Gulf Stream gale ends sailing trip in tragedy


Several days after Capt. Dennis White of West Tisbury set sail November 6 from Vineyard Haven with his friend William Thorns and Mr. Thorns’ daughter Amanda, a raging Gulf Stream gale rolled his 41-foot Island-built ketch, dismasted her, and left her adrift for 12 days.

Although Captain White and Amanda Thorns were ultimately taken aboard a passing tanker, Mr. Thorns was lost. Mr. White is the husband of Julie Robinson, an interior decorator.

The Emma Goldman was bound for the Caribbean, but the journey ended in tortured seas north of Bermuda.

Mr. Thorns, 63, a carpenter and resident of Mashpee with close Island connections, was at the helm of the Emma Goldman when she rolled and lost both masts and engine. Mr. Thorns, who was wearing a lifeline, was caught in the rigging, injured and thrown into the sea. His daughter and Mr. White were unable to pull the badly injured Mr. Thorns back onboard.

Mr. White, 64, and Ms. Thorns, 25, drifted and bailed. The vessel was without an EPIRB, a satellite emergency beacon locator. After 12 days adrift, on Sunday, November 21, at around 12:40 pm, the crew of the Greek oil tanker Triathlon, bound for Nigeria, spotted a hand-held flare set off by the crew of Emma Goldman, which was then 193 nautical miles northwest of Bermuda, according to an account of the rescue published in the Bermuda Royal Gazette.

The Triathlon changed course to come alongside the stricken ketch, took the surviving captain and Ms. Thorns aboard and transported them to Bermuda. They arrived early Monday morning. The Emma Goldman, which Mr. White built, was abandoned.

Ms. Thorns, a resident of Louisiana, left Bermuda and returned to the United States Monday. Mr. White was expected to return to the Vineyard today.

Official account

Bermuda Maritime Operations (Bermuda Radio), a government operated rescue and vessel surveillance center, provided the following incident report, dated November 21:

“The vessel had departed Martha’s Vineyard around two weeks ago bound for Bermuda with the owner and two crew onboard (crew were father and daughter). Shortly after entering the Gulf Stream they encountered unexpectedly bad weather and the owner reports experiencing 25- to 30-foot waves.

“During this storm the vessel rolled over and Mr. William Thorns was lost overboard. Mr. Thorns’s daughter, Amanda, and the vessel owner Dennis White were left drifting for 12 days without any power or means of raising the alarm. The vessel lost the use of her sails and motor during the incident and it took the two survivors three days to bail out the boat.

“During the initial period after the storm a large piece of rigging was left in the water still attached to the yacht, and this very easily could have ruptured the hull. After failed attempts to hail two passing merchant vessels, the two managed to catch the attention of an 80,000 GRT oil tanker that was sailing from Philadelphia to Nigeria, by using hand-held flares.

“Whilst it is always easy to find solutions to problems in hindsight, Bermuda Radio strongly suggests that all vessels that are attempting Atlantic crossings should carry a working 406mhz EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) onboard their vessel. In this case it would not have helped save the life of Mr. Thorns but would have ensured that help was sent as soon as the vessel encountered problem.”

Bravest daddy

Members of the Island’s tightly knit sailing community are familiar with the fall trip south to warm water ports. Several vessels were poised to depart the Island about the same time Mr. White and his crew left, but their operators delayed their departure due to weather concerns.

Ross Gannon of Gannon and Benjamin, the wooden boat builders and sailors, is very familiar with the passage south. He said scores of New England sailors follow the route every fall. Speaking from experience, Mr. Gannon said, “Getting from here to the other side of the Gulf Stream can be really nasty.”

Word that the Emma Goldman was overdue and without contact spread through the Island community. On Sunday, the unhappy news became known.

Ms. Robinson said this week that she and her husband have sailed thousands of miles together. She said her husband was an experienced blue water sailor and planned to go to the Virgin Islands. It was to be the Thorns’ first ocean passage.

On Saturday, November 6, the crew left the Vineyard for Tarpaulin Cove. They departed the cove about midnight. “The weather maps that Dennis had printed out showed that they were going to be all right with the weather, and then this gale stopped right above them,” she said.

Ms. Robinson said Mr. Thorns was on watch and sailing. “Dennis and Amanda were down below. The last wave, the situation was just perfect to turn that boat upside down and around, and it went 360-degrees,” she said.

“It’s a real tragedy,” Ms. Robinson said. “Willy Thorns was the best friend that my husband could have had and it’s a great loss. He was just a wonderful, wonderful man.”

Ms. Robinson said her husband is “just devastated.”

Sean Burke of Cataumet, a friend and former employer of Mr. Thorns, said Amanda had lived on the Vineyard but now lived in Louisiana. He said she arrived on the Vineyard in order to make the delivery trip with her father. “They were planning on being back in the first week of December,” he said.

Mr. Burke said his friend was a multi-talented, skilled carpenter who often worked on wooden boats. “He was an incredible sailor and all around great person,” he said.

Soon after her rescue and on board the Greek tanker, Amanda Thorns turned to Facebook to communicate with her many friends.

“Shipwrecked for 12 days,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “Rescued today by the Greek ship Triathlon. Drinking whiskey and coke with the crew. Bermuda bound.

“Heartbroken and alive. RIP Capt. Willie Thorns. Bravest, strongest daddy.”