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?

August 2008By Comments

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 light, horseshoe lifesaver, or lifeboat, which were all underwater. They couldn’t. With the wind howling and the waves impeding his vision, Conway was dangerously close to being blown beyond shouting and sight distance. He called for the students near the boat to swim toward him. Coast Guard training had drilled into Conway two important survival rules for distressed sailors: Stay together, and stay with the boat. But as Conway would tell me later, “I had to pick one from column A or column B.” Their survival now depended upon tying themselves together with belts and sharing four life jackets among five men. Coughing, snorting, and gagging on salt water, the crew formed a group and slowly drifted away from the doomed Cynthia Woods, clinging to one another and the dim hope that Stone had found a way out of the overturned boat.

The Houston-Galveston sector of the U.S. Coast Guard commonly juggles multiple response calls, especially on weekends, and Saturday June 7 was no exception. A fishing boat off the coast of Louisiana had reported a man overboard, and local authorities called to ask for assistance with a jet-skier on Lake Conroe. But it was the call that didn’t come that indicated trouble aboard the Cynthia Woods. The crew was supposed to check in by satellite phone at 8 a.m., but the time came and went with no word. Around 8:15 the sailing team’s designated emergency contact called the Coast Guard, which began trying to reach the boat by marine radio. By 9:45, a patrol boat had been launched out of Freeport to begin a search, but the high waves forced the 41-foot vessel to return to shore. A jet was dispatched from Corpus Christi, but it was delayed when it hit a bird.

A second jet resumed the search. At 2:30 p.m., the pilot reported spotting the bright-blue hull of an overturned boat. The Coast Guard called A&M to ask if the boat’s hull was indeed blue. With the accident confirmed, Captain Bill Diehl, who was coordinating the rescue operation from the Coast Guard offices in Galena Park, shifted the focus to hunting for survivors. The operation involved, at various times, three airplanes, three helicopters, and an 87-foot Coast Guard cutter searching for the crew over 3,800 square miles. Computer models were consulted to predict where the crew members might have drifted, as well as how long they would be able to survive in the 80-degree water: 36 hours.

With the sun beating down and salt water burning his sinuses, Conway kept up the crew’s spirits by detailing Coast Guard protocol for searches. At one point, a Coast Guard jet flew so close they could see the pilot, but he failed to spot them. “That was hard,” Conway told me. But he advised the boys that a jet was unlikely to be their salvation. Helicopters were coming, he said, and they flew lower and slower. The searchers would continue for at least a week, he assured them.

The power of positive thinking became the fifth life preserver. The young men talked to seagulls, joking, “Hey, Lassie, go tell the Coast Guard Timmy fell into a big well.” Fish nibbled at their legs, and when one crew member theorized that no large sharks lived in the Gulf waters, Conway did not disabuse him of the notion.

The Cynthia Woods had flipped so suddenly that there had been no time to radio for help or deploy the life raft. The only asset they had was a $7 flashlight clipped to Conway’s life vest. Another night fell, but in some ways darkness made the search easier. During the day, whitecaps and the reflecting sun made it difficult to detect the bobbing heads of survivors. “It’s like walking across a football field looking for six pennies,” Diehl said later.

With a cloudy sky and only a sliver of moon, the Gulf was black except for the occasional oil rig lights. Then, at about 2 a.m. Sunday, a helicopter pilot “caught a light.” It was Conway’s flashlight. Circling back, the pilot could see the reflection of their life preservers and called in, “We got them!” For a brief moment, as Diehl would later tell me, “It was like Christmas.” Then someone asked, “How many?” When the answer was five, Diehl knew his search mission wasn’t over.

The survivors were taken to the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston for treatment of severe sunburn and dehydration, and Diehl learned from them that Stone had pushed the boys out of the hull. He regarded this as “a strong indication” that Stone had remained in the boat.

Sailors love gadgets, and one of the nifty innovations in the sailing world is a GPS sensor, one of which had been mounted on each boat in the regatta and linked to a Web site so that family and friends could track the boat’s progress across the Gulf of Mexico—as well as post their comments on an online message board. The conversational thread about the unfolding tragedy of the Cynthia Woods placed the reader in the living rooms of grieving families as their worst fears were confirmed.

The entries had begun at 4:34 a.m. Saturday with a query: “Any word from Cynthia Woods? She seems to be suddenly parked and drifting slowly towards the coast.” Throughout the day, more details emerged: the satellite phone call that never came, the progress of the Coast Guard search, the sighting of the overturned boat, the rescue. Finally, at 6:55 p.m. Sunday, Eric Stone, Roger’s fourteen-year-old son, who had been contributing to the discussion board, posted: “He’s gone. Roger was found in the boat. He was a hero. He did his job as safety officer. He got those kids off the boat. He’s in a better place now. Thanks to everyone who prayed and prayed and prayed. I can’t begin to describe how grateful I am to you guys. Keep my mom, my sister, me, and the entire Stone family in your prayers.”

Sixteen of 26 boats completed the trip to Veracruz; the rest sought shelter along the Texas coast. The ruined hull of the Cynthia Woods was towed to Freeport, and Texas A&M officials promised a thorough investigation. Within days, newspaper reports and sailing blogs carried criticisms of the keel design of the Cynthia Woods and reported that the boat had been donated by Houston oilman George Mitchell, who had purchased it from his son’s company, Cape Fear Yacht Works. (Cynthia Woods is Mitchell’s wife’s maiden name.) Some designers theorized that the keel, the underwater fin that stabilizes a boat as it heels over in the wind, was too heavy. It was also confirmed by the university that the boat had run aground as many as six times the year before and had undergone repairs to the keel. For Jeff and me, the race that had begun amid great anticipation ended at Roger Stone’s funeral, at Clear Lake United Methodist Church. The Reverend Tony Vinson talked about Stone’s heroism and about Conway and the remaining crew members, how they’d survived by sharing their life jackets, and holding one another close. We can all learn from their ordeal, he said, if we view their experience as a metaphor for the way we should live our lives: sharing, lifting up our fellow man, in life’s treacherous seas.

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