Reading about sailing in the media is often like reading a mystery story. The question is not, however, “who done it?” but “what really happened?” The reports of Louis Jordan who was found adrift in his disabled sailboat off Cape Hatteras after two months is a good example. Many of the press reports make no sense whatsoever. Here is my attempt to piece together what may have happened.
The story, as reported, sounds unbelievable. The Guardian reported: An American missing at sea for 66 days was rescued from his capsized boat 200 miles off the North Carolina coast, telling coastguards he survived on drinking rainwater and catching fish. Louis Jordan, 37, who was reported missing by his family in January, was spotted sitting on the overturned hull of his 35ft boat by the crew of a German tanker.” The report on Slate was similar and featured the dramatic headline: “Sailor Lost at Sea for 66 Days With Just Rainwater and Raw Fish Is Saved by Passing Tanker.” NBC Reports that Jordan was “found floating on the overturned hull of his vessel by a German cargo ship, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.”
When I say the account sounds unbelievable, I mean that literally. How could anyone stay alive on the overturned hull of a sailboat for 66 days? What sort of sailboat will stay afloat for 66 days if “overturned”? Multihulls, catamarans and trimarans, often have flotation that will keep them afloat after a capsize, but Jordan’s boat was not a multihull.
The boat is described in multiple sources as a “1950s single-masted sailboat.” A sailboat boat from the 1950s would probably be built of wood. Nevertheless, photos of Jordan sitting on the sailboat, named Angel look very much like a fiberglass boat. Reading through other media accounts, the UK Mirror describes the boat as an Alberg 35, which is a heavily built, 1960s vintage fiberglass sailboat.
This makes the news accounts even less plausible. The Alberg 35 has 5,300 pounds of ballast, over 40% of its total displacement. If the capsized boat didn’t sink, it would right itself. It is unlikely that anyone could sit “on the overturned hull” as described.
So what really happened? Who really knows? Here is what I have been able to piece together.
Louis Jordan lived on his sailboat, a vintage Alberg 35, a marina in Conway, S.C. He liked to fish. He would usually fish in the intercoastal waterway. When they were not biting in the local channel, he decided to go fishing offshore in the Gulf Stream. He told one reporter that the weather looked fine even though the weather report on the radio was predicting bad weather. He decided not to be a “fairweather sailor” and so on January 23, set off into the Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras.
At some point, while Jordan was sleeping below deck, the boat was hit by a large wave and capsized. Jordon says that the boat rolled 360 degrees. All his gear went flying and the boat took on considerable water. His radio was damaged and apparently he did not have an EPIRB or a personal locator beacon. In the capsize, the boat’s deck-stepped mast came down. Jordan also broke his collarbone. Nevertheless, he was able to bail out the boat with a bucket.
After 66 days, the drifting boat was spotted by the container ship Houston Express. Jordan was taken aboard. The Coast Guard airlifted Jordan from the ship and transported him to a local hospital, were he is reported to be in good condition.
The reports that Jordan was found sitting on the “overturned hull of his 35ft boat” and that he lived on “just rainwater and raw fish” do not appear to be anywhere close to accurate. Coast Guard spokesperson Lt Krystyn Pecora said Jordan survived eating the food he had on his boat, by collecting rain water and using a net to catch fish. She said he managed to stay hydrated by going inside his boat’s cabin a lot. Pecora said there were conflicting reports on whether Jordan’s boat capsized, but she said the boat was upright when they found it.
Houston Express, the ship which rescued Jordan, is a container ship and not a tanker, as was often reported.
Jordan should be congratulated for his survival skills. Nevertheless, Jordan, who has described himself as “an inexperienced sailor”, showed incredibly poor judgement in his decision to set off in to the Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras in January with the weather forecast predicting storms. When north-easterly winds off Cape Hatteras blow against the current of the Gulf Stream, they can create incredibly steep and dangerous waves. The conditions can be terribly violent and unpredictable. Jordan sailed straight into the waters that are known, for good reason, as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” He is indeed lucky to be alive.
Thanks to Miroslav Antic and Alaric Bond for contributing to the post.