Troubled Waters

What caused Texas A&M’s racing sailboat to overturn in the Gulf of Mexico, costing a heroic crew member his life and plunging his shipmates into an angry ocean?
The crew of the Cynthia Woods: Safety officer Roger Stone (seated at right) lost his life in the accident.
Courtesy of Texas University/Taryn Cornelius

I was sailing in the Gulf of Mexico on June 6, the night that the Cynthia Woods , a racing sailboat belonging to Texas A&M University at Galveston, lost its keel and capsized, sending five crew members into roiling waters and trapping safety officer Roger Stone beneath its overturned hull. It was the first day of the biennial Regata de Amigos, covering 610 nautical miles from Galveston to Veracruz, in which our family sailboat, the Rosalita, was a participant. I have steered her in open waters after dark on more than a dozen occasions, but nothing prepared me for the conditions we encountered that night. After leaving the protected waters of Galveston Bay in the early afternoon, we ventured into a maelstrom of swells, later reported to be six to eight feet high, which assaulted our bow in unpredictable corkscrew patterns. Each time the Rosalita crested a wave, she would free-fall to the trough below, and we would be soaked anew. Heeling hard to starboard in 20-knot winds, our seven-person crew—me; my husband, Jeff; our two sons, ages 23 and 18; and their three young friends—took turns at the helm while the others sat high on the port side in a futile effort to stabilize the boat.

Darkness robbed us of our only defense against nausea: the reassuring sight of the horizon. One of the boys will forever provide my visual definition of misery: pathetic and shivering, curled in a fetal position and tethered by a safety harness at midship, moving only to throw up or duck the relentless waves. Dawn broke, but the high winds and massive waves continued unabated. None of us had dared to eat or drink much since noon the day before. To continue the race was to risk dehydration or worse. Our ship’s computer calculated that we would have to endure at least three more nights like the previous one to reach Veracruz.

“How long would it take us to get to Port Aransas?” I asked Jeff. “Twelve hours,” he said. After preparing for months for this trip, we changed course and gave up the race. While the rest of the crew lashed the Rosalita to the dock at Port Aransas, I called the mother of one of the boys and somewhat apologetically broke the news that we had withdrawn.

“You made the right decision,” she said. It struck me that her tone of voice was unusually serious. And then she added, “The Cynthia Woods capsized and her crew is missing.” My stomach felt sick again.

The ocean sailing community in Texas is a close-knit crowd. I was familiar with the Cynthia Woods and with A&M’s offshore sailing team. Jeff and I had gotten to know another of its safety officer, Steven Conway, a retired Coast Guard commander who is an administrator at the Galveston campus, and a couple of its student crew members when we participated in this race two years ago. On the return trip, we had tied up next to the Cynthia Woods during a stop at the Mexican coastal town of Tuxpan. Jeff and I shared our overstocked bounty of candy and snacks with the students; Conway offered us portions of a fish he had caught and cooked. Before that race, I had been nervous about participating, but we were blessed with mild breezes and friendly seas. It was a gentle, if unrealistic, introduction to offshore cruising.

We knew early in the week of the race that this year would be different. Jeff had watched the weather forecast with increasing apprehension, and when we crossed the Kemah Bridge en route to the Lakewood Yacht Club, whitecaps and snapping flags bore witness to the strong winds. The weather data did not appease our fears. A large high-pressure system over Florida had combined with a strong low just north of Texas to accelerate the Gulf’s prevailing southeasterly winds. The computer forecast told us we would face 20-knot winds and towering waves. Our course to Veracruz required that we sail both directly into the waves and just off the wind, in what sailors aptly describe as “beating into the wind.”

We decided to give it a shot. As Jeff and the boys made final adjustments at our dock, I made sandwiches and, in a gesture of misplaced optimism, set out a pot of chicken chili for a sunset dinner. It was not to be. The medicine I relied upon to combat seasickness—meclizine—wasn’t working in these seas. I could not face the chicken chili, and I knew that going below deck for any purpose would likely make me violently ill. A quick visit to the head induced spinning vertigo. No one was hungry. Sometime before midnight, I retreated to the steamy front cabin to attempt sleep.

Later, when I talked to Conway, I learned what had been happening aboard the Cynthia Woods at about the same time. Two student sailors, Travis Wright and Steven Guy, and Stone, the 53-year-old safety officer, had been below deck when water began surging through the floorboards. Stone shouted to Conway, who was on deck, that the boat was taking on water. In less than a minute, the boat had flipped, or “turtled,” to an upside-down position. Conway was thrown into the black waters and had to release the safety harness that threatened to pull him under with the submerging boat. The two students and Stone were plunged upside down into darkness as water roared down the short staircase leading to the deck. Stone shouted, “Get out, get out!” Disoriented and battling debris and rushing water, both young men would later report that they had reached safety only because Stone had heroically pushed them ahead of himself. One lost his life jacket in the struggle to the surface.

Meanwhile, Conway and the other two crew members, Joe Savana and Ross Busby, were being tossed about by monster waves that were carrying them away from the boat. Conway shouted to the others to see if they could reach the boat’s strobe

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