People Transportation

“From Grace” Endures Harrowing Journey

From Grace is a 45-foot sloop that arrived Memorial Day at Boston Yacht Haven with shredded sails wrapped around its mast, stays, spreaders, and rigging, and a cockpit console had been racked loose by men trying to hold on for their lives.

As the yachting season gets underway with multi-million dollar, spit-shined vessels starting to dock hereabouts with regal attitude, From Grace looked like a rejected ghost ship from a Hollywood film. Clearly she had a story to tell. Clearly she was a survivor.

Boby Berman

“Nothing is for sure,’ her captain Boby Berman reflected of a harrowing passage from the Caribbean during which sustained winds reached 50 miles per hour and sent one crew member below to radio his wife good bye, and then curl up on the cabin floor expecting to die.

The crossing has left the captain with much to think about. “The bottom line? Every plan is the base for change,” Berman said yesterday, looking out on a harbor as quiet and tame as the sleeping beast he had left astern.

A retired resident of Saint-Lazare, Quebec, Berman, 54, had purchased the Hunter sloop from an owner in Guadeloupe. Early last week he set sail for Canada with two crew members whom he declined to name. One man had experience ferrying yachts at sea. The other man was new to deep water sailing. Berman admitted that he himself had had no offshore experience but had read “everything I could get my hands on.”

From Grace was about 200 miles east of the Chesapeake Bay when the wind noticeably had begun to build. Berman had subscribed to two special marine weather services so he could cross reference forecasts. Both predicted maximum speeds of 30 knots. In preparation, the crew, wearing safety harnesses, had shortened sail. But not enough as it turned out.

Berman was below, trying to get a few minutes of sleep when he heard one of his crew yell, “Boby, something is wrong.”

The wind speed suddenly had shot past 30 knots, then 40, and was now wailing at a sustained 50 knots. And there the wind speed would stay for the better part of the next two hours, clocking to starboard, veering to port, lashing out from the darkness ahead, then attacking from astern.

Blades from the wind generator broke off with the whizzing pops like gun shots. One blade struck and cracked a navigation screen inches from Berman’s left hand. Wave crests topped 30 feet or higher, assaulting the boat from every direction. From Grace was a sneaker in a washing machine “getting pelted with hail and rain and stinging salt spray from the warm Gulf Stream,” Berman said.

By the time the wind began to abate, the sails had shredded. Berman got on the marine radio and called for a rescue. The Coast Guard responded with a question: “Are you prepared to abandon ship?”

Berman was. His crewmates, deciding the worst was over, were not. They would not leave behind a vessel that had sustained them.

“My job as a captain is to lead, but not if this means going against my crew,” Berman explained yesterday. Coast Guard offer was declined. This meant trying to motor to shore. The sea conditions prohibited going west. The nearest option was Martha’s Vineyard, 240 miles to the north.

They inserted the key into the ignition – precisely as a wave crashed over From Grace. The key broke, half of it embedding in the ignition. Eventually the crew figured out how to twist the key remnant using a variety of tools. The engine started. But was there fuel enough to reach Vineyard? Perhaps if they went slow enough. So for two days From Grace chugged along at five knots and were just 35 miles south of the Vineyard when the diesel ran out.

For $1,700 Sea Tow, a boat rescue service, delivered enough fuel for From Grace to reach the island. On Memorial Day From Grace entered Boston where the Coast Guard had insisted the crew members clear immigration.

From Boston, Berman will start for Canada, perhaps in a week or two, perhaps via the network of canals that leads north from New York City.

But this much is certain about man who appears neither frivolous about the plans he makes nor insecure about his ability to adapt to change.

Boby Berman is a survivor. So is his boat.

David Arnold writes from the North End waterfront, telling the extraordinary stories of regular people.