In the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of the North Atlantic, the crew of the sailing vessel Schaunard spotted a boat that seemed to be headed nowhere.
Captain Dave found it in the binocs. “It doesn’t look like it’s making any way,” he said. It was a sailboat, off the starboard bow about halfway to the horizon. “It looks like it's just drifting.”
It was Marc, Captain Dave’s first mate, who said what they all were thinking: that they had to go check it out, if for no other reason than to break the tedium of the day. All afternoon they’d been flying the chute but it had been hours since there’d been enough wind to keep it full. The surface of the sea was impossibly still, and aboard the Schaunard the long, slow swell had a drowsing effect on the crew. Pulling the spinnaker in was precisely the sort of work that no one wanted to do; it fell to Linc, the cook’s son Tyson, and Captain Dave’s son Arthur, all three bare-chested, barefooted, caked in salt, only thirty-three hours out of Captain Smokes Marina in the Harbour of St. George, Bermuda.
“It’s probably they’re in there fucking,” Tyson remembers saying. He gathered nylon half-heartedly in his arms, with a lethargy that he admits was characteristic of his teenage years. “Day like this: drop the sails, it’s fucking time.”
As usual Arthur was operating the halyard. “Keep it out of the water,” he’d have said. “Watch what you’re doing.”
“He always felt pretty important on that boat,” Tyson recalls. “That was how he was.”
This was June. That very minute, five hundred of the three boys’ classmates were waiting in robes and mortarboards for their names to be called to receive their high school diplomas.
“If we find a body,” Linc said. “I don’t even know what. I can’t deal with a dead body right now.”
“You hate dead bodies,” Tyson agreed.
I came to the unusual story of the Schaunard quite by accident, nearly fifteen years after the fact. In late 2015, for various personal and professional reasons, I’d rented a furnished apartment above a garage in Westport, CT, the quiet suburb where years before Captain Dave had lived with his family, and where he’d docked the Schaunard, a forty-eight foot aluminum-hulled Frers that he’d purchased in 1997 from his business partner, who’d commissioned its design and construction in 1981. Among the furnishings in my cramped efficiency was a rack of magazines, and because the boredom of the period sometimes grew so exquisite as to bring me to tears, I’d often leaf through these magazines in the exact frame of mind of someone who has been made to wait too long to have his teeth cleaned. Much of what I came across there was sex advice—an irony that in my circumstances struck me as particularly cruel—but there was one story I found in a special interest magazine called Cruising World, entitled “450-Mile High Seas Salvage,” in an issue dated June 2003, a solid year after the events it described, and authored by one David Lambric. I could see immediately that Lambric was not trained as a writer, and it may have been an effect of his unsophisticated but searching style of prose that the tragic and mystifying turn his story took made such a strong impression.
The story ran to a scant fifteen-hundred words, much of which was taken up with a description of the crew: Marc, his first mate, a former software engineer in his late thirties, whose own boat had once been docked in the same marina as the Schaunard; Geoff Pelky, a middle-aged tort attorney with very little experience sailing; Craig, an underemployed drinking buddy who served as the cook; Craig’s son Tyson, Captain Dave’s son Arthur, and Linc, a classmate of Arthur’s who cleaned the Shaunard hull twice a month. The story’s omissions were so glaring that I assumed many of its most important details had been too outlandish, even by the standards of a publication such as Cruising World, to run without verification. Nonetheless, I began to track down the crew and to make preliminary inquiries, and discovered that there was in fact ample documentary evidence to suggest that there was much more going on than Lambric’s account accounted for.
“It’s tempting to say that we got a bad feeling about the boat from the moment we laid eyes on it,” Arthur Lambric would tell me. “But from a distance, even through the binocs, there was nothing particularly unusual.” It was not at all uncommon on a day as calm as that, they reminded themselves, for a boat to shut its engines down and drift—already that day they’d stopped the Schaunard twice to swim, for example, and once to receive a twenty-two pound dorado and two packs of Marlboros from aboard a boat called Barbara, in exchange for six cans of beer and a lime.
“Somebody left in a hurry, you think?” asked Craig.
“Or they’re down there sick, or hurt,” Marc said, “waiting for someone to come along.”
“Something,” Captain Dave would later write, “had gone terribly wrong.”
Pelky stood on deck, steadying himself on a shroud. In his typical watchfulness he said nothing, but stared fixedly at the boat as they circled round it, with a camcorder running in his free hand. “As the least experienced sailor on the crew, I saw it as my role to remain wary of unforeseen developments of any kind,” he’d later say in compelled testimony. “As a veteran litigator, I saw it as my duty to make an irrefutable record of events.”
With the diesel just off idle, they made slow circles around the disabled boat. A log entry marked 1722 records that Linc hailed the Eustacia on the VHF, to no effect; Pelky’s tape confirms this. Several times, in accordance with nautical protocol, Captain Dave called ahoy to whoever may have been aboard. On the tape he can be heard hushing his crew to listen for a response. None came.
“It’s a trap,” Craig can be heard saying on Pelky’s tape. “Classic pirate stuff.”
“It’s classic pervert stuff,” Ty’s voice answers. “They’re down there boning like crazy.”
Among the crew, Marc Ponder was something of a mystery. In his life ashore, his closest personal relationships were with bartenders, though at sea it never seemed to occur to him to drink. He was a tremendous sailor, and an accomplished amateur electrician and mechanic. His ex-wife told me that for several years she’d lived with him aboard a twenty-eight-foot sloop he’d bought at auction and quit his job as a programmer to restore. As he withdrew into the constant upkeep his boat required, he became insensible to the more human requirements of married life. “I got tired of coin-operated showers in dirty marinas,” his ex-wife explained. “I got tired of the bottoms of my feet always being wet, and always waking up at night to see if the anchor was dragging.” Marc had to sell the boat to cover their divorce, and, she said, he never quite made the adjustment back to real life.
It may have been because he saw a path back into his former life that Marc was so eager to board the Eustacia. Arthur followed, then Craig and Linc. The sea was calm enough that they were able to pull right up alongside and step over the lifelines.
“This might be a little above our pay-grade,” Marc said, taking stock of the situation.
Even from the cockpit the smell from below was overpowering. The floorboards were floating in eighteen inches of brown water. There were lockers swinging open on their hinges, in which unfolded headsails were growing mold. Just about everything was growing mold. In a net above the galley they found a clutch of rotten fruit. Several of the port lights were busted out, and not one of the hatches was properly dogged down. Floating in the brown water or submerged against the ribs of the ship there was detritus of all kinds—shoes, books, instruments of navigation. Displaced drawers, seat cushions, clothes strewn everywhere. Only after a long minute was it apparent that there were no human bodies.
“They fell overboard?” Craig said from the cockpit.
Marc stood at the nav table, from which a pile of charts spilled over onto the sole. “They must have abandoned ship,” he said. “There’s no log. They must have grabbed it on the way out.”
As Arthur tells it, the sound of water sloshing in the hull became an aspect of the excitement that had drawn taut among them. Marc felt pretty sure that boat wasn’t sinking; if it had been adrift for as long as his best guess—a month at least, to judge by the state of the fruit and the extent of the mold—it would by that time have reached the ocean floor. They found the bilge pump and agreed upon a rotation, then left poor Linc to work through their turns while they took stock of the boat’s systems. There was no power. The steering quadrant was shot; Craig racked the helm, and for a moment became absorbed with watching it spin. Aft of the cockpit, the life raft was missing from its cradle. The main was weather-beaten, lashed loosely to the boom, torn in several places they could see. Many of the winches were frozen. There was no storm jib. The #1 was in tatters in the forward berth. The #2 and #3 were wet and moldy and torn in places but more or less intact.
“I remember asking if anyone had seen Dead Calm,” Arthur says, “which was always on TV back then.”
“Sure,” Craig had said. “Billy Zane.”
While the four of them worked to get the Eustacia cleaned up, the Schaunard drifted nearby at idle, puttering up occasionally to hand off supplies.
It seemed that professional crews running two-hundred-horse Evinrudes had been out looking for the Eustacia since it had been abandoned off the coast of Hatteras some four hundred miles west, around the beginning of May; now having heard Captain Dave hailing a disabled vessel, they were hoping he’d be sucker enough to share its coordinates. The US Coast Guard came on, meanwhile, to suggest that if they weren’t going to tow the boat or sail it, it could be scuttled in order to eliminate the hazard it presented to navigation. “Without quite understanding exactly what was going on,” Pelky would say in his testimony, “I had the distinct impression that we’d entered thorny territory.” It sent a shudder down his spine to hear Captain Dave advise for the general benefit: “This is the sailing vessel Schaunard, claiming salvage.”
“My dad had a bumper sticker over his captain’s chair that just said ‘Go Big,’” Arthur told me. When we met, Arthur had come to think of his father as a grasper at straws: as a financial manager, for example, it was his habit to hold to a position just a beat too long, waiting for a big score and racking up catastrophic losses, rather than cashing in for small gains. “His dot-com holdings could have paid off the house,” Arthur says. “By 2002, the Schaunard was all he had to show for them, apart from some shareholder swag, like the eToys hat I was always wearing. That and a second mortgage.”
The instructions his father shouted from the helm of the Schaunard amounted to a manner of vicarious experience, Arthur recalls. As the four men aboard the Eustacia worked all afternoon cleaning, making inventory, making small repairs, Pelky and the Captain began to invent a narrative for the abandoned vessel with the few facts they had at hand. Short-handed and under-experienced, they ventured, a millionaire skipper with a weak stomach hit a spring squall, and called for a medivac at the first wave over the bow. Implicit in this narrative of incompetence was the assumption that they were themselves equal to their present circumstances, which neither of them quite believed. On the Eustacia, meanwhile, they had become preoccupied with the question of how to handle their spoils. The hardware in the cockpit and on deck alone was worth tens of thousands. The B&Gs likewise. The Kevlar sails weren’t worth saving but there were hundreds of yards of line they could sell by the foot.
“We could just walk off with this stuff,” Craig marveled, coiling the tangled jib sheets on the deck. “It wouldn’t even take us that long.”
Marc was already thinking bigger. The real prize, as he saw it, was the fifty-foot fiberglass hull, custom designed and built—according to the documentation he found in the nav bench—in Les Herbiers, France. Arthur still remembers Marc’s precise words to him, when he looked up and their eyes met:
“He told me, ‘We could bring this fucker in, you know. Imagine the look on their faces.’ I didn’t know whose faces he meant, but I understood what he was getting at.” At that time it was typical of Arthur to overestimate himself, Tyson remembers; he hoped the excitement would soon come to nothing.
“Not that anyone asked me,” Tyson told me when I spoke with him, “but I wanted exactly nothing to do with that fucking ghost ship.”
The rest of the day they performed the work in silent contemplation. With a can of silicone, Arthur unfroze a few of the winches, as well as the blocks at the foot of the mast. The day had begun to cool and for a moment he stood over the open forward hatch to watch Linc at work on the bilge. A seagull landed on the masthead, and for a minute watched over the crew. The true object of their excitement was something none of them had named yet. Because no more was the hull the real prize, really, than whatever equipment they might strip from it. Pausing to breathe, Linc looked up at Arthur looking down at him, and past him at the gull, and loopy with fatigue, he broke into a wide, proud grin.
As the sun began to get low in the sky, things began to move more quickly. Craig found a seventy-five foot extension cord that seemed to have stayed dry, and passed the male end over the water to the Schaunard; the batteries wouldn’t take a charge, but they were able to relieve Linc after hours of tireless cranking by running the bilge pump electrically. Marc found the emergency tiller and fastened it to the rudderpost, centered it, and lashed it down. The line to the sea anchor was sheathed in barnacles; as the sun set, Craig and Arthur hauled in about four hundred feet, and cut it off for a towline.
The gurgling sound of the bilge emptying into the sea had been constant now for hours. On the Schaunard, Pelky and Captain Dave agreed that unmistakably, the Eustacia had risen in the sea. Between them there was an uneasy sense of inevitability&mash;that they’d entered into something they were going to push to its limit precisely because it felt unreal: what Captain Dave called, in his article a year later, “a double-knowing.” Linc was still below in the Eustacia V-berth in the gathering dark, in the calm of exhaustion, watching the waterline recede almost imperceptibly along the ribs of the ship. By his estimate, he’d pumped ten to twelve inches of water back through the hull; he wondered, at the time, how to express this measure as a volume. When Arthur called him on deck to come take a look at something, he hoisted himself gamely through the hatch overhead, and found the rest of the crew on both ships standing silent, facing the rising moon.
“We’re gonna be telling this story for the rest of our lives,” Linc remembers saying half-aloud. It would be years before he learned that Arthur heard these words, and recorded them without attribution in the logbook.
According to records compiled by the US Coast Guard, the maritime salvage industry collects some $10.5 million per year on the East Coast alone. The vast majority of that, says Dill Bobish of Portsmouth, VA, whose modest salvage operation has been his living since the late 1970s, is made from towing services. “These folks,” he told me over the phone, “wind up on a disabled vessel for whatever reason—the engine goes out, the steering, what have you—and they don’t have the know-how to get themselves out of a jam. I’d say about ninety-eight percent of the work I do is towing some yuppie couple like two miles back to their yacht club.”
The actual figure, according to his business records, is closer to seventy-five percent, over the last five years. The balance is made up mostly by the more exciting, demanding work of keeping sinking ships afloat. If your boat is taking on water, the Coast Guard will come and get you, but if you want your boat to make it home you need to call someone like Bobish, who will come in any weather to affix pontoons to the hull and tow it home for a fee that will make your ears ring, but is nowhere close to the boat’s value on the open market. “You abandon ship without a verbal agreement first,” Bobish told me, “that there’s finders-keepers. It almost never happens that you get a derelict vessel with the hull intact. I remember hearing about the Eustacia being out there somewhere—the whole industry was in a frenzy, it was like looking for a golden ticket.” A hint of menace comes into Bobish’s voice when he mentions the Eustacia. “Mind you,” he goes on, “that’s professionals. Them boys thought they got lucky but what they got was plain over their heads.”
Captain Dave knew that to tow even so light and fleet a vessel as the Eustacia for even just a few hours was more than the twenty-year-old Yanmar diesel should be expected to handle. There was some discussion of simply staying put overnight, and then first thing in the morning reboarding the Eustacia to see if she could be got in shape to sail. But the weatherfax showed that a front he’d hoped would push east was instead moving north, and he wanted to make as much way as they could before it caught them. To maintain four knots—at which pace, Pelky pointed out to me, it would take over five and a half hours to run marathon—the engine had to be run at eight-thousand rpms and change, and sounded like it was ready to fall to pieces. From the place where they came upon the Eustacia, it was roughly four-hundred-and-fifty nautical miles to their home port in the Long Island Sound. The plan they settled on was essentially a variation on their previous plan’s deferral: they’d tow the Eustacia through the night, and re-board in the morning to assess its seaworthiness, at which point they would in all likelihood strip it and sink it.
“But Marc kind of had a bug in his ass about getting that boat home,” Linc told me. “Arthur picked up on that, and sort got a bug of his own. We all liked Marc a lot, but Arthur I think maybe looked up to him with a particular affinity. The truth is, none of us knew all that much about him. He was a terrific sailor, but he didn’t say much that didn’t concern the operation of the boat. There was a certain soulfulness, you might have said, that was bound to appeal to a guy like Arthur.”
“I would say that in that ephebic period of Arthur’s life,” Pelky wrote me, “the Eustacia presented itself as an opportunity to both impress his father and to emancipate from him—more or less textbook coming of age stuff.”
Arthur had grown up in awe of his father, but by his senior year of high school their relationship had grown contentious: it was only aboard the Schaunard, where the imperatives of existence were limited to immediate, practical concerns, that they managed to see eye-to-eye. “On shore, to my mind at eighteen, my father was not only a capitalist,” Arthur told me, “but a failed capitalist. I was reading Kerouac, Bukowski, Camus, I was writing broody anti-materialist poetry that I would read aloud to girls I wanted to make out with—parked at the beach in the car my dad bought me.” But on the boat, when, for example, there was a halyard to re-lead, it was Arthur whom Captain Dave sent sixty feet to the masthead in a bosun’s chair; Arthur relished such chances to prove himself. “My dad had sailed through hurricanes,” he said. “He’d sailed around Cape Horn. I wanted stories like that of my own.”
After dinner, at the nav station in the doghouse, Marc and Arthur made the case that they could sail the Eustacia double-handed. Captain Dave remained skeptical: to send his son off in the middle of the sea without an engine, navigation lights, instruments, or proper steering sounded, as he put it in Cruising World, “difficult to imagine justifying to my wife.” Pelky agreed; there was too much that could go wrong. They were approaching the Gulf Stream—a powerful current that runs along the coast of North America and across the Atlantic like an invisible river in the ocean—where the wind and seas would be less forgiving, less predictable than they’d been here in the Sargasso. He was at the helm during this discussion, according to his testimony, straining to hear over the Yanmar. He put in that there was no lifeboat aboard the Eustacia, and Arthur responded that the Schaunard would be their lifeboat. But without lights, Pelky pointed out, it would be too easy for the two boats to become separated in the night.
“Men sailed around the planet for thousands of years without any of this stuff,” Arthur said.
“A great many of those men died,” Pelky said, grinning uncomfortably. “Which is why we don’t do it that way anymore.”
Linc and Tyson did the dishes in silence. Because of the engine noise, the rest of the crew was shouting to be heard; it was difficult for the two of them to make out what was being said, but their sense of the moment’s intensity was increased. Neither of the boys knew quite where to expect the conversation to end up, though Tyson had expressed his feeling that it would be fucking cool to watch a million-dollar boat sink into the mile-deep ocean. After much discussion, it was decided finally that Marc and Arthur would board the Eustacia at first light to make further repairs and preparations, and to then audition the boat for Captain Dave’s approval to make the long trip to port.
Their first course of action was to draw up a list of circumstances in which they agreed to immediately abandon the Eustacia and return to the Schaunard. Captain Dave, meanwhile, structured the take according to the rough hierarchy of the operation; Linc, Ty, and Pelky, at the bottom, would take five percent each of whatever they collected; Craig would take ten, Arthur seventeen, Marc twenty-five, and thirty-three to the Captain.
Pelky remained at the helm deep into the night. He chewed an unlit cigar, as was his habit. Staring at the glowing binnacle so long had an intoxicating effect on what he thought of as his cognitive faculties. “Because the Eustacia’s hullspeed was so much greater than the Schaunard’s,” he wrote to me in an email, “she was repeatedly whipping forward on her towline, like a water-skier, and overtaking us four hundred feet off their starboard beam—directly beneath the moon and over the long shaft of moonlight reflected on the ocean’s surface—before falling once again back into the darkness behind us. The sight was chilling: a dark, silent ship, stalking us toward the morning.”
When Tyson and Craig came on watch to relieve him and he finally got to sleep, this image, in the logic of his tortured dreams, was distorted, so that it was the Eustacia that dragged the Schaunard along, not like a water-skier but like a kite, and not through the night but toward the edge of the planet.
After the disaster I’d made of my career, my marriage, and my credit score, gathering the pieces of this story was the first thing in months that I felt like getting out of bed for. I don’t want to use the term depression, but to have been very publicly branded a liar by my editor, my wife, and my bank had left me with a strong impulse to disappear from the face of the earth. That it had been in order to impress all these people that I’d gone such lengths to deceive them made the thought of ever showing them my face again almost impossible to confront. Many of you may have read some of my bigger stories when they ran, and felt very reasonably that your intelligence had been insulted when you discovered they were entirely fabricated. So when I found this story, so much of which had been entered into the public record, and about which so many of the key players were willing to speak, I admit that my first thought was redemption. If I ran down the facts, and got all my quotes on tape or in print, and just generally wrote my tail off, I could conceivably ask readers despite everything to trust me again.
When Captain Dave refused to answer any of my questions, I became disconsolate; weeks went by that I didn’t put on pants. But then in the mail, addressed care of my landlord, there arrived a package that bore his return address, with a note he’d signed that read simply, I’ve never shared this with anyone. I already had digital copies of the logbooks from both the Schaunard and the Eustacia. The notebook the Captain had enclosed, it took me a minute to discern, contained what could only be called Marc’s personal journal, during the three days in question.
First light brought a six-foot swell. It was overcast, eighteen knots blowing out of the north. There was too much going on to give much thought to the thick blue smoke the Yanmar was spewing from its exhaust—Pelky remembers seeing the Captain pause for an abstracted moment to take it in, before he turned away to the task at hand. As the Schaunard made its first pass, Marc was able to step directly onto the deck without incident. But on the second pass a roller tipped the two boats toward each other; the sound of their rigs colliding was like stage-thunder, and their shrouds became momentarily entwined. “I think it shook all our confidence,” Arthur told me. “That was what you call a come-to-Jesus moment.”
“He looked like he was about to shit,” Linc told me. “I was afraid he would bail right then and there.”
When Arthur asked if he could pack his clothes in the dry-bag and swim across to board at the swim-ladder, it was because he genuinely thought that was the safer option. This was the edge of the Gulf Stream and he knew the current was upwards of five knots; in an original draft of his Cruising World article that I obtained from an intern there, Captain Dave wrote that in that moment he realized that he’d seriously overestimated his son’s judgment, and resolved to call the whole thing off.
On a third pass, however Arthur did leap aboard. But the swell rose further still and it became impossible to bring the Schaunard within spitting distance in order to pass over the supplies and equipment; Linc tossed a messenger line and dropped the dry-bag into the drink for Arthur to haul in.“Maintaining contact between the two boats,” Pelky testified, “was already proving far more difficult than anticipated.” Marc quickly established that since the night before, the hull had taken in no more water, the first item on their list of ditch-contingencies. The work of that morning took several hours: patching the sails, re-leading the sheets, replacing brittle shackles. In the steep chop it was slow going. The Schaunard raised its sails up and ran in circles, watching the Eustacia get pummeled by the sea.
By eleven Marc and Arthur were ready to hoist the sails and this required Marc to do the work of two men in the cockpit while Arthur did the work of two men on deck. “That was really the moment of truth, so to speak,” Linc told me. “We all kind of doubted they could even get the sails up. I was rooting for them, but Captain Dave was really on edge and he was gonna take the first chance he got to pull the plug.”
As the #3 went up, the luff tape jammed in the foil and tore; Arthur had to carve it out, leaving an eighteen-inch gap where the sail wasn’t attached to the stay. From about a hundred yards off, Captain watched his son stand on the transom with a knife in his teeth as the boat dove again and again nose-first into the waves, so that it seemed each time that Arthur was completely submerged in seaawater. “The whole crew went quiet,” Linc said on the phone. “Until he climbed back down and hoisted the jib the rest of the way.
But even under a double-reefed main and the smallest headsail aboard, the boat was overpowered for the emergency tiller, which was only three feet long. For a half an hour, the Eustacia spun like a top on the water, and keeping up with the constant tacks quickly exhausted both Marc and Arthur. The racket of flapping canvas was like a taunt to them. Steering was another of their ditch contingencies, and Captain Dave had seen enough. Before long the handheld VHF came to life and Arthur heard his father in a stern fury.
“You guys have zero control,” Captain Dave said. “You need to drop the sails and we’ll come pick you up.”
Arthur remembers Marc giving him a long look, measuring his resolve. He was himself surprised to find that he wasn’t ready to call it quits. “It wasn’t exactly that I wanted to proceed,” he told me. “It’s that I wanted it to be impossible to proceed, and we weren’t at that point yet.”
“We’re just feeling her out here,” Marc’s voice crackled in the Schaunard doghouse. “It’ll take a minute to get the hang of.”
In the Eustacia cockpit, Marc and Arthur listened to a long silence over the air. The hull slapped against waves as the boat turned once again into the wind.
“You have fifteen minutes,” Captain said, “to get that boat to make a straight line.”
The rain started a few hours before dark; with it, the wind was up to twenty-five, and gusting close to forty. All afternoon, despite all their planning, each member of the crew had been operating on the subconscious belief that after some putzing around in the daylight, the entire story would end at dusk, when the reality of the situation—that it was insane—would take hold and they would reunite to resume the quiet return delivery they’d all planned on. “I’m from Ohio,” Pelky wrote in an email. “In even the best of circumstances, sailing a boat across open ocean felt like something that could never happen to me, even as it was happening.”
But when the storm appeared in Herb Hilgenberg’s 1500 forecast over the single-sideband, they immediately began to make plans for a night of bad weather, and only once they’d finalized these plans over the course of several hours did it occur to them how committed they actually were to bringing the Eustacia in. By this point the batteries in the handheld VHF were all but dead and the Eustacia had gone off the air to preserve what was left for a true emergency. Until the rain came, the afternoon had been entirely pleasant. They’d solved the question of steering by mechanical advantage. Using a length of line tied through the eyelets at the end of the tiller and wrapped twice around the aft-most winches in the cockpit, they’d managed to bring the boat to heel: minute adjustments to the rudder were as simple as pulling the line on one side, and releasing it on the other, as the occasion demanded. Very soon they’d begun referring to the lines as reins; bucking over the waves with the reins in hand, they looked and felt very much like cowboys in the saddle. The only trouble of those hours was that even with torn sails, and water still sloshing in the hull, the Eustacia was able to point so much higher in the wind than the Schaunard that they’d frequently become separated by several miles without Marc’s or Arthur’s realizing, before they’d crack off to close the gap.
The rain came suddenly, and they hunkered into their foul-weather gear. The pleasant, expansive tedium of the afternoon became a more local thing. In his head, Arthur counted the waves. Marc kept huffing at the water that gathered continually on the end of his nose. The boat was heeled hard to starboard, and gusts up into the thirties rolled her sideways, so that even sitting down it was necessary at every moment to adjust one’s center of gravity to keep from toppling over.
In the rain and wind the Eustacia became a faint outline to the crew of the Schaunard. In another hour the sun would set, and Pelky worried that the nighttime protocol he devised for maintaining contact would be useless in anything less than ideal visibility. “I was quite proud of the system I devised,” Pelky wrote to me, “and I still think it was quite elegant. The crews of each boat had synchronized their watches, and we arranged that every half hour exactly, Marc or Arthur would shine the handheld spotlight on their mainsail for two and a half minutes; during that same period, each of three men on watch aboard the Schaunard would scan one third of the horizon, until one of them spotted the floodlit main. And in fact this little system worked quite well, provided decent visibility. But that first night it was a matter of dumb luck that we managed to stay close enough to the Eustacia to spot her on the horizon in the morning.”
During that night, Marc and Arthur traded two hour watches at the reins. Slightly nauseous in the rough seas, neither of them had much appetite. The stench below deck was still too powerful to consider taking a berth to sleep in, so they did their best to rest in the cockpit with the rain pelting the hoods of their foulies. It would take them at least three days to reach port, a daunting prospect if the weather didn’t improve.
Arthur kept his spirits up by envisioning the ways he’d spend his take. “I wanted to buy a Land Cruiser,” he remembers, “and drive it through South America with my girlfriend, not that I had a girlfriend. But of course it was Marc who put that idea in my head.” Marc didn’t have big plans for his take, however; he explained that he had debts, that whatever the bank didn’t get went to his ex-wife, that he would probably buy his own boat back before anyone noticed, and find some beach town in the South Pacific, where he’d drink until the money ran out.
“And then what would he do, I asked him,” Arthur told me. “And he said, that’s the million dollar question.”
And indeed, the single entry Marc made in his journal all that day read, in its entirety: Million dollar question.
In the morning, not only had the weather improved and the seas settled, but the wind had held at a manageable eighteen knots out of the northwest, as well—a close reach along their rhumb line. Linc was on watch as the sun rose, and after a tense night spent looking out every half-hour for any light that might be the spot on the Eustacia’s mainsail, without ever feeling totally certain of what they were seeing, he felt like a hero when he made her out unambiguously on the water only about a mile and a half upwind. When they converged, Craig had breakfast ready for them: bacon and egg sandwiches and hash browns, wrapped up in a combination of paper plates, ziplock bags, and duct tape, which it fell to Linc to lob across the water into the Eustacia cockpit.
All day they made five or six knots over the ground, most of which made good toward their nearest waypoint. They watched the tear along the luff of the headsail and it seemed not to be getting any bigger. While Arthur steered the boat, Marc sat nearby in the cockpit and trying to see if he could rig a nine-volt battery pack from some D-cells he’s found dry in the nav bench, with which to power the handheld radio.
“I think that’s what the whole thing was about for him,” Arthur told me. “To Marc the Eustacia was a trove of manageable problems.” Arthur says that that second day aboard, Marc admitted that he didn’t expect any money to come out of their salvage. “He said it was going to languish on the hard for a few years and the original owner would get his boat back and the lawyers would get whatever fee they eventually settled on.” Arthur laughed to think about it. “Of course it worked out just the way he said. I think I was expecting some guy to show up with a sack of gold.”
Marc’s entry from that day reads, in part, what we have is a marlin(?). Arthur says they spent a long time that afternoon discussing The Old Man and the Sea, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novella by Ernest Hemingway, which Arthur had read that year in high school, and which also took place, Marc noted in his journal, in the Gulf Stream, albeit farther south. “To my way of thinking,” Arthur says, “the fish in that book represents a different kind of opportunity than the old man originally imagined. I think I remember Marc saying something along those lines. Whether he connected himself to Santiago explicitly or not I couldn’t say. But it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine. He definitely saw himself as a ruined man.”
Linc agreed: “When we were in port in Bermuda, Marc would drink himself blind every night and offer himself to bystanders as a kind of cautionary tale. Cautionary against what? people might ask.”
That might have been another million dollar question. For Arthur’s part, he remembers Marc saying that for a young man getting ready to embark on the life of a writer, no amount of money could match the value of the story they would go home with. “When I wrote the book, he said,” Arthur explained, “I had to promise to dedicate it to him, so that he could spend his life bragging in bars that he was the guy in real life that the book was based on.”
By dusk the entire crew of the Schaunard was in high spirits: they’d managed to stay close to the Eustacia all day, and if the wind held where it was they would make it home in another day and a half without even having to tack. Craig made roast chicken for dinner, and they talked about how they would go about shadowing the Eustacia’s course that night. In the previous night’s bad weather they’d relied on a night-vision monocular, but tonight would be clear and they were confident they’d be able to make out the floodlight without a problem from at least a few miles away. With the night vision, even between scheduled signals, they discovered, they were able to see the glowstick by which Marc and Arthur were reading the compass on the binnacle.
“It was the engine trouble that started it,” Pelky testified in the suit that Marc’s ex-wife eventually brought against Captain Dave. When they started the engine that night to charge the batteries, it wouldn’t maintain an acceptable oil pressure except at dangerously high rpms. During the day, using the same dry bag they’d transferred the original provisions in, they retrieved a few of the Eustacia’s twelve-volts, to see if any of them would take a charge: Captain Dave wanted Marc to get the navigation lights operational before they entered the shipping lanes farther north. “If the Schaunard couldn’t recharge her own batteries,” Pelky wrote to me, “then we would be, in the Captain’s phrase, one-hundred-percent rogered.”
While Linc and Pelky stood watch, Craig and Captain Dave got to work on the oil pressure, with Tyson standing over them holding the flashlight. Because of the rolling seas, Tyson had more trouble than might have seemed natural holding the light steady, and kept shining it in Captain Dave’s face while he was trying to work. While Captain Dave struggled to contain his irritation, Craig positively steamed out the ears.
“If you knew Tyson,” Linc explained, “you knew he was clumsy. And you knew he was terrified of Craig’s quick fuse.”
“Craig,” Pelky wrote me, “was kind of a fucking prick.”
The tirade of abuse that ensued was enough that Linc, at the helm, didn’t notice that the wind had dialed north, and that he was getting headed by about ten degrees, and then fifteen, until they were sailing roughly toward England; and enough that Captain Dave, working alone, was for two and a half hours down in the engine, and not on above deck watching the wall of towering storm clouds that was gathering in the north.
Arthur says that he thinks about Marc a lot. In his early thirties now, he has a face that’s weather-beaten not in the manner of a sailor so much as a devoted abuser of drugs or alcohol, which he insists that he is not. He never did write the story of the Eustacia, and his career as a writer has never really gotten underway—when he heard that I was working on this story, he immediately suggested a collaboration, despite our never having met, and went so far as to suggest that we attach a better ending. The prospect of deflecting this suggestion caused me some concern, until later the same week it became clear that his attention had shifted to an idea for a novel about old men playing chess, and then a screenplay about his brother’s military service, and then a podcast of anecdotes from his life as a bartender. It was his idea that I interview him over a series of nights at the bar where he worked, near closing when things slowed down and he’d have time to talk. What he didn’t mention was how drunk he was each night by that point, and how much of the previous night’s material we’d end up rehashing because he couldn’t remember it. When I mentioned to one of his regulars, a woman in a floppy hat, what I was there for, she nodded in recognition. “When he found that boat? Sure,” she said. “You won’t have any trouble getting him to talk about that.”
In daylight hours aboard the Schaunard on the open ocean, whether it was required for the crew to wear inflatable harnesses outfitted with three-clip tethers whenever they left the cabin; or whenever they went on deck; or, in the rarest of calm, not at all, was a matter of the Captain’s discretion. But with the Eustacia operation underway, he made it a standing order that everyone aboard either ship be harnessed and double-clipped at all times. Arthur explained that the Eustacia was optimized for racing, so to be clipped to the jack-lines on deck, or to padeyes in the cockpit, wasn’t much of an encumbrance to movement, because once the sails were up there wasn’t much reason to move. “But after hours sitting still,” he wrote me the week after my last interview with him, “it was easy to clip the longer end of the tether to the after-stay and get lazy about bothering with the second clip; further, it was easy to take the security of the harness for granted, and to allow that security to become a settled matter in your unconscious brain. More than once, after changeless hours at the reins, staring at the binnacle and the tails on the main, I was horrified to find that I wasn’t clipped to the after-stay at all, and that I had no memory of having unfastened it. It’s the sort of thing I’ve come to think of as a catastrophic malfunction of your built-in autopilot, like forgetting to zipper your fly.”
Marc and Arthur got into their foulies for the night, and settled into their program of two-hour watches. In winds up to forty-five knots, the reins became heavy, and the boat heeled over past forty-five degrees, a feeling Arthur says you never get used to, something like the falling through empty space in a dream. The boat bucked through a steep swell, and whitecaps broke over the rail, making it impossible to stay dry. They didn’t speak much, Arthur remembers. He says that during his off-watches, Marc didn’t lie down, but sat on the high-side and tilted his head back to let the rain pummel his face. On his own off-watches, Arthur drifted toward the uneasy territory between consciousness and sleep, without ever quite crossing over before the alarm on his Timex signaled it was time to return to his station at the tiller.
Aboard the Schaunard, Captain Dave stood at the helm. Because the Eustacia could sail so much higher and faster in close-hauled conditions, he knew their courses would diverge all night; at a certain point, they would have to tack and try to get behind the other boat, rather than keep alongside her. “The only other people who could have kept the Schaunard as close to the wind as I could,” he wrote in Cruising World, “were aboard the Eustacia.” He stayed at the helm all night, waiting desperately to be struck, as he described it, “by an intuition of my son’s presence somewhere out there on the dark ocean, by something inside me I could steer by.”
All the while, he scanned the horizon upwind. Every half-hour he called all hands on deck to watch out for the Eustacia mainsail to light up in the dark. But visibility was close to zero, and their best hope of reestablishing contact, Pelky testified, was to try to sail as close to the Eustacia’s planned rhumbline as possible, in the hope that in the morning she’d appear again on the horizon.
“I don’t remember Tyson using the nightvision,” Linc told me, “so maybe talk to him before you quote me on this. But one night, a few years later, he visited me at UConn, and when we were really drunk together he told me that during one of the scheduled lookouts, he thought he saw something, but didn’t speak up.”
At that point in my reporting, this didn’t sound totally implausible to me, but I doubted whether Tyson would confirm it, so I filed it away. But near the end during my interview with him, I mentioned it, not so much because I expected an answer, but because I wanted, after the years I’d spent not working, to test my capacity for asking subjects insulting questions.
“Well so what?” Tyson shocked me by saying. He had a defiant nature and by that point in our meeting it was true that he’d had a few drinks, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. “I remember looking into the eyepiece and thinking the battery was dead because it was so dark. And then this glimmer appeared. So I held it in my sight for a full two and a half minutes. Thinking the whole time I was about to speak up. But the thing is, all that night, after the scene my dad made, he was feeling really guilty that he was the cause of us losing track of the other boat. I didn’t really see the harm in letting him sweat it out until morning. And even now I don’t see what difference it could have made. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen in the dark.”
Dark or no, it’s actually quite easy to see what difference it might have made if the Schaunard had been nearer at hand. Marc’s entry from sometime early on the morning of his third day aboard the Eustacia reads: a photo taken out of focus is not the same as a photo taken crisply in a bank of fog. I puzzled over these words for a long time when I found them, and though I later discovered that they are an approximate quotation from the quantum physicist Erwin Schrodinger, I nevertheless find myself puzzled by them to this day.
In a bank of fog is where Arthur found himself at first light, when he awoke, four and a half hours after he’d gone off-watch, from what he describes as the profoundest sleep of his life. The wind had died to a fluky whisper, and he heard the sound of jib sheets slapping lazily on the deck. Marc was not at the reins; he was not aboard the boat at all.
“You have to imagine yourself at eighteen,” Arthur says, “waking up just before dawn, in the middle of the ocean, on a boat with no engine, no communication or navigation equipment, and finding yourself completely alone. There was a gull on the masthead again, and I remember wondering how long he’d been there, whether it was the same gull as before or another one entirely. In a certain sense, I’ve never recovered from that state of helplessness.”
He stood looking into the fog, calling out every so often at the top of his lungs, and listening for a response. The boat rose and fell almost imperceptibly in the becalmed sea. None would come. “I didn’t know what else I could do,” he said. He fired a flare and watched it disappear into the fog above him. The sound it made, and the very fact of it, “that for once in my life the drama of an act matched the circumstances at hand,” made it difficult to distinguish lucid thoughts from the onset of panic. “The procedure in a situation like that is to retrace your course by sailing the inverse of your current heading. But I had no heading, I wasn’t moving.”
Not being able to think of anything else to do, Arthur stood calling into the fog for several hours before the day was warm enough to burn it off. At that point, with a clear view to the horizon, the extent of his isolation took full hold of him, and his mind began to race. He remembered the Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon that Craig had packed, and figured out how to activate it. All he could do in the meantime was wait and watch.
“In my understanding of the world at the time,” Arthur says, “it was simply not possible for certain things to happen to me. I expected a fleet of United States Coast Guard helicopters to appear in the sky any minute. Likewise, never once did it enter my head that Marc wasn’t somewhere nearby with his vest inflated, bobbing in the ocean, waiting to get picked up.”
The logs would later show that in that early morning fog, the Schaunard passed within a few miles of the spot where Arthur deployed the EPIRB. “It’s safe to say,” Pelky said, “that if it hadn’t been for the fog, we would have been within sight of the flare that he sent up.” By that point, the crew had fallen completely silent, and the Captain moved among them without seeming to quite register their presence, like a man condemned to death. He stood on the deck holding the shrouds, Linc observed, exactly as Arthur often did, looking out over the vast expanse of water and waiting to see what it would reveal. At dawn he’d notified the Coast Guard of the Eustacia’s last known position and heading, and of her destination, and asked them to report back anything they learned.
Craig made coffee, which everyone drank, and cookies, which everyone but Linc refused. Captain Dave had replaced the deformed gasket and the engine was back in running order. With the wind having died, and with the Gulf Stream behind them, they were able to steam back up to their rhumbline, along which they hoped they would come upon the Eustacia stalled in the water some miles ahead.
When Arthur activated the EPIRB, the Coast Guard notified the Captain immediately of its location in the hope that he could reach it faster than they could. Captain Dave’s lips went white, Linc says; he knew that Marc would only resort to the EPIRB in the direst of life-threatening circumstances. Pelky plotted the coordinates on a chart as they came over the air, and discovered that the beacon was several hours behind them, and not somewhere ahead of them as they’d expected. The Captain took the helm, and they started full-steam back the way they came.
No sooner had they turned around, however, than the wind began to freshen, and shortly thereafter to howl.
“When the wind came up,” Arthur says, “I was faced with a decision I was in no way prepared to make. If I didn’t haul the jib in, it would be torn to shreds within minutes, and then if I found myself in the storm that was gathering on the horizon, I’d have no way to stabilize the boat. But then, if I hauled the jib in I’d be off like a shot, and I would likely be unable to tack; I would be forced to sail a straight line away from the place that I still believed Marc was waiting to be search-and-rescued.”
Loath to lead the USCG away from Marc, who was in far greater need of rescue, Arthur lashed the EPIRB to a flotation device, and tossed it over the stern into the drink, making himself effectively un-locatable, before cranking down the jib sheet and resuming something like the course he’d steered the night before.
Arthur knew that if he lost control of the rudder and the boat turned into the wind, it would only be a matter of time before it was battered beyond repair. For forty hours, the storm blew harder and harder still, and he clung to the reins as if his life depended on it, which in fact it did.
As my research and reporting on the story of the Eustacia came to its conclusion, and I began to write up a draft of the piece you’re now reading, an unfamiliar feeling settled over me—a feeling that I think is aptly articulated in Arthur’s own words, in describing the aftermath of the events in question: “I felt for the first time as though I’d been part of something inescapably real.”
As Marc predicted, the Eustacia languished in dry dock at Pilot’s Point Marina in Rhode Island for the next three years, while the owner, from the white-collar prison where he was serving time for securities fraud, set his maritime attorneys about the task of reclaiming his boat from Captain Dave. The fee they finally settled on was roughly what Captain Dave had said they could hope for, on the day they claimed salvage, but most of it was paid to the marina that held her, and to the attorneys who negotiated the fee, and to the attorneys who would successfully defend first Captain Dave and then Arthur in the suits brought against them by Marc’s ex-wife.
The Coast Guard did not locate Marc Ponder, but they did locate his inflated vest, not because of the EPIRB Arthur had left behind, but because of the hydrostatically activated EPL that was sewn into the vest itself. The vest’s tether was found aboard the Eustacia; all three ends were clipped to the afterstay, a fact that, as Pelky said in court, is “hard to account for in a version of events in which his falling into the ocean is assumed to be accidental.” This was as far as any crewmember of the Schaunard was willing to take any speculation on the matter, whether under oath in court, or in conversation with me, or anywhere else that I know of. It was enough, in any case, to scuttle Dina Ponder’s case for wrongful death.
In April of this year, some eight months after I’d stopped trying to contact him for an interview, I got an email from Captain Dave replying to a questionnaire I’d by that point forgotten sending him. It contained about fifteen questions, but he’d only replied to one, asking him to elaborate on what he’d described in his Cruising World piece only as “the forty-hour beam reach that carried us finally home.”
“I trust you to imagine what was in my heart,” he wrote me, “as I rushed downwind toward my son’s distress beacon as a storm was bearing down on him. For my purposes the word ‘dread’ will suffice.
“What I’ve spent my life since that moment trying to describe to myself,” he went on, “is what was in my heart when, as I rushed, full of dread, toward my son’s distress beacon, my son himself blew past me going the other way. It was Lincoln who spotted him, to the northwest, and he handed me the binoculars so I could see for myself. The wind was gusting to fifty by then. And there was Arthur, in the saddle, rolling through a twelve-foot swell. I will never be able to describe to my satisfaction how that felt. I’ll have to content myself to describe how it happened. He didn’t see us. His eyes were fixed on the sails, and on the horizon ahead of him. We came about on a dime, and followed in his wake.”
I sent the Captain’s words to Arthur for comment, hoping it would kick something loose. But he didn’t respond, ignored all my text messages and voicemails until finally I gave up.
“There was no hope of keeping up,” the Captain went on. “The best we could do was fall as slowly as possible behind, and hope that he would know what to do, when he did finally pull beyond my sight.
“That,” Captain Dave had written in closing, “is what I’ve been hoping ever since.”
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Chris Knapp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, the New England Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Paris.
This spot marks the discovery of an abandoned sailboat in 2002.