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Cruising Tales: The End of a Charter Skipper and his Gallant Lady

Last month’s column was about Fritz Seyfarth, a burnt out charter skipper who went belly-up. After eight years of chartering Fritz quit and cruised the western Caribbean mostly by himself in his 1935 Alden ketch Tumbleweed for a couple of years. Then he spent two years in Florida redoing the old girl. The hull was refastened, all rigging, sails and most gear replaced, and all surfaces refinished. Now sparkling and beautiful, Tumbleweed was ready to go to sea and so was Fritz. He started his passage to the Virgin Islands on Friday, November 14th.

About three days left to reach St. Thomas, an intense frontal trough romped through the Bahamas headed his way. Good strong northwest winds—perfect reaching for St. Thomas. But everything changed in an instant.

There was a tremendous crash which slammed Fritz to the cabin sole. Peering upwards, he saw a large black wall of a medium-sized freighter smash by him. In seconds he was on deck looking aft. The freighter had slowed but it continued onwards.

The masts were doing the hula so Fritz had to get the sails down—but they wouldn’t come because the top two feet of the main mast had sheared off, jamming the sails. He decided he’d better check the bilges in case the boat had been holed.

It had. The bilge was full. He pumped it down, went up and leaned over the side to look at the waterline. There was a large, jagged opening amidships.  He checked the engine. It was askew and the shaft coupling broken.  He pumped the bilges and estimated that 150 gallons an hour were pouring in. Going over the side Fritz found a lot of seam damage, a large hole at the waterline and a crushed spot on the lower bow. He stuffed anything he could find into them which slowed the leaks—some.

More pumping. Then he tried to go up the mainmast with the only halyard left, the old nylon spinnaker pole topping lift. With the boat rolling and the masts square dancing, it was a slow, hairy ascent. Twenty-five feet off the deck the halyard broke and he fell. No bones broken, but massive painful bruising. Stunned, he crawled gingerly back into the cockpit and sent out a pan call which was relayed to the Coast Guard at San Juan.

By evening the wind was blowing hard, the boat broadside to the swells. Fritz couldn’t eat because nothing would stay down. He pumped and pumped. The boat was thrown violently around, the masts were going berserk and the seas crashing over the boat. Around midnight the masts went and pounded the hulls while the shattered bowsprit with pulpit broke loose and was smashing the bow.  Through the night he cut away the masts and crudely plugged the deck holes with cushions and pumped. For the next 30 hours he kept at it and sent out another transmission estimating his position, hoping he’d had enough juice left in the battery.

The water gained and he readied the little eight-foot dinghy with food, water, flares. By now Fritz was in such pain that he wasn’t sure that he could launch the boat. He continued to try to save his old friend, but he knew that he was going to lose her.

At dusk he saw a small ship appear out of the squally southeast. It was the Coast Guard cutter Sagebrush plunging and disappearing into the walls of waves. Fritz shouted and waved. Then he cried because he knew that he had to leave Tumbleweed to die.

He could not watch her last dying struggle.

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