Drama: Lost at Sea

Travis Wright had another half hour before going on night watch, but the choppy sea below the cabin kept him

Travis Wright had another half hour before going on night watch, but the choppy sea below the cabin kept him from sleeping. At 11:30, he swung off his bunk and stepped into a puddle. He expected puddles on a sailboat. But this one seemed to be growing.

Wright, 20, and his buddies on the Texas A&M-Galveston sailing team were 60 miles into the Regata de Amigos, a 600-mile race from Galveston to Veracruz, Mexico. The waves were rough, but the Cynthia Woods, a 38-foot Cape Fear yacht, was built to handle far worse.

He lifted a floorboard, and a geyser shot up. “We’ve got water coming in!” he shouted. Roger Stone, 53, one of two safety officers on board with the four-student crew, sprang from his berth and crouched by him. This was no ordinary leak. Stone popped his head out of the hatch. “We’re taking on water!” he yelled to Steve Conway, the other safety officer, at the tiller. “Start the engine! Douse the sails!”

The survivors
The survivors (from left): Steven Guy, Ross Busby, Steve Conway, Travis Wright, and Joseph Savana

Conway, 55, turned the key and scrambled to drop the mainsail, but the craft was already rolling onto its starboard side. Ross Busby, 21, and Joseph Savana, 18, slid across the deck and into the sea. Conway lunged for a lifeline, caught it, and held on as the boat twisted. Seconds later, the Cynthia Woods capsized.

In the upside-down cabin, water spouted through the hatch. Steven Guy, 20, grabbed for his life vest, but it inflated before he could put it on. “How do we get out of here?” he cried.

“Through there!” Stone pointed toward the opening below. Guy held his breath and dived into the blackness but was driven back by surging water. Stone pushed him forward. This time, Guy made it.

Wright, too, dived and was thrown back. The seawater had reached chest level. “It’s coming too fast,” he gasped.

“You’ve got to try!” yelled Stone. He grabbed Wright, pointed him downward, and shoved. Wright frog-kicked out of the cabin, free.

Roger Stone carried a practical talisman with him on land and at sea—a small, yellow marine GPS unit. “Before cars had GPS systems, he’d use it so he wouldn’t have to ask for directions,” says his wife, Linda, a teacher. Aside from its function, the device symbolized something about Stone: Whatever else he did, he was a sailor.

As a teenager in the suburbs of New York City, he spent his free time piloting a dinghy up and down the Hudson River. After college in Oregon, he crewed on yachts before moving to Houston for a job at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he became a warehouse manager. He sailed his own 14-footer around the local waterways, eventually with his kids, Eric, 15, and Elizabeth, 12. On Sundays, he assistant-coached the sailing team for Texas A&M University at Galveston.

A quiet, square-built man with a captain’s beard, Stone was known for rescuing stray dogs and stranded motorists and, on occasion, sailors in trouble. During one race, a rival boat lost its mast and drifted toward a jetty; after plucking the crew from the endangered craft and towing it back to port, Stone was declared the winner in honor of his selflessness.

He was also a stickler for safety. Shortly before the start of last June’s regatta, Stone and Conway had inspected the Cynthia Woods from stem to stern. The two-year-old boat seemed structurally sound and was loaded with new emergency equipment: a life raft, a flare kit, two radios, flashing beacons, and a satellite phone.

Now all of that had been swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico. And the race’s two dozen other competitors were miles away.

Travis Wright swam beneath the boat, avoiding the tangled rigging, and pushed himself up to the surface. After inflating his life vest, he peered across the pitching sea. What he saw in the starlight shocked him. The Cynthia Woods lay belly-up beneath a few feet of water, a great gash where its 5,000-pound keel had been.

Ross Busby and Joseph Savana were treading water nearby; about ten yards away, Steve Conway had Steven Guy in a lifeguard hold. Roger Stone was nowhere to be seen.

“Steven lost his vest,” Conway called out. “Somebody grab the life ring off the deck!” Wright, Busby, and Savana tried to pry the float from the railing of the submerged boat, but it stuck fast. The men watched in frustration as the ring’s strobe light, meant to alert searchers, blinked dimly in the murk. They swam to join Conway and Guy.

“What happened?” Savana asked. “Did we hit something?”

Conway, a white-bearded former Coast Guard commander, managed to speak calmly. “I have no idea. But we’ll be okay if we use our heads.”

“Where’s Roger?” asked Wright.

They hollered for Stone. No response. “Maybe he’s already drifted too far to hear,” Busby said.

“The first rule is, stay with the boat, but that’s going to be tough with this breeze blowing,” said Conway. “The most important thing is to stay together.” He lashed himself to Wright and Guy by running his belt through a loop on each of their shorts. Then he linked Busby to Savana, using the harness on Savana’s life vest, and told each pair to hold on to the other.

Soon the vessel was out of sight. As the men drifted, six-foot waves broke over their heads every few minutes. Conway reminded the others not to swallow; drinking salt water can cause hallucinations, even death. He also did his best to reassure them. The Cynthia Woods was equipped with an emergency radio beacon, set to alert the Coast Guard once the boat sank to a depth of 13 feet. “If it works, we could be picked up in a few hours,” Conway said. “If it doesn’t, we’ll have to wait a little longer.”

He was scheduled to check in with the university marina at 8 a.m.; the manager would know to call the Coast Guard if he didn’t hear from him.

The night wore on, and no one appeared. Lights from offshore drilling platforms twinkled on the horizon. Someone proposed swimming toward them, but Conway disagreed: “We need to conserve energy.”

To lift the guys’ spirits, Conway told sea stories, recounting rescues he’d carried out during his 21 years in uniform. At about four in the morning, a boat appeared a half mile away. Conway flashed a distress signal with his pocket light. But the boat moved on.

The night seemed a bit darker after that, the sea a bit colder. Even in the 85-degree water, the men were losing body heat. Conway knew that hypothermia would set in after 35 hours. He held off the chill with thoughts of his wife and four grown daughters, one of whom was eight months pregnant. I’m not going to die without seeing the baby, he promised himself.

“It won’t be long till sunup,” he said aloud. “They’ll be looking for us soon.”

Later that morning, with no call from Conway, the marina manager alerted the Coast Guard. A GPS tracking device on the Cynthia Woods showed that it was drifting 30 miles southeast of Freeport, Texas. But it wouldn’t be so easy to find the crew. The lifeboat launched by the Coast Guard had been forced back to shore by big waves, and an air search would take a couple of hours to organize.

Foot-long fish began to nibble at the men, and the sun began scorching their faces. Conway pointed to a purple Portuguese man-of-war lurking to their left. “The tentacles on those things can be 100 feet long,” Wright said. “If they touch you, game over.” But the lethal creature bobbed off.

Conway now suggested that the crew try to get to one of the oil rigs, about five miles away. Though almost certain that the shifting currents would make such a trip impossible, he thought the goal might boost morale. The men alternated leading and lying on their backs and kicking.

After an hour or two, a triangular fin sliced the surface of the water and circled the group. Tense minutes passed until Conway realized it was a harmless ling fish. The guys resumed talking, trading quips about the food they craved—Wright wanted a burger; Busby, a steak; Guy, his mom’s lasagna.

“I wonder what Roger’s doing now,” Wright said. The others fell silent.

Back in Galveston, most of the men’s families had gathered to wait for updates in a conference room at Texas A&M. But Linda Stone, Roger’s wife, had spent the previous day in Austin and didn’t know anything was wrong.

When she returned to her home near Houston, she received a call from the president of A&M’s Galveston branch, who told her what had happened and shared the latest development: The Coast Guard had spotted what might be the hull of the boat, and no one appeared to be on board.

Linda decided that was a good sign; her husband must have escaped. She was invited to join the other families but chose to wait for news at home. If she was wrong about Roger, she didn’t want to find out in a public place.

Several search planes, along with a Coast Guard cutter, came and went. Even with the others holding him up, Guy was exhausted from treading water for 18 hours without a life vest. Wright and Savana took turns lending him their vests. By midnight, they were all so sleep-deprived that they began dreaming in mid-stroke.

Then, at 2 a.m., a helicopter made a low pass, its taillight green against the sky. Conway pulsed his flashlight. Coast Guard petty officer Louis Bishop spotted the flickering pinpoint through his night-vision goggles and alerted his crew, who circled back for another look. “Those are life jackets!” the pilot said, switching on his floodlight.

Chief Petty Officer Albert Shannon descended on the helicopter’s 50-foot cable wearing a wet suit with a glow stick hooked to his goggles. “We’re here!” the men called out. “Thank you!”

Shannon plunged into the ocean and swam to them. “We had a crew list of six,” he said, “but I count only five heads.”

“One man is still with the boat,” said Wright.

“We’ll keep looking,” Shannon said, then turned to help Savana—without his vest at that moment—into the large wire basket the copter had lowered.

After all the men had been hauled up, spinning, into the helicopter, they were flown to Galveston and rushed by ambulance to the University of Texas Medical Branch. Despite severe dehydration and sunburn, they would recover from their 26-hour ordeal.

But that afternoon, six miles from the rescue point, a marine salvage diver found Roger Stone’s body floating in the upside-down cabin of the Cynthia Woods; he’d drowned after pushing out Guy and Wright. Hundreds of mourners attended his funeral, where he was lauded as a hero for putting his mates first. A Coast Guard investigation followed; it recently concluded that the boat’s keel had simply fallen off, having been improperly repaired after running aground several times. Texas A&M has not yet completed its own review.

The crew members were haunted by Stone’s sacrifice—”This is one of those things that wake you up at three in the morning for the rest of your life,” says Conway—but Stone’s wife didn’t want them to blame themselves. In late June, she invited the five survivors to her home. A grief counselor led them in repeating, “I am not responsible for Roger’s death.” Each man then wrote a note of gratitude to Stone, and Linda burned them, sending the messages skyward.

“There are a million ways to die,” Linda said. “This was Roger’s choice. He was always there for people.”

“He pushed us out because he believed it was his job. He wouldn’t have done anything less,” said Wright. Then he paused, thinking of Stone’s own term of highest praise. “Roger,” he added, “was a good sailor.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest