Bertie Lost off New Jersey

We are saddened to report the loss of Peter Bailey’s lovely yawl Bertie, which was capsized by what he believes was a white squall 65 miles off Atlantic City, New Jersey, at about 8 p.m. on May 29. Bailey and his wife, Heidi Snyder — the only ones aboard at the time — managed to activate their EPIRB and were rescued about three hours after the capsize. At that time, Bertie was on her side and awash, but still floating.

Bertie capsized
Bertie was built and launched in Sausalito in 1984. She was sailing until a white squall took her off the coast of New Jersey.
© 2019 USCG

“We were literally swamped and swallowed under within 60 seconds,” said Bailey.

The couple was not seriously injured and was released from the hospital after being checked for hypothermia. They both expressed gratitude to the Coast Guard and hospital staff.

Bertie sailing
Bertie was a stunning, well-traveled and well-loved boat.

Bailey built Bertie — a 39-ft LOD modified version of Joshua Slocum’s famous Spray — over seven years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s at Sausalito’s Gate 3 Co-op. The boat was launched on July 11, 1984 and christened by her namesake, his grandmother. The boat, with her tanbark sails and unusual rig — a fully-battened Chinese lug main and a gaff mizzen — was easy to spot sailing the Bay for years afterward, and she always looked impressively trimmed, shipshape and well cared for.

Bertie's christening
Editor John Riise wrote about Bertie’s launching in the Sightings section of Latitude 38’s August 1984 issue.
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / John

We’re not sure when Bailey and Snyder sailed her out of the Bay, but according to reports following the capsize, they were on the last leg of a circumnavigation. They were headed from the Bahamas to Boston when the squall hit.

The couple lost everything but the literal clothes on their backs. If you want to help them get back on their feet, check out their Gofundme page.

What is a white squall?

A white squall — also occasionally referred to as a microburst — is “a sudden and violent windstorm in tropical or subtropical waters, which is not accompanied by the dark clouds generally characteristic of a squall.” The name refers to froth on the water that is easily seen as it approaches.

We once thought this was an old sailor’s tale until we were clobbered by what could have been one in the Caribbean in the mid-‘70s. It came out of nowhere on a partly cloudy day, and, as noted, you could see the water whipping up as it approached. About all we had time to say was, “WTF is tha…?”  before the boat we were on — a heavy-displacement 60-ft ketch — was laid over on its ear. Luckily, we were motorsailing (the wind was light seconds before), with only a steadying sail up, and Mar popped right back up. It was all over in about half a minute. It scared the hell out of all of us, as none of us had ever seen anything like it before (or since, for this writer), and it was only years later that we heard the term ‘white squall’.

The loss of Bertie to a possible white squall reminds us of two other incidents in which boats — and in these two cases, lives — were lost. The first was the loss of the original Pride of Baltimore, a 135-ft recreation of a Baltimore Clipper, which was capsized by a reported white squall about 250 miles north of Puerto Rico in 1986. Four of her 12 crew, including the captain, perished. In 1961, the 92-ft brigantine Albatros — once owned by author Ernest Gann — was capsized off Yucatan in what then-captain Christopher Sheldon called a white squall. Six of 18 people aboard went down with her. Both these incidents also occurred in May.

If you have had any direct experience with a white squall, or a phenomenon like it, we’d like to hear about it.

7 Comments

  1. Tim Dick 4 months ago

    Some time in the mid 1990s I was skippering a bareboat charter with friends in the BVI. We departed Norman Island around 10AM and turned to starboard up into the Sir Francis Drake Channel. We could see small squalls coming down the channel in about 20 knots of breeze. Soon we saw an enormous squall that filled the entire channel with a furious white “moustache” running ahead of it . We were too far across the channel to turn back. We started the motor and took down & extra-secured all sails. Sea state was probably two feet and the squall was running too fast to whip up any more. I asked the four crew (only one other sailor) to go below but leave the hatch open.

    We took the squall dead on to avoid rolling. The horizontal hit painfully stingingly. Too late I realized that I should have put on a foul weather jacket, but it wasn’t going to be possible now! (I had welts for a couple of days.) I immediately realized I could not keep my eyes open in the horizontal deluge so asked the crew for a snorkel & mask, allowing me to breath and to see the compass as I knew the squall would rotate a bit. After that, it was simply a matter of steering straight into the wind and hoping we wouldn’t run out of water. The crew below saw a peak wind speeds of 85 knots and sustained 70.

    Suddenly we were out of the white & back into the azure seas and skies of the channel. As the crew came up from below, we realized that we were the only boat in the channel that was not dismasted. VHF16 was filled with chatter and VISAR (BVI Coast Guard) was quickly out effecting rescues. VISAR reached the other boats before we could.

    Later we read in the BVI newspaper that there were only minor injuries on the other boats from the dismastings.

  2. Jim Nisbet 4 months ago

    We met Heidi and Peter while Bertie and our H-28 Argo were both hauled at San Franciso Boatworks in the early aughties. It was there that we watched them do wonders with ropework, sanding, painting, woodwork and anything else boatwrightly that needed doing. For one example, Peter shortened Bertie’s bowsprit because, he said, at its original length it was working the boat too much. Just like that. At the time Peter made his living on the crew that built HO scale ship models scheduled to be blown up in the various Pirates of The Caribbean movies. Heidi was working on her degree in, as I recall, environmental science, which she subsequently obtained. Peter had lived aboard Bertie even before he splashed her — he built the boat entirely by himself — and at Gallilee Harbor, in Sausalito, ever since. Heidi joined him a little later.

    We stayed in touch. About a year later, we got a sudden email to the effect that there was to be a going-away party at Gallilee, food and blues band included, by way of launching Bertie and crew to their new home in Port Townsend. Down the road we heard that Peter had retired, and that Bertie and crew had gone cruising for good.

    Great folks, and a sad end to a cool boat. We wish Peter and Heidi all the best, and look forward to the way in which fate works their survival of shipwreck into the opening of the next chapter.

    Jim & Carol
    H-28 Argo
    Sausalito

    • Heidi Snyder 3 months ago

      Thanks so much Jim for your kind words and compassionate support. The outpouring from our friends and family has touched us very deeply, and has made it possible for us to move forward with integrity. We have a karmic obligation, and will definitely be “paying it forward” and helping other sailors in their greatest time of need. Thanks again for your friendship and kind words Jim!

  3. peter bailey 4 months ago

    The note on our capsize is generally accurate, but I’d like to correct some minor things.

    We were three years into a cruise bound for Europe and not a circumnavigation, but had left Port Townsend, WA, in August 2016, and spent most of the time in Mexico and Panama, the Canal, Isla Mujeres and the Bahamas. We had returned from the Bahamas to Florida and done the ICW some, then left Georgetown, SC, for NYC to see relatives with a three-to-four-day forecast that showed nothing exceptional beyond 20-knot
    southerlies.

    All went well until almost to NJ, when, at the change of the evening watch as I got out of bed – and in moderate visibility with 15-knots of east wind — it suddenly went to west and increased greatly in seconds, pinning the main against the backstay. As I bolted from the cabin she was horizontal, then went inverted and stayed there. All this in less than 90 seconds.

    We clambered onto the hull but were unable to reach the EPIRB fastened to the outside of the pilothouse, now underwater and surrounded by crashing debris from all the stuff that accumulates on deck, loose ropes, sail covers, dinghies etc, making diving very dangerous, though we both tried repeatedly.

    After an hour or so, enough water flooded the hull to take away the inverted stability and she rolled up so the port side was exposed with the heavy timber mast horizontal, allowing us to access the EPIRB and activate it as we clung to the bulwarks. I believe trapped air under the side deck plus the heavy timber construction kept her from sinking, while the flotation of the thick timber mast provided a righting lever moment.

    I was in my underwear having just gotten out of the bunk, but Heidi had her knife on and cut free the paddle board, giving us some flotation if she were to sink. There we shivered clinging to each other, me going hypothermic rapidly, getting mentally slow and shivering so hard I thought my joints would break. Heidi was dressed for watch and her body warmth kept me alive I think.

    Three and a half hours after the event, just before midnight, the beautiful orange bird appeared with her flood lights on, the rescue swimmer went in and swam to us, putting Heidi in the basket first, then harnessing himself to me, and we had our turn on the winch. After getting to the air station, an ambulance took us to AtlantiCare in Pomona, NJ, where we were treated with kindness, compassion and understanding. They bought clothes for us, gave us a private room and researched our insurance situation. The next day a driver was provided, who took us to NYC, where our relatives took us in and where we are now.

    We lost absolutely everything; our home, art, computers, phones, passports, driver’s licenses and all forms of ID, all my professional shipwright and boatyard tools — everything. Now trying to reestablish ID is proving to be a incredible fucktangle of red tape, bureaucracy and frustration. One cannot even enter the train station these days without government issued picture ID, so we can’t take a train anywhere, get on a plane or drive, and are stuck in NYC for the moment. You need ID to get a passport, and a passport or such to get the ID. Birth certificates have been ordered and the process is limping along, but it is frustrating being in the situation. We were insured through Boat US, so that is one positive note.

    The vessel, when last seen a couple of days later by a passing catamaran, was afloat and swamped as we left her. The insurance company is searching, hoping to get her out of the shipping lanes and ashore to end their liability, but even if she is salvaged, she is a total loss and needing new everything. At 72, I am not up to a few years of rebuilding, so we will probably buy a camper van to live in and cruise on land for awhile.

    Another boat is in our future, but we will always miss our dear home, ‘Bertie’.

    Lessons learned:

    Even on the outside of the pilot house, the EPIRB was inaccessible with the boat inverted. If it had been below, we would be dead now. It was absolutely impossible to get through the crashing debris, ropes and all to get it until she rolled her side up.

    The Spray type vessel is a very good sea boat, but once hove down flat to the water and flooded through the companionway, she turtled. No boat will take kindly to having openings thrust underwater, so in my opinion many other designs would also have flooded in the situation of being knocked down flat and held there with an opening exposed to the sea. I was bolting out the door when she went over, and even though we tried, there was insufficient time to close the hatch behind me before the water poured in as we were trying to not drown at the time as she rolled over on us.

    A life raft would have been nice, but if below, it would have been pretty useless, and if in a cradle on deck tangled in all the debris and stuff, problematical in getting deployed. We had a SUP and that was our flotation if she sank, which she did not at the time.

    Be safe out there; it’s not a friendly environment and the sea does not care, at all.

    The basic rules of sailing are:

    1. Don’t be stupid.
    2. Shit happens.

    Peter Bailey and Heidi Snyder.

  4. peter bailey 4 months ago

    An addendum to my previous post.
    Sail set at the time was the double-reefed main and a smallish jib.
    PB

    • Jim Bates 3 months ago

      Peter,
      For over a year I have been trying to figure out how to find Bataan, aka Peter Bailey, so I could figure out how to build a main sail like yours, and wanted to see it in person. Then I read this sad story. I feel bad for your loss, but thank heaven it was not fatal to anyone.
      If you would like to discuss a business proposition that might be helpful to you contact me at jimb522@yahoo.com. I need help installing an interior and finishing the inside of a steel Spray 38, and finishing the gaff rigging. I will trade you an Allied XL 2, for your labor, which needs cosmetic restoration. I furnish a nice RV for you to live in for free, next to both boats, for as long as you reasonably need, for both boats. I must have mine finished by the end of the year, so I can get it to San Francisco by mid March. I furnish all tools and materials, and would be able to help a couple of days a week. Also I feed you and pay for your utilities.
      Whether you are interested or not in this offer, I would still love to talk to you. I live near New Orleans in Slidell, LA.

  5. Bill Bailey 3 months ago

    So very sorry to read of the loss of an old dock mate! Best of all things to you Peter.

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