Lifestyles

Voyage of the darned

MIKE MACBETH June 13 1977
Lifestyles

Voyage of the darned

MIKE MACBETH June 13 1977

Voyage of the darned

Lifestyles

Everyone dreams of adventure—shipwrecks, treacherous journeys, desert islands. But for most North Americans, storybook adventure beckons from afar. Few go in search of it; fewer still find it. Adventure was not what Diane Taylor and Gary Hodgkins were looking for nine years ago when they said to hell with Canadian society and started building a boat. They wanted the casual lifestyle of Caribbean sailing gypsies, so they spent six years and $30,000 painstakingly handcrafting Isla, a 46-foot Tri-maran, in a barn in Whitby, Ontario. Then followed three blissful years of Caribbean cruising . . . until they, and four unsuspecting Canadian men who shared expenses for a two-month cruise aboard Isla, got caught up in an adventure—complete with shipwreck, treacherous journey and desert island.

They introduced themselves at the dockside in Nassau, Bahamas. Gary Hodgkins, 37, a former commercial artist, and Diane Taylor, 35, a former high-school teacher, joint owners of Isla. Rick Drury, 31, a cottage contractor from Gravenhurst, Ontario. John Ferguson, 31, a film sound man from Toronto whose job pressures had led to an ulcer and a recommendation from his doctor to slow down. Michael Quinn, 19, a student with a hearing impediment that made him reclusive. Bill Watson, 59, a seed merchant from Fondon, Ont., who left his wife and three children behind to try sailing for the first time. It was January 5, 1977.

On February 23, six weeks into a pleasant but uneventful cruise, clear weather and a good wind encouraged Gary, the captain, to set sail for Hogsty Reef, a precarious assembly of islands and coral about 90 miles from Cuba. Unknown to him, currents swept the boat off course by five miles, so by the end of a peaceful day they were headed directly for a crescentshaped coral reef.

It happened instantly, at 11.39 p.m., a grinding, sickening crunch, as 10 tons of boat screamed against the coral. John, thrown out of bed to the floor of the aft cabin, saw a coral head sticking through the main hull with water boiling around it. “Bill [who had been at the helm] was in a daze,” says Gary. “The other guys came out of their cabins, flying past me. I took the helm and tried to move the boat forward or backward. It didn’t work. We doused the sails completely, but the ocean swell kept picking the boat up, moving us further into the reef, bashing more holes in the hull.” Water was pouring in and inching its way to the engine room. Diane, recognizing a need to salvage as much food as possible, opened the bilge tanks, where staples were stored, but was confronted by coral and swirling water. She groped for the ship’s survival kit and salvaged some rice and beans and plastic jerry cans of fresh water before the hull smashed to pieces. The galley cupboard was full of condiments and fresh fruit. She grabbed everything she could.

Meanwhile, the men inflated the Zodiac dinghy and blocked off sections of the boat that were taking in water. The only calm member of the crew was Pocahontas, the seven-year-old dog. A veteran sailor, she curled up in the afterdeck. When it became obvious they would have to abandon ship, the crew dragged mattresses onto the deck and, amid the death rattles of Isla, lay quietly waiting for sunrise.

At dawn they saw the island. North West Cay it’s called, about five miles away. About an acre. 40 miles from civilization, in a precarious area rarely visited by anyone. A visibility light at one end, a sailor’s unmarked grave at the other, one tree in the middle. Rick thought it looked like a desert island in a comic strip.

They all abandoned ship together in a hard dinghy lashed to the inflatable Zodiac, dragging behind them a swimming raft piled with blankets and a line of water jugs. Gary and Diane loaded the dog and about 100 pounds of staples into the leaky dinghy. Gary and Rick manned the oars. Mike and John bailed, and Bill kept bearings with his compass. The currents were so strong they had to row away from the island in order to reach it. It took them four blistering hours.

Why didn’t the captain radio for help? The Isla had no transmitting radio, because Diane and Gary eschew such modern conveniences. But though archaic navigational methods probably caused the shipwreck, the same back-to-nature attitude helped the group cope with being marooned. Their immediate concerns were shelter from the glaring sun and 90-degree heat, and fresh water. Gary supervised the building of a primitive shelter from an orange distress tarp. The 34 gallons of water retrieved from Isla would last, carefully rationed, for three months. Diane was in charge of food rations and, though no one suffered, by adventure’s end everyone had lost at least 15 pounds. Gary, an experienced diver, presented grouper, conch or lobster to the cooking pot most days. (He also ate the eyes from the fish he caught: they contain vitamin C.) And everyone tried not to worry. Looking back, John says his major complaint was the scarcity of women: “The Bahamians say conch is a great aphrodisiac. I never got a chance to find out.” Diane says the men treated her as a sort of den sister, and young M ichael, a product of the television generation, kept thinking of Gilligan’s Island. Though everyone laughed at them, Diane and Michael sent a distress signal in a bottle— which was picked up a month later, 150 miles away.

Gary stubbornly refused to believe his ship was destroyed. When the skeleton of Isla broke off the coral and drifted toward the ocean, he raced to the dinghy, rowed passionately, intercepted his vessel and anchored her in the sand two miles from shore. For the next few days he made several trips to the boat, removing tools, sails and other items needed on land. Then one night, about a week after they’d reached the island, it broke loose from its anchor and vanished. “Well, at least I don’t have to look at it any more,” said the captain, and they got on with the problems at hand : survival and rescue. A fire was kept burning, the orange distress tarp was flown from the visibility light, watches for boats became more vigilant. Rick was suffering from dysentry and Michael had developed carbuncles (boils caused by a Haitian gnat) on his knee. The pain grew more intense each day until he was reduced to tears. “The others didn’t know, but I was really scared I’d lose my leg.” When the pain shot up to his groin, blood poisoning was feared, and a makeshift scalpel was sharpened from a dental pick. The “operation” was performed under sedation : three shots of rum and two Gravol tablets.

Overall, though, the crew reveled in the adventure. They joked about cannibalism (“We were going to eat Bill first. He was older”). They snapped pictures. They happily spent their days seeing to such essentials as food and shelter. On the evening of March 7, however, they were sitting around the camp fire feeling disheartened. A large ship had passed earlier in the day and even frantic sos flashing with signaling mirrors had brought no response. Then Rick turned and looked into the sunlight. “There’s a boat! There’s a goddamned boat!” They were so excited, running, shouting, waving their arms, that the crew of the 32-foot Trojan motorboat thought they might be pirates (not an unusual occupation in the Caribbean). Gary leapt into the water and swam to the Trojan. “What do you want?” was the guarded question. “We were shipwrecked and have been stuck on this island for 12 days,” came the answer. “Is that for real?"

At that point, the storybook adventure was ended. It took several days and a helicopter, but eventually the crew disbanded and headed for home and family and job. All except Diane and Gary, who spent a month combing the Caribbean sea by plane and boat for their beloved Isla before admitting they’ll never see her again. They returned to Canada last month, penniless and bitter about having to start from scratch again. “I feel a loss of a number of years of our lives,” says Gary. “It’s very hard to be a landlubber again.” Says Diane: “We had a dream, we lived our

dream, our dream died.”

MIKE MACBETH