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

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.”