazzled by the sun behind the yacht, he could make out that she was probably a 50', luxury cruiser, flying a British ensign. A beautifully equipped craft, she rocked gently. Her mainsail and genoa flapped in sheeting thuds as she rested head to wind. The main halyard clanked with an eerie, metallic rhythm against the mast in this, the first morning sea breeze for two days. Her sleekness and scale seemed at odds with the erratic way she appeared to be drifting on the currents that raced through the deep trench of water. The strangest thing, Leroy observed, was that there didn’t appear to be a soul on board.
Leroy called down from the cabin to his skipper, Scott Williams on the lower deck. He had been sharing a joke with two of the paying customers on board Silver Fin, both on a mission to catch blue marlin that day. His tanned faced glanced up at Leroy and all three men swivelled their gaze in unison to the stricken yacht. Scott sprinted up the ladder to the bridge, picked up the radio handset and broadcast a call to Metier III, her name looming into focus as they neared. “Metier III, this is Silver Fin, approximately 100 yards to your port side. Do you read me? Over.” Scott repeated the call several times and could hear his own voice blasting back across the sea from the VHF radio receiver inside Metier III. No response. “Leroy, take us over there. Let’s go take a closer look.”
Metier III was moving quickly, but Leroy drew parallel. Scott dropped a fenders over the side, tossed a line over the yacht’s bows and leapt onto her wooden deck, securing her to the fishing vessel. Leroy turned the linked vessels into the current and revved Silver Fin to keep them static in the fast moving flow.
Scott glanced around the deck. In a mental snapshot he observed everyday human detail - an iPod lay on the port deck, just off the bowsprit, bright coloured bathing towels were scattered around the cockpit, along with various pairs of deck shoes, salt-stained baseball caps, a novel and a tube of sunblock.
He observed that Metier III was in immaculate condition. Sheets were coiled neatly and everything was securely stowed. The distress flares remained intact and the automatic pilot was on. Her decks were scrubbed and clean. She was, quite obviously, brand new.
Leroy and the marlin-fishing clients looked on anxiously, at this modern day Mary Celeste, exchanging opinions on the possible fate of the crew. Suicide? Pirates? How long had she be drifting? What could possibly have removed competent sailors from the safety of this magnificent yacht on these calm seas?
Peering down the hatch, Scott cleared his throat and called, “Hello? I’m Scott Williams skipper of Silver Fin, out of Tortola. Is everybody OK?” Silence. Scott stepped carefully into the gloom beneath, the ladder creaking under his weight as he descended. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he discerned an empty cabin. Inside, Metier III was fitted-out in sumptuous cream leather and polished wood. A nautical map of the British Virgin Islands was unfurled and secured on the chart table. A closed laptop rested on top, next to the handwritten captain’s log. Sat-nav, radio and radar equipment blinked red and green lights in the gloaming. A digital camera, satellite phone, antique brass telescope and a harpoon gun were stowed in the half-locker over the chart table. Various medical books filled the shelves. Four diving wetsuits, one pair of flippers and a solitary snorkel mask hung in a closet. Across the galley, a newly made loaf of bread remained in its tin, covered by a cloth. All other pots, crockery and cutlery were carefully stowed. Once again, Scott surmised that this space was lived-in, but the yacht still smelt new and it was neat, dry and domestic.
Scott slid open the drawer under the chart table. His eyes fell upon four EU passports plus an inventory listing the yacht’s details and those of the all British crew – Rafaela and James Tennant, obviously twins as sharing the same birth date in 1981, Gregory Mathers, dob 1981 and Benjamin Webster, dob1979. This was the most well-thumbed passport, featuring numerous visas and entry/exit stamps from ports around the world. Obviously the skipper, his photograph showed a bleached mop of blond hair and wind-burned, rakish features.
He noted the wad of one-way airline tickets lying in a plastic folder for the Tennants and Mather, departing from Tortola for London Heathrow on 5th October – approximately three weeks’ hence. A folder revealed customs’ documentation for the importation of Metier III from the Southampton to Tortola BVI, cash rolls of sterling and US dollars.
“Anything down there captain?” called Leroy. Scott popped his head out of the hatch. “No sign of anyone, nor of any robbery or any kind of incident – I haven’t looked in the berths or the heads yet. Can you call the coastguard and police and organise a tow to Tortola? Mike and Wayne, could you get the sails down, she’s rocking all over the place?”
Scott descended back into the galley. The fenders securing the yacht to the fishing boat screeched as they compressed. Water slapped onto the hull and diesel fumes from Silver Fin cloyed in the darkness.
Hesitatingly, the skipper tapped on the door of the heads and pushed firmly. The door sprung back to reveal an empty shower and heads unit, suddenly bright from the sunlight, mottled water patterns reflecting on the white walls, shower gel and shampoo bottles suspended in a net bag. He tried the berths. Each was filled with sail bags, holdalls, pillows and sleeping bags, but no people.
When Scott tried the forepeak berth at the bow of the yacht, the door refused to budge. Mike Elliston, one of the marlin fishermen had jumped onto the deck and was already hauling down the mainsail. He peered through the raised clear hatch on the bow. “Nobody there, just a load of sail bags leaning against the door."
Scott checked the captain’s log. The final entry had been made on September 13, 2007 at 15:07h, EST Anegada Drop, Atlantic Ocean 19º19’30.82” N 64º50’48.97” W. This entry in neat looped handwriting indicated from the co-ordinates that the yacht had been approximately 64 miles NE of Anegada, British Virgin Islands, the previous afternoon: Another day stuck in the doldrums, although we are drifting in the right direction on the strong currents here. The fog has been with us for nearly four hours and shows no sign of lifting. Several sightings of dolphins and shoals of bonito. The crew was desperate to snorkel, even ‘though we are over the trench. I made myself more unpopular by keeping them all on board, as per my promise to Sir F. Relationships are still strained. Low on fuel so ecided to hold out for a southwesterly. We’re one day ahead of schedule but the heat and fog have made everyone short-tempered and restless. Praying for wind. Radio link to Sir Freddie on Tortola – the beers are already chilling for the big Nautilus Club party in our honour.
Scott picked up the camera and scrolled through the pictures on the LED. Young, excited people in a range of poses - windswept and bronzed at the helm; legs dangling from the boson’s chair; a crazy grimace of a tall girl with a saucepan in the galley, tilted at 45°; three people enjoying wine at a portside bar surrounded by palm trees; a pod of orcas – a digital history of this transatlantic voyage. The last picture, obviously taken by the skipper and dated the day before, showed two men and a young woman, grouped around the cockpit in swimsuits. They looked tanned, bored and hot.
The captain of Silver Fin and his clients stood in the sunshine on the deck of the deserted yacht, fenders rasping against the fishing boat, diesel fumes wafting on the salt air, awaiting the arrival of police and coastguard. The radio on Silver Fin barked with activity as news of the ghost yacht spread. The men continued to scan the ocean for signs of life, but the water chopped and danced, yielding none of its secrets.
The Anegada Drop, Atlantic Ocean 60 miles NNE of Anegada, British Virgin Islands, September 13, 2007
Three young medical students and a hired skipper had cast off Metier III from the pontoon at Falmouth on a wet August dawn. After weeks of preparation, her sails were hoisted and a cool, damp breeze charged her away from the English coastline out onto the Atlantic. With the British summer on her tail and the Caribbean sun in the eyes of the four people on board, each passage they made port brought warmer and drier air. Keeping a weather-eye on potential hurricanes off the Americas, they took punishment in the Bay of Biscay and rode a steady north wind all the way from Spain to Madeira. From Madeira they tussled their way to the lonely Salvagen Islands and then south to the Canaries on a fine beam reach. They came upon the pretty bay of San Marcos, Tenerife, mooring in 30ft of clear water. Local fishermen advised that the wind would soon switch to strong north-westerlies and the placid anchorage would become a cauldron of white water. After viticules they left. With two reefs in the mainsail, they barrelled across the Atlantic on a force six.
As any sailor will tell, the confines and challenges of sailing for weeks at a time with the same people in a cramped environment creates a welter of antagonisms. Deprived of long, comfortable, uninterrupted sleep, with waves slamming against the yacht, spray raining down and all things inside the galley crashing, clanking and sliding day and night, even the most rational person can take on a petulant or irrational anger over the pettiest detail. Preparing a meal for four in a tiny galley, cooking whilst harnessed at a ridiculous angle presents its share of hazards. During a night watch in a force seven, darkness obscures leaping waves as they smash into the grim face of the unfortunate and lonely soul at the helm.
If seasickness stays with a person for any length of time, then their very being becomes so depressed that they hang off the bowsprit urging the sea to swallow them up and end the misery.
Although all the crew were experienced sailors, the turbulence and erratic power of the Atlantic gradually eroded at the rationale and character of those on board. Spectacular as she was, Metier III was not a happy yacht. The overwhelming desire amongst the four was to be off the yacht and away from each other, as soon as possible.
After 23 days without sight of land she snagged fishing net flotsam on her propeller. Half an hour later, the wind vanished and she slowed into a wall of heat and calm just 27 miles from Anegada atoll, the first island in the Virgin Islands archipelago. Low-lying Anegada, shimmered in the heat, with white sand and blue, aquamarine shallows of her coral reefs, circling her like a skirt over the rim of the horizon.
With two thousand miles of ocean behind her, Metier III was now motionless and enveloped by fog. The frustration of being just one day’s sailing from her final destination was palpable.
Ben extended the boom of the mainsail over the ocean. The crew watched his exertions as they sprawled over the cockpit, sweating and sniping at each other, sitting out the eternal wait for even the slightest whisper of a breeze. Given the treacherous currents and the fog, the skipper was adamant that no member of the crew could swim off the boat while she was drifting, even with a line secured against the stern ladder.
As skipper, Ben took the privilege of his position to don a mask and plunge over the stern to try to remove the fishing net from the propeller. “James, keep a lookout for me, and see if you can catch any wind. Oh, and drop the ladder would you, I’ve just got some knitting to unravel from the prop,” Then he disappeared from view. Ben dived deep, his strong arms parting the ocean, a stream of bubbles coursing out of his nose as he inspected the underside of the yacht.
Rafaela, enjoying some respite from tetchiness of the men, had baked a loaf of bread and had moved up to the bowsprit, stealing Greg’s iPod and immersing herself in the lilting sounds of David Gray. James, resentfully placed a bare foot on the wheel, and lounged opposite Greg, drowning in sweat as the languid, heat-drenched minutes ticked on.
In the cool Atlantic, Ben was examining a number of score marks under the yacht and was trying to remove the twist of nylon twine with a knife. Whilst blowing through his snorkel he was suddenly startled when he saw a flash of bubbles to his left, and then immediately again on his right. Ben jerked his head out of the water and was astonished to see James and Greg, masks on, frolicking in the ocean. “It’s what you call a necessary mutiny, Ben,” laughed James. Incredulous, Ben yelled, “Where’s Rafaela – is she helming? Rafaela? Raf? Can you hear me? Why isn’t the ladder down? Rafaella! Drop the ladder!” Ben cursed, as he trod water and lunged for the transom.
At the bow, Rafaela, headphones and bikini on, was hot and bothered. Oblivious to their devious plan to dive, and deaf to James’ request to helm, she hid behind the genoa and awning, fretting as she tried to find a flat piece of deck, uninterrupted by cleats, runners, sails and sheets on which to lie. Suffocating in the heat, she defiantly secured a line over the bow. Rafaela ripped off the iPod and slipped her long limbs over the bowsprit, quietly lowering herself into the cool ocean. Somewhere, in the two hundred fathoms of the Anegada Drop far beneath her young body, a silver marlin flashed and a hammerhead shark circled in the inky depths. She released the line and held on tightly to the yacht’s bow, laying back, her legs brown against the whiteness of the gelcoat resin on the bow – her secret place away from the men. Cool and quiet. But then she heard the splashing, followed by the shouts.
Barely 200 yards away, the thing that would take all four of their lives was beginning its approach towards the yacht. Slowly at first and then gathering pace. A line, straight as an arrow, nothing, in its way…..
It zipped across the surface of the still sea, stealthily seeking out a direction and gathering momentum when it struck Metier III with the impact of a charging bull flying into a wall. Wind. As it smacked into the yacht, the first breeze for almost two days, hit the mainsail square on and shunted Metier III in a steady and determined direction away from the men.
Rafaela’s clutch on the bow was jolted from her. She tried to obtain a purchase on the sides, but the yacht sped past. She lunged for the transom at the back and missed and saw that the ladder was still up. It was with a panic-prickling realisation that she saw Ben, James and Greg all in the water with her, and the yacht moving steadily away from them all. In a mirror image of shock, then men stared back at Rafaela, hysterically flailing in the wake, trying to reconcile the fact that their yacht had bolted without them.
Masks tilted back on their heads, they ranted and shrieked, swimming manically. But Metier III moved on, propelled by urgent, invisible forces and the activated automatic pilot away from their waving limbs. Rafaela, Greg, James and Ben – four bobbing heads in a vast ocean, watched helplessly, hysteria taking over as Metier III retreated lazily into the haze on a conspiratory current and breeze. Their futile shouts interrupted with expletives and chokes of seawater became more frantic as the yacht lurched forward, fired up by the zephyr now rushing over the surface of the ocean.
On the horizon, a silhouette of solitary fishing boat, moved further into the Virgin Islands archipelago. On board Papigayo, six inebriated, sunburned and exhausted guests were reliving their marlin moments as the crew cracked open a crate of well-deserved cold beers. Their destination of St Croix was over and hour away, but the refreshing breeze brought relief to their sweltering, high adrenaline day. In the distance, Monty Maguire shifted the gear into its top speed and observed a yacht, 43º southwest, around 1.5 nautical miles away, a miniature dark cutout shape against a flamingo-pink sunset. It was just an observation, a fleeting thought. And then it was gone. His mind returned to the voyage home, the lager and camaraderie awaiting him at Fernando’s on the quayside.
As the sunset dispersed over the horizon, nightfall descended quickly on the ocean. Only the chopping reflection of the full moon cast a straight line on the freshly invigorated sea. Blackness above and blackness beneath. Metier III’s white hull shimmered, spectre-like, churning phosphorescence in her wake as her sails rattled and flapped, the currents charging her towards the band of coral reefs awaiting her in Anegada atoll’s shallows.
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