The following appeared in the November 18, 2007 New York Post newspaper. It is very long, but I am posting it in all its length. I've edited it a bit, only removing paragraph spacing. It's dramatic enough without all that extra punches for drama.
SETTING SAIL INTO HORROR
MAIDEN VOYAGE PUTS NYERS IN PERFECT STORM
By BRAD HAMILTON and BRENDAN SCOTT
November 18, 2007 -- As Andy Pfanner brought groceries and other supplies onboard his new sailing yacht three weeks ago for a journey from Long Island to the Caribbean, he was preparing for a relaxed pleasure cruise with his wife and close friends. He would soon face his own perfect storm.
Pfanner, 45, a master woodworker who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has worked with a host of well-heeled clients and been featured in Architectural Digest and other magazines. His other passion is sailing. He's often ventured from his summer house in Cutchogue into the Atlantic, sometimes traveling as far south as Brazil, where he owned another home.
This trip would be different. He would get to share his passion for the seas with his wife, Carolyn Wong, who didn't usually go with him on extended excursions. Wong, 44, had her own career as a fashion designer - she worked for Victoria's Secret, J.Crew and Vivienne Tam before starting her own line recently - and was prone to seasickness. Joining them would be Pfanner's best friend, Kurt Raymann, a successful former trader with Credit Suisse who retired a few years ago and moved from New York to Zurich, and two other pals from Pfanner's native Switzerland.
It would be the maiden voyage of Pfanner's new vessel, the Albatross, a Valiant built in Gordonsville, Texas, in 1995. The 42-foot beauty had a "blue water" rating, meaning it was sturdy enough to travel through virtually any sea. Designed in the 1970s, the vessel is an extremely durable, single-mast cutter with watertight hatches and small windows - and a price tag of about $300,000. Valiant 42s have circumnavigated the globe countless times. At 6-foot-5, Pfanner is a big man with a big personality. Boyish, boisterous and constantly smiling, he has sailed for years and owned at least two other boats, friends said. They said he was supremely confident at the helm, having once steered through a tropical storm without incident. "Andy is Mr. Adventure," said a longtime friend.
It's unclear if Pfanner was aware that on Oct. 29, the very day he and his crew stocked the Albatross with supplies, a hurricane was taking shape in the central Caribbean. "That's something we just don't know," said one friend.
In New York, the weather was clear - and the prospects sunny. The plan was to take the Albatross to Bermuda, then to Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands just east of Puerto Rico. The group would have weeks to sail around in balmy temperatures as late fall enveloped New York.
Four days into their journey, the weather turned. A tropical storm swamped Hispaniola and Cuba, causing flooding and mudslides and killing 148 people in Haiti. It then re-formed and headed for open water. Once over the Atlantic, the storm rapidly gained strength, picking up speed and racing up the Eastern Seaboard. Early in the day on Nov. 2, the storm achieved hurricane status. Dubbed Noel, it became the fifth hurricane of the season - and the deadliest. And it was headed straight for the Albatross.
Pfanner's friends don't know how much information he and his crew had about Noel or if they considered turning back. But the boat, a few hundred miles due north of Bermuda and due east of Washington, was soon pummeled by heavy rain, waves and wind.
On Nov. 3 at 7:32 a.m., the Coast Guard received a report from the Bermuda Rescue Coordination Center. The Albatross, 270 miles north of the island, had radioed a distress, saying it faced waves of 20 to 25 feet and winds of 42 knots - about 50 mph. "Three of the five crew members wanted to get off the boat," said Coast Guard spokesman Benjamin Strong. "Two of the three were seasick. One had a minor head laceration." Also, the mainsail was torn. But there was good news. Pfanner indicated that he had enough fuel to make it to Bermuda, his engines were intact and the boat was not taking on water. A Coast Guard station in Norfolk, Va., spoke by radio with the boat and told the Albatross to continue on to Bermuda and check in via satellite phone every 30 minutes.
The weather worsened. At 8:19 a.m., the Albatross reported waves were increasing in size. It called in again 32 minutes later to say the boat had taken a wave over its bow. At 9:14 a.m., Pfanner sent up a satellite distress beacon, which allowed any passing vessel to know about the Albatross's condition and location.
The first to receive the message was another Coast Guard station - this one in Boston, prompting a call to an Air Force base in Cape Cod, which said it could scramble a rescue team in 15 minutes. "Sometimes they'll parachute Air Force para-rescue people down if things look pretty dire," said Strong. "This was a pretty miserable storm."
At 9:55 a.m., Bermuda Rescue reported having just spoken with the Albatross and that conditions were "no longer deteriorating." At 10:37 a.m., Pfanner's distress beacon was picked up by a Japanese container ship, the Martorell, carrying a load of 5,000 Mercedes and Chrysler autos from Bremerhaven, Germany to Charleston, SC. It radioed the Albatross and said it would come to the sailors' aid.
The captain of the Martorell, then 90 miles southeast of the Albatross, told Pfanner he could rendezvous with him in about five hours. It actually took more than seven hours. By then, the crew of the Albatross - some delirious with seasickness and panicking about their situation - were fighting about what to do. "Andy said they just wanted to mutiny," said a friend.
"They said, 'You sat us here for 24 hours and we have to get off the boat.' He said the crew threatened him with physical violence if he didn't send a distress signal." Pfanner's many years sailing through rough waters didn't seem to make a difference. "When you get in weather like this, it doesn't matter your experience level," said Strong.
At 11:46 a.m., the Martorell complained to the Coast Guard that it couldn't communicate with the Albatross. It would arrive at the boat's location in four hours, the ship said. But four hours later, at 3:37 p.m., the Martorell was still 30 miles away. It reported 50 mph winds and 33-foot seas.
At 4:58 p.m., the Martorell radioed the Coast Guard again, saying it had re-established communications with the Albatross and estimated a rendezvous in one hour. It said it would be in touch with the sailing vessel every 15 minutes to go over proposed rescue plans.
Darkness began to fall - and the storm again gathered strength. The sea now summoned waves as high as 40 feet, a terrifying wall of water. At 5:18 p.m., the Martorell reported it was still about seven miles away and could not see the Albatross, which was making preparations to abandon ship, it said. All five of its crew members had on life vests.
The plan was for the Martorell - at 645 feet long, more than 15 times the size of the Albatross - to take an upwind position, shielding the smaller craft from waves and wind, and making it safe for the crew to transfer from one vessel to the other. At 5:38 p.m., the master of the Martorell called the Albatross. For the first time, the sailing yacht came into sight. At 6:11 p.m., nearly 11 hours after the first distress call, the Martorell moved into position to attempt a rescue. It was nearly dark. The wind continued to howl and the waves crested at 40 feet.
The ship reported to the Coast Guard that if someone were to fall into the water, "We will immediately contact you." "They were going to put a cargo net down the side, which they did," said Lt. Chris White, assistant command center supervisor at the Coast Guard's facility in Norfolk. "And they were going to lower strobe lights down to each of the five individuals of the Albatross. Then there was a harness that they were going to lower down to the ship and pull them up one by one.
"For a reason I don't know, that plan was abandoned." Instead of being hoisted up, the beleaguered crew leapt into the water and swam toward the cargo netting. The challenge would be to grab the nets in roiling seas, then climb up to the Martorell's deck - about 100 feet above. "The folks on the Albatross appeared to have panicked and they all jumped - they all abandoned the Albatross at the same time and swam toward the cargo net," White said. "Imagine yourself being on this sailing vessel and seeing this monstrous ship next to you. Given the conditions they endured - they were seasick and battered - I can't fault them for being scared."
Three of the five were able to grab hold of the cargo net, White said. "That's when the other two went missing," he said. Wong and Raymann, Pfanner's wife and best friend, vanished. The Martorell immediately reported the accident, radioing at 7:37 p.m. that two people had entered the water. It repeated the message three minutes later, making sure the Coast Guard had its exact position and stressing that both missing sailors were wearing their life jackets.
A massive search ensued. The crew of the Martorell immediately began to comb the area. The Coast Guard dispatched a C-130 rescue plane from Elizabeth City, NC, and put out a request for assistance from any and all vessels in the area. An HH-60 Coast Guard Blackhawk helicopter in Bermuda was readied. But conditions were about as bad as they can get.
"It was dark, and with the winds and the waves, it's easy to lose sight of somebody," said Strong. Still, there was hope: The water temperature was relatively warm - about 73 degrees - and more help was on the way. The sea slowly began to calm. At 7:51 p.m., the Coast Guard directed the Martorell to begin an "expanding square search." At 8:56 p.m., the C-130 buzzed overhead, joining the effort.
But 10 hours later, there was no sign of Wong or Raymann. At 6:25 a.m. on Nov. 4, the Martorell reported that the winds had calmed to about 30 mph and the waves were just under 20 feet high. The sun was up and visibility was good, it said. The ship checked in again at 9:17 a.m. and said the search continued.
Later that day - at 6:01 p.m. - the USS Carter Hall, a Navy amphibious landing vessel, arrived and joined the others. Coast Guard crews onboard the Blackhawk chopper and an HU-25 Falcon jet from Cape Cod lent their assistance. The Joe Aspen, a Norwegian-flagged chemical tanker, also steamed in.
The next day, at 2:48 p.m., the Carter Hall found the Albatross and sent a small craft to board it. At 3:53 p.m., it reported that the Albatross was empty and there was no sign that the missing crew members had been back onboard. The sailing yacht's mast was broken but its hull had held.
At 6:34 p.m. on Nov. 5, the search was called off. It had covered 1,300 square miles. The accident claimed the lives of two people who had enjoyed success and a wide circle of friends. "They were both very talented, young, and had a lot to give," said a friend. Wong, who won a design award when she graduated from the Parsons School in 1987, had just launched a clothing company and was looking forward to developing her own line.
"She was a very special person," said a friend. "Very spiritual and optimistic. Always smiling." A mutual friend ran into Raymann and his wife, Isabel, in SoHo in September. "They were just so happy," said the friend. "She had a bad skiing accident. She told me Kurt had been taking care of her 24/7."
Pfanner is struggling to cope. "He's devastated," said another friend. "It was a senseless thing. He kept saying, 'I told them not to abandon ship.'"