Adrift 54 days, boat comes ashore on Martha’s Vineyard

Adrift 54 days, boat comes ashore on Martha’s Vineyard

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Updated 3 pm Thursday, July 11, 2013

It was obvious, to the people on Norton Point Beach who spotted a sailing yacht adrift and bobbing in the surf about 1,000 feet offshore on July 5, that the vessel was in distress. The jib had been shredded. The boom was broken. No one was at the helm as the 36-footer drifted toward the opening to Katama Bay.

They called 9-1-1, and Edgartown first responders immediately dispatched two rescue boats, fearing they would find a medical emergency, or worse. They didn’t.

“We got our guy on board,” Edgartown fire Chief Peter Shemeth said. “There was nobody on the boat. The radios were still on the weather channel, there were solar chargers powering the radios. It was kind of eerie. The bunks were made up, everything was pristine.”

While first responders didn’t find a medical emergency, they did find a somewhat miraculous, somewhat ironic, story as they began to unravel the mystery.

It turns out, the boat had been adrift for 54 days. She had managed to float mostly unscathed through busy East Coast shipping lanes, avoid the jagged, rocky New York and New England shoreline, and land on a soft, sandy spit of beach more than 700 miles from where her owner abandoned ship, thinking he would never see his vessel again.

“No, I didn’t think so,” said Bill Heldenbrand, who, for reasons that had nothing to do with the phantom voyage, named his boat Running Free. “I thought it was real unlikely.”

Mr. Heldenbrand arrived in Falmouth on Tuesday, planning to salvage his boat. He was in Georgia when he found out about her unlikely reappearance.

“A family that is vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard saw the boat come ashore,” Mr. Heldenbrand said. “Somehow they did some research and they called me. I was amazed. They called me and sent me a picture of it on the beach.”

Situation at sea

Mr. Heldenbrand had faced a quick, tough decision on May 12, as he sailed solo from Jacksonville, Florida, to Bermuda, where he planned to lay over for a few days and then sail on to Europe. Almost everything he owned was on board his Pearson 365 ketch.

He had no previous sailing experience when he bought the vessel in December 2012, but he had dreamed of life at sea. He spent the next five months outfitting Running Free for a trans-Atlantic voyage and learning how to handle the boat on his own. He quickly discovered how different the open ocean is compared with the protected waters of the St. John’s River in Jacksonville.

About 550 miles off the East Coast, still about 400 miles from Bermuda, he ran into a fierce storm with waves topping 20 feet and steady winds of 40 knots, he said.

“I thought, this storm is bad now, and it’s going to get worse, and it’s going to last several days,” Mr. Heldenbrand said. “I don’t have insurance on the boat, so I weighed the value of the boat against the increased chance of me living longer, and the boat lost.”

In the first of several miraculous coincidences, an oil tanker was passing nearby.

“I had to make the decision really fast,” he said. “I was stopped in the water, and the oil tanker was going by at 14.5 knots. My radio range was only 5-6 miles. He was about out of radio range.”

The tanker changed course to take him aboard, and he set Running Free adrift.

Passions and dreams

Mr. Heldenbrand has an unusual lifestyle, and he is an unusual man. The 67-year-old entrepreneur retired from an engineering and business career six years ago, to pursue his passion. He is a long, long, long distance runner, competing in 24-hour, 100-mile endurance foot races over mountain trails. Since his retirement, he has traveled from race to race in his RV, competing in more than 40 such events. He doesn’t really call any place home.

“My official residence is in South Dakota,” Mr. Heldenbrand said. “But I haven’t been there in years. South Dakota has really good mail forwarding service.”

His whole sailing adventure began when he got the idea to compete in a six-day endurance race in England. “I read a lot of sailing books, and dreamed about it,” he said. “I thought it would just be cool, instead of flying there, to buy a sailboat, learn to sail it, and sail it over there.”

His life has been filled with twists and turns like that, fueled by an appetite for adventure and an intrepid approach to learning new things.

As a young man with a secure job in his chosen field of engineering, he got interested in racing motorcycles. To pursue that passion, he quit his job and started a motorcycle dealership, building it into a successful business.

Salvage plan

TowBoatUS, a Falmouth based salvage and towing service, tried on Sunday, and again on Monday, to shift the vessel from Norton Point Beach, but high waves foiled the attempt. The plan now is to wait for calmer weather on Friday and try again.

Mr. Heldenbrand is approaching the salvage operation methodically. “I need to see the damage, weigh the cost,” he said. “I’ve got to get this boat off the beach, then I’ve got to be smart about what I do with it. I’ve got my RV here, and the boat is here, and I need to get the boat down south somehow, and I need to get the RV down south, too. I haven’t figured out how to do [both] yet, but I’ll figure it out.”

He seems undaunted by his brush with disaster at sea, and he hopes to sail again. But for the moment, he is most eager to get his possessions back.

“About everything I owned, other than my RV, is on that boat,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting my clothes, my collection of running shoes. I planned on staying in Europe a year or two.”

Mr. Heldenbrand’s string of luck was interrupted this week when looters boarded the grounded boat and stole equipment. Chris Kennedy, superintendent of The Trustees of Reservations, which managed Norton Point Beach, confirmed that looters have stolen most of the items from the vessel.

According to Edgartown police, Mr. Heldenbrand reported the thefts on Thursday, and police have begun an investigation.

Mr. Heldenbrand won’t let salvage and repairs to Running Free interrupt his race schedule. He plans to be at the starting line in four weeks for that race in England, even though his original transportation plans have necessarily changed.

“My passion is running, and I like being free,” he said. “I’ve got this big race coming up that I really want to do well in. I’ll keep my focus. I guess I’m going to take a plane now.”


  1. The published reports you are referring to are in the Vineyard Gazette. You should at least credit them when taking their information and passing it off as your own.

    1. Well, i was going to say the owner, he is a competitive ‘Runner’ and all..
      This was my Dream before i became ill. Sell the company, buy a small boat, learn to sail it properly, then move up to a live aboard. The wife and i could live in the caribbean on board, then come back to states to visit kids and grandkids when the weather turned bad (or we just missed them..)
      Thats all over now, and this gent just abandoned my dream..
      Oh well, it takes all kinds, and unless i was there, at sea in large swells, alone, i just can’t condemn the skipper, he’s alive…

    1. There’s this stuff called wind and currents, and things floating in the ocean are at their whim.

  2. this is a guy who abandons his boat in the middle of the ocean endangering others for 53 days, who is a novice sailor with precious little experience, who doesn’t try to find out where his boat is until it washes up and who now will likely abandon his boat again. He does not deserve to be looted but he is not an example of accountability.

    1. give me a break.. the guy abandoned ship in a storm when he had the chance.. he got out with his life..

      yup, he wasn’t quite ready for what he was trying to do, but i think it is not correct to claim he was “endangering others”
      your comment really highlights your complete lack of empathy for the plight of others..
      or perhaps not…you likely cried when Kenneth Lay’s wife was crying on the national news about how she and her husband were ” struggling for liquidity” in the wake of the Enron collapse ….It was so sad…

      1. I think he was referring to the fact that unmanned, unlit vessels are a danger to other seafarers and coastal inhabitants.

        1. well, of course he was, but really, what should the boat owner have done ? how does semmelt know he didn’t “try to find out where his boat” was ? And how does one actually go about doing that..?

          I am happy to agree that this guy was up for a Darwin Award, and is lucky to be alive ,but I take issue with semmelt about his seemingly sanctimonious “accountability” comment about what happened after the ship was abandoned.

          1. Well I cant personally say I would do much better than this guy. From my recliner I would say drop anchor and record the gps position or initiate a gps beacon onboard. After the storm clears send out a small boat to investigate and tug or sail to port. I don’t even know if all of that is possible or if that would be more dangerous to drop anchor in a shipping lane. I just thought maybe you didnt understand why he said that.

          2. 500 miles off shore..”drop anchor”? Might need a lot of rope for that one..

            The gps position was known, as the ship that picked him up would surely have that in their log.
            not everyone has a gps beacon..
            send “a small boat” 500 miles off shore ?
            With all due respect… Really ?

          3. I am not a sailor, but I think dropping the anchor would help control the direction of the drift, and maybe slow things down a bit. Knowledgeable deep water sailors would have a “sea anchor” which isn’t much more than a big canvass bucket with some holes in it. Maybe the main anchor would have helped in a similar manner and they could have safely ridden out the weather.
            (FYI my newest profile photo is Shenandoah from 1970’s)

          4. hi tom
            I am learning .. but the original post about dropping anchor suggested he could have recorded the gps position, and simply go back later.. As you say, a sea anchor only slows you down..

          5. So he sold it, and the new owner moved it..
            The word “abandoned” implies it was left to the responsibility of someone else at no expense to the original owner.. (look it up)

            If you sell a piece of property (such as a car or a boat) you have not abandoned it… you have sold it..

            You are correct in you prediction that “he won’t take the boat”. –That was a no brainer, as he obviously did not have the resources to pull it off the beach himself, especially after it was looted and didn’t even have a steering wheel..

            But he has taken the necessary steps to get the boat off the beach at no expense to taxpayers.. Did it pretty quickly , by the way.. That is not “abandonment” — choose your words carefully .
            You are once again showing a callous disregard to the plight of others and using buzz words to justify your sense of superiority.
            The guy lost his boat and his dream and all you can do is criticize him and twist your words to make him look bad and you look good.

            pretty heartless.. that’s why I identify as a liberal.

            So let’s sum up the whole story…
            he had a dream, executed it poorly, almost died, got rescued at no taxpayer expense ( should we talk about people who just got a new pair of hiking boots and decide to climb Mt Washington ? )

            had his boat looted, and took the necessary steps to get it off the beach as soon as possible..
            And you, from the comfort of you home, criticize, blame, whine and gloat..
            You should hope there actually is a merciful god.

          6. He didn’t sell it. It was sold. Care to go to salvage company and find out. He didn’t want to find the boat and when he did he didn’t want it and yet he wanted to sail the Atlantic. You never read between the lines and discern character. This guy has a screw loose. It was a boat that he ostensibly loved and the boat was structurally intact but had missing items. If you found your car and the steering wheel was missing and a few personal items were gone, you would still take your car. wise up.

          7. “He didn’t sell it. It was sold”
            spoken like a true corporate raider.
            Romney would be proud.

          8. dondondon12 if you want to find a boat in 56 days you can do it. I have no problem abandoning a boat in a huge storm but you don’t not try to find it. He wont take it from mv either. You have no discernment about how looney this owner is.

          9. As I said before, the guy was up for a Darwin Award..

            I think I am discerning about this person’s lack of common sense.

            I agree the coast guard likely could have found this boat in under 56 days.. I am assuming this boat owner does not have access to large numbers of jets or helicopters that would be required to find this boat on that large of an area

            And once again, you are predicting something based entirely on you opinion.
            Your predictions here don’t have a very good track record, you know..

          10. In everything I posted you agree, the common sense , the calling for saving the boat and you yourself posit the Darwin award so where is the argument with what I have said? Is it that I say he wont take the boat. How about a bet? As for my track record on predictions please site me one I have made that hasn’t come true. I am correct in everything I say including fossil fuel, carbon, abortion , gay marriage, deaf whales, eaten plovers, closed beaches and ponds and the corruption and incompetence behind them, and warming having flattened in 13 years past. CO2 emissions from the USA are down from previous years. Predictions ipso facto have to be on opinion because the event hasn’t happened yet. Duh!!!!. We will have an accident on the roundabout, The justice department will not try to make a civil rights case on Zimmerman, Hilary will not be president in 2016 and unemployment will still be 7.5 percent one year from now. I am dead certain on anything I say, never wrong, always right and humble and the only smart one the island. Your fear and loathing of fossil fuels will likely put you in a mental ward plus straight jacket in the next three years as the USA produces ever more oil and gas for itself and export regardless of Obama and the Sierra club. You and I will have coffee in the next two years and you will like me.

          11. What kind of medication. is it the same kind you have.fossil fuelitis, carbon dysplasia?

          12. I have already produced more than enough documentation to you to prove the earth’s temperature has not leveled off. So you are wrong there..

            and just to quote you on the roundabout

            “there is a rational logical reason to be against the roundabout. It wil cause more accidents. MV people dont know how to drive and they will never understand that the driver inside the roundabout has right of way.
            People will drive right into it and be oblivious as to anyone already in it and accidents will occur. I guarantee it. I have been around roundabouts all my life and there will be more accidents. It is not a rotary, it is a small roundabout and no one will stop as they do now with stop signs. ” –semmelt, responding to a dec 12 2012 article .

            while there may actually be an accident in the roundabout some day, it certainly has not lived up yo your apocalyptic prediction from last December..
            wrong on that one also..
            I have already sent you studies and articles about marine mammals and hearing problems.
            wrong again

            I couldn’t find a direct quote from you on unemployment, but I am pretty certain that you are a bit surprised it is 7.5% now..

            I could swear you were predicting double digits less than a year ago..

            Wrong again on the facts..
            Your opinion is your opinion.. It’s hard to disprove an opinion, and yours are just as valid as mine..
            However, delusions of grandeur can be treated..

            good luck..

      2. You’re obviously not a sailor. This was a storm but not a big storm. There is almost never any reason to abandon ship. Boats are often abandoned and survive while owners parish. This was simply poor seamanship and decision making.

  3. After the first responders boarded the boat, was it then allowed to continue drifting until it beached? What if it didn’t beach, would it continue and never return like Charlie on the MTA?
    If the owner was so concerned, why was the boat drifting for almost two months with all of his life’s possessions? Now he can’t wait to rush off to Europe. “His life has been filled with twists and turns”, that’s for sure.

  4. What a maroon! Who tries to do a trans Atlantic crossing in a 36 foot boat with little to no sailing experience? I have twenty years on the water and wouldn’t even think about it.

  5. What kind of super genius is this guy? “I have the boat here and my RV here and I need to get them both down South” Never heard of a ‘boat trailer’?

    1. it’s a 36ft sea going sailboat, they don’t exactly FIT on normal trailers. They have a deeper hull, and 36 ft’s pretty good size to pull behind you..

  6. Looters on Martha’s Vineyard; say it ain’t so!!! That’s some fine Police work there, Lou!

  7. I love people who “have dreams” of something all their lives, yet never take the time, energy, money, and EFFORT it takes to properly learn to acquire those dreams.

    Absolute dumbassery.

  8. I am glad no Coast Guard staff had to risk their life for a fool and his dream. The batteries were charging and the radios were on, so was the GPS? Could he have tracked that boat? Wouldn’t a boat following an irregular course alert the CG or Homeland Security? Bravo Siera.

  9. Did anyone notice the boat did not sink? Did not seem to have damage below?
    He got a little scared but the boat would of kept him alive in the storm. He would not of liked it but he would of survived.

  10. Making that trip alone as a novice was stupid. I’ve done that trip and went through a tropical storm with no engines and no power after a crippling electrical issue. However there were a total of five of us, one of which was an experienced captain. The only reason he abandoned ship was because he was inexperienced and alone. He should have been smarter and hired an experience sailing captain to go with him. I’m pretty sure the captain wouldn’t have allowed him to abandon ship and he would have made it to his destination. 20 ft seas and 40 mph winds are fine in a 36 foot ketch as long as you are prepared and know what you are doing.