We’re sorry to report that Jack van Ommen, one the most inspiring sailors we’ve ever met and written about, has lost his Naja 30 Fleetwood in a rocky cove near the Spanish island of Ibiza after a three-night battle with stormy weather. The good news is that the vigorous 76-year-old from Gig Harbor was able to scramble up the rocks to safety, and even managed to carry his passport, wallet and laptop.
The accompanying photo of the wreck of Fleetwood, which van Ommen built from a kit to do the Singlehanded TransPac many years ago, is one of the most dramatic we’ve ever seen. Thousands of pieces of a once globe-circling boat, now held together by just the tide and current. So weird and so sad.
The indirect cause of the loss of the Fleetwood was getting a late start from Holland for the Canary Islands and Cartagena, Colombia, because van Ommen had been doing extensive renovations. When he tried to sail to the Canaries via the Atlantic in October, the winter storms had already started, making it impossible. So he decided to take Fleetwood back down to the Med via the rivers and canals of France.
Once he got to the south of France, van Ommen was trapped for days by November storms. And make no mistake, the Med can be a wicked place when the winter storms blow. He finally took off, thinking he could make one of the Balearics before the next storm hit. Unfortunately, the weather turned much worse before he could reach port.
"Fleetwood is flotsam," he wrote. "I shipwrecked at 4 a.m. on Tago Mago, a very small island near Ibiza. I have little energy left to tell the story. In short, I was lying ahull for the third night in stormy conditions when the wind direction changed while I slept. I had no battery power left to start the engine, and no battery power for the radio to call for help. Several attempts to sail into anchorages failed. After getting wrecked, I managed to climb up the rocks. The people in a home on the island have received me, but they were only able to give me ladies’ clothes to wear. The Coast Guard attempted to take me to Ibiza, but it was too rough, so maybe we’ll try tomorrow."
A deeply religious man, van Ommen says that he’s already excited about what God has in store for him next.
The thing that made van Ommen so special in our mind is that he did so much with so little. Once affluent, sudden business reversals in 2000 left him with little more than the Naja 30 he’d built, which had been sitting on a trailer for 10 years. He spent two years fixing her up, then trailered her down to Alameda where, in 2005 at age 68, he set sail for the Marquesas.
His voyage ended almost before it started, as rough weather had him asking for help from Coast Guard Monterey.
He eventually set sail for the South Pacific from Santa Barbara, with nothing more than the provisions on his boat, a few hundred dollars, and the promise of $1,450 from social security each month.
After the first five years, van Ommen had singlehanded 35,000 miles, visited 30 countries and, in the early years at least, had managed to put a lot of each month’s social security check in the bank.
We can’t remember all the places he’s sailed, but one of the more unusual was Haiphong, Vietnam. He later completed all of a circumnavigation via South Africa — except for the Caribbean Sea and back up to Santa Barbara. But the Caribbean and later Europe — particularly Holland — beckoned.
In a most unusual trip, he decided to ‘circumnavigate’ Europe, using various rivers and canals to get over the continental divide to the Danube, which he eventually rode down to the Black Sea and Istanbul. He later travelled to the mouth of the Rhone River in France, and made his way back to his beloved Amsterdam.
Having already sailed to more than 45 countries, van Ommen’s most recent goal was to sail to Cartagena, where he would base Fleetwood while spending several years exploring South America by land. Maybe he’ll just have to fly there now.
In any event, Jack, Latitude salutes you for all that you’ve done, and for proving that you can lead an extremely rich and adventurous life on very little money.
It’s less a matter of luck that Wolfgang Stehr is alive today and more a matter of preparation — not that luck didn’t play a part in Saturday’s drama on San Francisco Bay. What started out as a terrific singlehanded daysail aboard his Express 27 Summer Palace turned into a potential nightmare.
"It was a perfect day," recalls Stehr. Mild winds offered the perfect opportunity for the experienced racer to set the chute on starboard tack, but when he went to jibe onto port tack, he wasn’t able to complete the maneuver. "I couldn’t reach the port spinnaker sheet in time and the boat went out of control."
Stehr made his way forward to douse the now thrashing spinnaker, but as he started pulling it down, the halyard somehow got jammed. Holding onto the majority of the spinnaker, he crawled back to the helm to jibe onto port in the hopes that he could move a little farther forward to get a better angle from which to get the chute down. Unfortunately, as he moved forward, the boat jibed back onto starboard and the boom knocked him overboard.
Though he wasn’t tethered in, Stehr was wearing an inflatable PFD, plus he was still holding onto the bulk of the spinnaker. "I tried to get back on the boat but it was out of control and moving too fast," he says, estimating that Summer Palace‘s two to three knots of boat speed was too great for him to gain enough traction to climb aboard. On top of that, as he was going over, something in his knee gave out. "At least I put it in cold water right away," he laughs.
But his situation was no laughing matter. He was holding onto the lifelines being dragged by his boat and unable to get back aboard, even from the transom. "After about 10-15 minutes of trying to get aboard, I started getting cold and exhausted," he says. As a physician, he knew he was starting to suffer from hypothermia so he pulled the handheld VHF out of his foulie pocket and called a mayday. "At the same time, the Larkspur Ferry Sonoma was pulling up behind me."
The crew quickly lowered a ladder from the ferry’s hull and Stehr had a decision to make. "It was one of the hardest moments of my life, but the hypothermia had gained over the fear of losing my boat," he recalls. "As I saw that ladder come down, I was ready to let the boat go." And that’s what he did, swimming on his back — as he learned to do in the Safety at Sea class he’d taken the weekend before. He was pulled to safety by the Sonoma‘s crew. "Hundreds of tourists were lined up on the deck, waving and taking photos!" One of them even took a video, which you can see above.
Stehr was taken to St. Francis Hospital and treated for mild hypothermia. He says that, while he can walk, the ACL in his left knee is torn and might need surgery. He also has a few things to say about lessons learned, but we’ll save that for the December issue of Latitude 38. In the meantime, Stehr wants to extend his profound thanks to Captain David Noble and his crew aboard the Sonoma, Medic 87 from SFFD and Coast Guard personnel who worked with Vessel Assist to safely tow Summer Palace to Treasure Island Marina. But for all their help, if Stehr hadn’t been as prepared as he was for the possibility of going overboard, this story might have had a very different ending.
Now more than 13 days into the Transat Jacques Vabre race, we’ve seen it all. Trimarans both breaking and capsizing at sea, a huge fleet of Class 40s hitting rough weather and diverting to port, and broken rudders galore, which has resulted in several pit stops among the leaders and the resultant shuffling of the results. Aside from all of the broken boats and broken dreams of the first days of the race, the TJV has also offered incredibly close and tactical racing, just as we had hoped, with fully half the fleet having led the IMOCA class at one point or another and none of the other class leaders extending out to sizable leads.
The transAtlantic MOD70 match race that we were looking forward to never quite materialized, but it was a thriller none the less. Sébastien Josse’s Edmond de Rothschild extended out to a small lead after Cape Finisterre and held off Sydney Gavignet’s Oman Air-Musandam all the way to the finish. The Omani boat made a more easterly Doldrums crossing and cut into Josse and crew’s lead, but in the end came up just over five hours short. The winning boat, Edmond de Rothschild, blazed across the 5,450-mile course in just 11d, 5h, 3m at an average speed of just over 20 knots.
The 10-boat IMOCA fleet’s leaders are just more than 1,200 miles away from the finish in Itajal, and the race is still up for grabs as Vendée Globe winner MACIF has a lead of just 20 miles over second place PRB, skippered by 2004 VG winner Vincent Riou. Despite MACIF‘s making a technical stop in Portugal and PRB‘s making an under-one-hour pit stop in the Cape Verde Islands, the two VPLP-designed speedsters have been engaged in a two-boat match race that recently saw a brief and painless passage of the Doldrums and now begins to rage down the Brazilian Coast. Should either boat falter, their three training partners in Port La Foret (Maitre Coq, Safran and Cheminees Poujoulat) are close behind and ready to assume the lead.
After a rough start and resultant weather stopover in Roscoff, Portugal, the TJV’s biggest fleet — the Class 40s — are now preparing for what could be the trickiest and slowest of all the race’s Doldrums crossings. Pre-race favorite GDF SUEZ, skippered by Class 40 standout Sebastian Rogues, has led since the start, yet is preparing to see their not-sizable lead challenged. Jorg Reichers’ MARE and Alex Pella’s Tales Santander 2014 are roaring up from behind as GDF SUEZ is the first boat to become slowed by the doldrums.
The Multi 50 class — six 50-ft trimarans — have not surprisingly had the most dramatic failures in the race. First it was Maitre Jacques, challenging for the lead at the time, damaging the structure of the boat and ripping off the front of the starboard ama. The crew nursed the wounded tri into port just as Arkema-Region Aquitaine capsized. A week later, the boat is finally being towed into Madeira and righted. With two of the fleet’s four ‘fast’ boats wounded, the Multi 50 class has turned into a two-trimaran match race á la the MOD 70s. With the two leaders now just under 600 miles from the finish in Itajal, FenêtréA Cardinal, co-skippered by Yann Elies, has worked their way into a 50-mile lead over defending TJV champ Actual, while the two back markers mix it up with the Class 40s, more than a thousand miles behind. Wouldn’t it be incredible to watch Elies win the TJV after back-to-back Figaro wins?