The real story of the sinking of the Wolf of Wall Street's yacht
In 2000, Doug Hoogs interviewed Capt. Mark Elliott about the sinking of the motoryacht Nadine. Elliott was in command of Nadine on the fateful day in 1996 when she encountered a powerful mistral in the Mediterranean between the Italian mainland and Sardinia. All guests and crew survived, but the real story of the sinking, which was depicted in the 2013 film 'The Wolf of Wall Street,' is far more compelling than the almost-comedic Hollywood version.
Unabridged version courtesy of Doug Hoogs
“M.Y. Nadine was more than halfway between the Italian mainland and her destination, the island of Sardinia. It was around 3:00 p.m. on June 22, 1996,” Captain Mark Elliott began, “We had planned to make the short 85-mile run from the coast to the island in seven hours -- possibly less, depending on sea conditions, which would have put us in port around six p.m., well before sunset. When we departed, the forecast told us to expect some wind and a choppy but small sea, nothing to worry about for a seagoing yacht of Nadine’s class...
“We left from a small marina in Riva de Travino, the next town south of Civitaveccia near Rome, headed for the port of Calle de Volpe on Sardinia. So far the voyage had been routine, although the winds were blowing a steady fifteen to twenty knots on the bow during the first few hours. In spite of the wind, all the guests were enjoying the clarity of a sunny day on the open deck. Occasionally a drink spilled when the bow hit a wave crest, certainly not unusual even in the best of weather, but nobody seemed to mind.”
That summer the yacht was operating under a new name of Nadine, a “grande dame” of the waters. In her thirty-fifth year of service, she had seen many refits and was in her well-kept prime on this voyage. In her life there had been five owners and she had carried five different names. Traveling under the command of Captain Mark Elliott, she had truly been reborn through a recent major refit and several upgrades over the past few years with a crack crew of eleven to keep her shipshape. Nadine rode upon a classic displacement hull form much slimmer than present displacement design theory, and she could cut through the seas like a naval destroyer on a sortie, with quiet strength and elegance.
Since Nadine offered more amenities for enjoyment than any other vessel operating in the trade, she was scheduled for a busy summer season ahead with eight weeks of solid charter. From bow to stern, she was equipped with every imaginable water toy. At times she carried a seaplane, a helicopter, a 33-foot Intrepid tender, a pair of jet-powered tenders, several wave runners, a rope swing, a water slide, a diving board, kayaks, a dive shop, underwater cameras, and plenty of open deck space for sunning. Ever since Mark had started using the slogan “He who plays with the most toys -- wins” every charter week was now quickly booked. Each year the yacht would work eighteen to twenty weeks of charter and this, in addition to Owner Little’s private use kept her a busy and profitable boat. Noted celebrities such as Burt Reynolds and Oprah Winfrey were on the list of charterers. It was possible to generate gross charter receipts over a million dollars in a given year; an achievement amounting to the Holy Grail of the yachting trade.
Mark Elliott stands a little shorter than average height, but his powerful build and military bearing give him imposing stature. With a full head of dark brown hair and moustache, his looks like a much younger man than his forty very active and adventurous years. When one captain meets another for the first time, there is a natural and competitive tendency to size up the other, like a pair of gladiators gauging each other’s competence. A captain naturally seeks to command the most prestigious yachts, and a “simpatico owner” with whom he shares mutual respect. It is rare for a captain to stay with the same owner for more than three or four years, but Mark has spent the better part of two decades with the same boss so his long service record speaks for his talents which had been rewarded by giving him the opportunity to operate some of the finest yachts afloat over those years. He is truly in the top rank of the hierarchy of yachting. When together with Mark, one senses being in the presence of a winner, and automatically grants the man the respect he has earned.
Mark recalls this voyage vividly.
“It was not an ideal day for making the passage those first few hours, but the guests were enjoying the brisk air, and no one felt seasick. Around two in the afternoon, we were given an intimation of what was to come -- a rogue wave hit the bow. That sea broke over the wheelhouse. One of the crew, Mallory Weintraub, who was working as a stewardess, took a direct hit of spray and was soaked from head to toe. She came down to the wheelhouse dripping, trying to squeeze out her skirt and looking for a towel to wipe her face.
“This was the first indication that some big seas were up ahead, over the near horizon. About the time that wave hit us, there was an announcement of unexpected gale warnings along the Italian coast. We picked up this bulletin on Nadine’s wheelhouse radios. The wind was beginning to strengthen; what had been four to six foot waves were rising from seven to nine feet with the wind gusting to twenty-five knots. The approaching storm was intensifying.
* * *
Captain Doug Hoogs describes his first meeting with Mark Elliot.
I first met Mark Elliot in the early fall of 1990. I was in Viareggio on the west coast of Italy on business related to yacht construction. Mark had just brought the M.Y. Southerly into port for refit when it was being sold. We were introduced by some mutual friends and one evening a group of us got together and made dinner plans. I had a rental car, so we all squeezed in and headed up into the narrow winding road clinging to the mountainside. When we reached the village of Bargeccia twenty minutes later we pulled up in front of one of my favorite restaurants of the region called “Il Petronio,” and unpacked ourselves from the confines of the small car.
This was a typical night out in Tuscany, breaking bread with good friends, toasting each other with the local wine, and lots of conversation punctuated with laughter. The Tuscan food was great, prepared fresh and cooked over a wood-fired grill. The wine was table variety, new and red, brought to the table in brimming carafes, drawn directly from the barrels. There was no need for it to “breathe” as it was served fresh from recent fermentation. We could drink it all through the evening without getting drunk because of the low alcohol content. Everybody was in good spirits and eager to hear each other’s accounts of voyages taken and dangers overcome, but it was Mark who attracted the most attention with his exciting and dramatic tales. He lived the life of adventure to be dreamed about, and his skill as a raconteur was riveting.
By the time we had driven back to the port, new friendships had been made, in spite of the fact that many of us were not to see each other again for years. Certainly Mark Elliot was a man to remember, his long years of command had given him a brand of leadership and self-confidence that sparked instant respect and trust.
On the morning of that day, the twenty-second of June, Mark picked up the owner and his guests in a rented van at the Rome airport. They had all just deplaned from their stateside flight and, although a little tired, the owner asked the captain to get underway immediately for their first destination.
Mark mentioned the latest weather bulletin to the owner.
“There’s going to be some wind, it could make for a rough passage,” he cautioned. “What do you say we postpone the trip until the morning? --the weather’s predicted to improve...”
“No, I want to take a little sun, and I have a golf date planned at Calle de Volpe tomorrow morning. I don’t mind a little rough weather,” and he gave the order to proceed.
It was around eleven in the morning when Mark got Nadine under way. The yacht was capable of speeds as high as eighteen knots in calmer conditions, but since leaving port that day, there had been a sea running that advised against using top speed. With the wind directly on the bow, and the vessel meeting the seas head on, Mark had to run at twelve knots to reduce the force of slamming into the short and steep wind chop.
“The boss and guests were all enjoying the sun,” he said, “and I was trying to make the short passage as comfortable as possible.”
He went on to mention that the lower speed would allow for an arrival early enough under reasonable conditions. Over the years aboard Nadine Mark knew her structure and personality from bow to stern. He had seen her performance in a wide variety of sea conditions; he knew she would do well in ten to twelve foot seas, and that Sardinia’s large land mass would soon create a lee from the strengthening wind. Every mile he advanced put them closer to the island’s protective arm.
The sky was still clear but the winds and seas were building, building. By four in the afternoon it was blowing over thirty knots and the vessel was slowed to about half her normal sixteen knot speed in a sea running at twelve to fifteen feet. The going was getting difficult for everyone.
“I was still hoping to get within the lee of Sardinia directly ahead before the storm worsened, but discarded the option of turning back; that maneuver could risk broaching by temporarily offering our narrow beam to the rising crests. Nadine’s best angle of attack was bow on to the waves. Her bow was the highest area on the main deck, so it minimized the amount of water that we’d normally take aboard. She wasn’t well suited to running before the seas in any case, since she had a low cockpit aft that a large sea could easily poop. A following sea would also lift the transom so that would make the steering difficult. No, running before a storm wasn’t an option, either. Heading into it was also getting us closer to the land mass dead ahead, and since we were well over halfway to shelter, there was no choice at this stage of the voyage except to press on.
“A little after four, the thirty-three foot Intrepid tender was down to just one line,” Mark went on, “We originally had two one and a half inch towlines attached. A normal part of our charter season is to tow the big tender along with us. It’s a little risky to tow the tender in open water, but under normal conditions it would tow without incident -- and having it available for the guests was attractive. Anyway, one of the towlines had parted from chafing in the force of the large seas. My normal procedure is to have two completely independent lines so that if one parts, we will still have the tender under control. Over the years, If I had lost one of the lines, the second one would keep the tow intact until we could reconnect a new line. On this afternoon, I posted a full-time watch aft to keep a close eye on that second tow. I also had the mates try to rig better chafing gear to keep the tow intact. About half an hour after losing the first line, the force of the rising sea broke the second line, and the Intrepid was loose. We could not turn around and risk broaching, and it was way too rough to try to reconnect the tow.”
The $100,000 toy was that easily written off when keeping the yacht itself safe was the first order of business. The Intrepid was quickly lost from view astern.
* * *
Nadine had been traveling the world’s oceans since 1961 when she was built and delivered by the Ackmar yard in Holland. She was originally christened Matilda and after about a year or so, she was bought by the Chanel family and re-named Coco Chanel. For the next fourteen years she traveled the yachting circuit in corporate entertainment under that name. Then, in 1977, she was purchased by Melvin Powers, a Texas millionaire, and renamed again as Jan Pamela.
During the years Mr. Powers owned her, he and his captain Norm Dahl did extensive refits of the interior and the exterior, first adding the helicopter pad and later “stretching” her from her original 130-foot length -- already a big yacht for her time. First, the ten-foot long fishing cockpit was added and a couple of years later, a twenty-six foot section was added amidships bringing her total length to 166 feet. In their effort to keep up with the Joneses of the yacht-building industry, they helped enhance Jan Pamela’s reputation as a world-class boat for corporate and charter use.
* * *
Enter a new owner and a new chapter in the yacht’s life.
Both Captain Mark Elliott and his employer Bernie Little had a lifelong yen for the Coco Chanel and then for the Jan Pamela for the classic beauty, impeccable grooming and timeless style the yacht possessed. Together in 1989, they decided to purchase the vessel and make her the queen of their extensive charter fleet. She was renamed again, this time as Big Eagle in the tradition of the Eagle-named yachts. Once the survey was complete and the ownership transferred, Mark performed a major refit to update most of her systems at the Merrill-Stevens yard in Miami. At that time, he changed her small Detroit diesels for a pair of Caterpillar 3412s, which effectively doubled her horsepower. Originally able to run at top speed of only twelve knots, she now could get up to eighteen knots; although the higher fuel consumption sacrificed some of her trans-oceanic range, it upgraded her to current yachting speed expectations and allowed her to reach her theoretical displacement hull speed based upon the long waterline length.
In over thirty-five years, she had seen severe sea conditions. She was built in an era when there were no Dock Express ships being offered that could float her on board as cargo. Before 1987, the owner who wanted his yacht moved between the Mediterranean and the Caribbean had his captain make the passage on his yacht’s own bottom. These “Dock Express” or “Med Ferry” ships are also known as float-on float off carriers, designed to ballast down their cargo and float it on, then pump the ballast tanks dry, thus raising the ship back to her normal waterline. These specialty vessels were built originally for the petroleum industry, to carry barges or drilling platforms.
The yachting industry was evolving in the 1980s with the development of the high-speed sport yacht. These vessels were able to run at better than thirty-knot speeds with the development of large but lightweight diesel engines. This ushered in the dawn of a new age of yachting where the yacht could travel limited ranges of 1,000 miles or less at great speed, but could not effectively cross the ocean on its own. In 1987, the authors of this book were among the first captains to load their newly constructed yachts on Med ferries. We had just completed the construction and taken delivery that summer of two 120-foot high-speed yachts whose owners wanted their vessels in Florida that fall. Literally the only way that could happen was if we found such a ship to carry us. Since that year, more than 1,000 yachts have been ferried across the ocean in this manner.
Nadine always had to travel on her own bottom during most of those earlier years so that by 1996 she had logged hundreds of thousands of seagoing miles in all weather conditions. Although in the more recent years she had crossed the Atlantic on Dock Express ships, this decision was based more upon the limited fuel range than seaworthiness. Mark felt that the yacht could handle the conditions earlier forecast that June 22 better than her guests, who might tire of the constant pitching and rolling during the voyage.
He had been aboard her with a heavy charter schedule ever since she was purchased in 1989. When she changed hands again in 1996 and re-named Nadine after the new owner’s wife, Mark was asked by Bernie Little to stay aboard to look after Mr. Little’s interests, since he held a financing note for a limited time. The new owner was paying well and wanted to continue in the charter trade, so Mark decided to stay on.
When Nadine was launched back in 1961, Mark Elliott was just five years old, growing up in Miami. He had already developed an interest in both boats and airplanes since his father was active in sailing and would also often take him to the small Burnside-Ott airfield in Opa-Locka where the boy was proud and content just to sit in the cockpit of different aircraft, including fighters. And from the age of six, Mark had his own Sunfish and was active in sailing programs that moved him into skipper roles on increasingly larger club boats. By the age of thirteen, he was gaining respect as a talented captain at Burnside-Ott airport as a line boy who taxied aircraft around for fueling and washing. It was during that time that Mark first saw what to him was the most beautiful yacht in the world, known as Coco Chanel. It was love at first sight; he already pictured himself becoming a part of her. It was as if Mark and Nadine were destined to come together as Mark matured into the young but seasoned captain.
* * *
Mark resumed his account in the vernacular of yachting.
“It started at two in the afternoon, by three it was getting shitty and at four it was gnarly. By five, we were slowed to steerageway and trying to keep the bow headed directly into the oncoming crests. We were still making three or four knots into the seas -- at times stopped completely by the power of a steep cresting wave. We would drop into a deep trough with a feeling of weightlessness.
“Then the bow buried into a huge cresting sea; we were inclined upward at a twenty-degree angle as the sea broke over us, roaring like a freight train. The tremendous force of this wave shook the vessel from bow to stern. It crashed into the crew scuttle on the foredeck and crushed the lapstrake wooden hatch under tons of moving water.”
Justin McMillan, the second mate, was in the wheelhouse with Mark when it happened, and added some details.
“We didn’t actually see it go, but we heard it, like a cannon. We were enclosed in the wheelhouse and the wind was screaming, but we heard it over all the other noise. It broke into forty or so small pieces, like scrap lumber and left a hole two and a half by four feet open for the next wave. We started taking on a lot of water in the crew’s quarters. Bill Hudek, the first mate, and Bill Conners, the third mate went down on the bow to try to cover the opening with canvas cushion covers and seal them with wood battens and screws. I was relaying tools to them, stepping out of the wheelhouse and handing them over the Portuguese bridge, but every time they tried to secure the canvas over the hole, another wave would surge in and knock their work loose and put them in danger. Even though we were all wearing life jackets, we were being buffeted by the heavy water, getting too much exposure...they had to abandon the effort and leave the crew’s quarters to the water.”
By this time the crew area had quickly filled, making the bow sluggish. The watertight bulkhead just aft of the crew space stopped the water from filling the rest of the vessel, but even down at the bow, with little reserve buoyancy left, Nadine was still maintaining steerageway. Justin and the other mates took turns at the helm, steering manually because the autopilot was useless in such conditions. At the stern of the vessel, the hydraulic rams that raise and lower the swim platform had come adrift, and it was slamming up and down. Attempts to lash the platform in one place were thwarted by the forces at work and, finally, a large sea actually ripped the platform and its hydraulic arms completely off the transom, leaving twelve one-inch diameter holes for the sea to flow easily into the lazarette.
* * *
In the fall of 1979, the authors of this book were running a 109-foot schooner yacht known as Antares. We were working out of the home port of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin islands. During that season, we were docked Med style alongside the Nadine -- at that time traveling under the name of Jan Pamela. In those years, she was one of the biggest yachts to be seen in the region, and unique as one of the first yachts with a helicopter as part of standard equipment. The yacht was not allowed to be in the marina when the helicopter was landing or taking off. The then owner, Melvin Powers, would come and go with his friends on a regular basis, so it was an almost daily ritual to see the yacht clear the dock and stand off the marina a few hundred yards’ distance while the helicopter took off for San Juan to pick up passengers, returning a short while later and delivering them to the yacht. Like Mark Elliott in later years, the captain Norm Dahl was also the helicopter pilot, so the first mate would be in command of the yacht during helicopter flights. We were always amazed to see the helicopter land on the small and moving platform with so little room for error and were convinced that the reflexes and precision skills of the pilot had to be perfection itself to handle this tricky maneuver.
In 1979, Mark was working as a young captain in South Florida on the old 90-foot Feadship ship Southerly. Like us, Mark was impressed with Norm Dahl’s command skills, and viewed him as the mentor for his own ambitions.
Some years later, we heard that the helicopter had been destroyed. It apparently slipped off the deck while the yacht was heeling over during a sharp turn at good speed. The crew must have forgotten to secure it prior to departing from Cat Cay in the Bahamas. It was about this time that Jan Pamela was drydocked to be stretched. She was literally cut in half in the midship area, and a 26-foot section was fabricated and welded in place. This greatly increased the interior living space, creating more room for the helipad and the toys, and augmented the displacement cruising speed by a couple of knots. Many people in the yachting community thought that this stretch treatment detracted from her appearance, making her look disproportionally skinny in relation to her overall length.
* * *
The storm that had overtaken them so unexpectedly is known as a mistral. The land areas bordering the Mediterranean make for complex weather patterns, which can quickly channel heavy local cold winds barreling down from the high altitudes into gales and storm force conditions. There are several names for storm types in the Mediterranean: the Bora in the Adriatic and Aegean seas; in other areas, the etesian, levante, sirocco, poniente and vendaval. Best known are the mistrals, the winds that blow from the French Alps toward the Mediterranean. Each summer these sudden north winds are caused by the hot air rising over the African deserts. The vacuum caused at the ground level to the south sucks the colder air across the Mediterranean from the Alps. This giant convection wind cycle will blow twelve to forty hours before it dissipates. Once the storm pattern is forecast all shipping traffic is advised to take precautions. The problem is that the where, when and anticipated strength of these storms are difficult to predict. Such was the case this day.
Mark went on.
“Around six p.m. we were clocking the winds at sixty to seventy knots, and I think some of the crests were hitting thirty-five feet and more, one right behind the other. With the stern so low, our bow was normally our only protection against big seas. And once the bow wasn’t able to rise, the sea would break over us, then flood down the side decks and dump down into the cockpit all the way aft.”
He described how the churning water was ripping out all the cabinetwork including the sink, allowing water to pour down along the pipes into the steering gear space. The combination of holes in the transom and the torn plumbing lines in the cockpit severely flooded that compartment before any damage control repairs could be effected. Before long, the bilge pump impeller was heating, possible due to trapped debris.
“I sent Patrick (the engineer) down to replace the impeller if need be, and to keep the pump clear. I also instructed the mates to rotate with Patrick in the lazarette, so that he could work on other fouled pumps forward. It would take two crewmembers to open the lazarette hatch while one would slip inside -- along with a lot of water! The water remained about two feet deep at all times in the cockpit, so going into that small space was tricky and claustrophobic. A person could get trapped in there...
“About an hour after the crew hatch imploded, another large sea came aboard and shifted one of our Nautica jetboats aft in its foredeck cradle. The tender struck the dining room window with force and shattered it. I learned a bitter lesson that day about the danger of carrying anything on deck that could become a projectile during a storm. Even though the tenders and all other gear were well lashed, there is nothing to stop the force of green water on deck. Now we had our bow down, and wave after wave pumped through the broken dining room window into the middle of the yacht. The water was pouring aft and through the salon as well as down the stairs to the guest cabins.
“I knew at that moment that Nadine had been struck a mortal blow. Once I had assessed the damage, I made my way to the bridge and used the satellite telephone to contact the Italian Coast Guard known as “Gruppo Marine Italian.”. I announced a Mayday when they answered, describing the state of the storm, the perilous condition of Nadine and gave them our position. They indicated that they would respond immediately. I then met with the passengers and crew, explaining that we would have to abandon ship when help arrived. I did not want them wandering about and asked them to stay together in the salon where I could find them when needed. One at a time, the guests were escorted by a crewmember to their respective staterooms to collect their passports, money, jewelry and other valuables that would fit into a small bag.
“When briefing the owner and his guests, I explained that although the situation was serious, we had help on the way. I wanted them to understand that by staying together in the salon, I would be able to get to them quickly as soon as the help arrived.” He grinned ruefully, “I tried to whistle in the dark to lighten the mood by telling them a few jokes, to indicate that I was not desperate about out situation...”
Captain Mark Elliott had been tested at sea during his career, but nothing had ever challenged him thus far like the ferocity of this storm. In the coming hours he would need to draw on all his experience and pray for luck to keep everyone safe. The implosion of the crew hatch and the subsequent smashing of the dining salon window were mortal blows that would destroy Nadine. Keeping afloat until the arrival of help was imperative. Mark had to keep all the pumps running free and the generators operational. He must not lose the main engines or the steering; otherwise, there was grave danger of turning sidewise, broaching to the breaking crests and being rolled over like a toy in the might of the storm.
When the Italian Coast Guard received the Mayday call, they immediately dispatched a rescue helicopter from the base that would shortly arrive on the scene. They also launched a rescue lifeboat, much slower but dependable. Ships were alerted and were diverted from their routes to stand by. The life rafts on board were made ready for immediate use. Mark put into action everything he could think of to prepare for abandon ship. He sent the chef and the stewardesses to make up sandwiches and other finger food to eat right away and to have available later if they had to take to the rafts. He asked the guests and the crew not needed elsewhere to remain calm and wait in the aft main deck salon for further instructions. He knew that everyone would be looking to him for planning and leadership to pull them through. Indeed, Mark had been trained from childhood to be the man needed to bring twenty-three souls through this perilous night.
With the water swirling through the galley, there was danger of electrical shock and at least once, chef Robert Pickens got zapped with stray current. Patrick Manning, the yacht engineer, had brushed against Robert at that very moment with the result that they both received the strong jolt of electricity before they broke clear of the stove.
Mark said that he was counting heavily on Patrick “to keep the pumps running and clear of debris,” adding, “The engine room, surprisingly, remained dry, even though seawater was flooding all other visible areas. Fortunately, the main engines and generators were running smoothly, so Patrick was able to check other sections of the yacht for damage control.”
“Maybe half an hour had passed after I called in the Mayday when the first helicopter arrived to airlift Nadine’s passengers and crew off the yacht,” Justin said. “The helicopter hovered over us and lowered a rescue diver down with the harness. The wind was just too strong, and with the pitching and rolling decks, neither the diver nor the crew could get a handhold. The diver bounced against the large crane and the stack, and almost got taken out before they lifted him back up to the helicopter. We didn’t see him again after that.”
The helicopter did not linger when it became apparent that they were unable to pick up the people. The guests had felt some relief when they saw the first helicopter come over them, and after lifting their hopes, they were plunged into deeper despair to see it depart with no rescue possible. The sun was setting and the storm raged on. Some of the crew kept to the pumps, while the captain and mates struggled to keep the bow up into the seas. In the meantime the guests and interior crew huddled together in the salon, waiting. With darkness approaching, Mark moved about the vessel, intent on keeping the guests calm and the crew focused on the tasks that could make the difference between life and death.
Between the hours of twilight and midnight -- three hours at the summer solstice -- the power of the seas was so great that literally every piece of wood on deck was torn from its fasteners. The twelve-foot wooden bow lockers were gone, the wood slat bulwark completely dismantled. Even the caprails were broken clean away. As Nadine rose and fell, she twisted and contorted with a flexibility that helped pry away the brightwork. It is rare, especially in the Med, to have mountainous seas rise fifty feet with only two hundred feet between crests, but not that night. Eventually, the green water floated away all of the debris, leaving the decks completely bare.
The situation along the Italian coast was a disaster with hurricane force winds and severe flooding. Twenty-four people lost their lives in what was being called their “storm of the century.” About 200 miles north of Nadine’s position, another yacht Princess Tanya, even larger at 200 feet, was caught in the same mistral. Several of their ports were smashed and they lost power, eventually having to be towed to port.
In the salon, Mark was trying to brighten the spirits of the guests, some of them nervous and in fear. Every now and then they would have to pick up their feet in unison as another wave passed through the salon and under the sofa. Several on board were with their spouses or loved ones. The storm raged on with driving rains. The normally quiet vessel creaked and groaned with every twist and shudder. The earlier rescue attempt had failed and they were facing the fact that the yacht could sink out from under them with little warning.
“The wife of the owner had left her two small children behind and was becoming distraught. She wanted to be flown off in the helicopter, and Mr. Little asked me to do it. I felt terrible to have to refuse them, but when I explained that my place was on board, trying to save the vessel and all the people aboard -- and in the second place, taking off in those wild conditions would be a crazy idea -- he agreed with me.
“Midnight brought us into June 23, with the storm at its peak. The seas were building up forty to fifty feet, and the wind was reaching hurricane force. The ships that were standing by were having troubles of their own maneuvering, totally unable to launch a craft to rescue us. At one point, a large merchant ship, trying to be helpful, came within fifteen feet of running Nadine down -- luckily I was able to take fast evasive action, or it would have smashed into us. Several times during the night, a helicopter would arrive from a shore base or from the naval helicopter cruiser working its way from Sardinia to our position. Each time, it would try to get the cable into the hands of the crew, but the darkness and severe conditions made the effort hopeless.”
With the yacht settling deeper and deeper into the water, Mark gave the order to Justin and Bill Conners, the third mate, to move the life rafts from the top deck down to the aft main deck. In case the rafts were needed, it would be easier to launch and board them from the lower area. Any attempt to launch a raft from a high deck is impossible in storm winds because the moment they inflate, someone must jump in; otherwise the wind will take it up like a kite. If a decision is to be made about using a life raft, there is an old saying: “You should step up into a raft only from the sinking deck.”
Justin and Bill moved the rafts as instructed, but before anything could be done to prevent it, one of the raft’s trigger lines was deployed and the raft was over the side, inflating. Then a burst of wind caught it and ripped it away from the yacht. It was gone in a flash into the darkness and swallowed by the mountainous seas. Did someone in the crew panic, or was it just lack of experience? Did someone act in haste? Did someone think the captain wanted to have the rafts inflated? Nobody knows, but the fact remained that one of the three rafts had just been lost. When it was finally reported to Mark that a raft was lost he was livid. First the aborted helicopter rescues, and now, the loss of the raft. It looked as though Nadine was running of rescue options and running out of luck.
In the early morning hours the yacht was settling deeper into the water with the main decks continually awash. If the engines or steering failed now, the yacht would surely broach before any helicopter rescue could be made. The readiness for abandon ship was in high alert.
“Around three in the morning the commander of the base called me to discuss how we could jettison the helicopter lashed to the deck,” Mark recalled. “At first I hated the idea of letting this valuable piece of equipment go, but I realized there was no alternative when he reminded me that there simply would be no way to rescue the passengers with the deck blocked by the helicopter, so I went ahead and made a plan. It was iffy, I wasn’t sure we could clear it off the deck without causing further damage to the yacht or injuries to the crew, but we planned our strategy to carry out the plan.”
Mark was reluctant to have anyone of his crew risk injury as the leader of the plan, so since he himself knew more about the handling of the helicopter than anyone else on board, having designed the system, he made the decision to jettison it by opening the side stanchions and handrails and begin releasing the tie-down straps. Once most of the straps were removed, Mark gave the order to Bill at the wheel to throw the helm over twenty degrees to starboard. With the sudden course change and the rolling motion of the yacht, he then released the last of the straps and the helicopter began to slide off the deck.
As the vessel rolled, Mark -- who was secured to Justin with a safety life -- almost slid off the deck when Justin momentarily lost tension on the line. In the last instant before going over with the helicopter, Mark caught the lowered rail. It was a close call. With the rudders to starboard, the hull swung just clear of the careering helicopter as it splashed into the boiling seal. When it began to settle into the water and sink, the salt water permeated the wiring and shorted across the battery switches. It was an eerie sight when all the navigation lights came on; everybody on board could see the ghostly glowing apparition descending into blackness as the yacht wallowed off into the pre-dawn darkness. It was now around 03:30.
Once Mark had the upper deck cleared, he called the Coast Guard, advising that he was ready for them to return and try again. Around 05:00 the helicopters began to arrive, just as the sky was brightening. With the approaching dawn the fury of the storm lessened, the wind and the sea diminishing. Justin described the scene.
“We had all the guests and non-essential crew lined up in the salon waiting turns. They were asked to go to the wheelhouse in groups of four or five at a time. From there, they were led out into the storm to climb up the ladder to the sun deck. They would then get hooked into the helicopter harness and cable. There was enough light now to see what we were doing and it let us have more than one helicopter on station. Half of the people were picked up by a large helicopter, which lowered a frogman to the deck, where he would ride back up with one person at a time. A smaller helicopter rescued the other half of the group. They would work with each other and also fit themselves into a yoke that they had to clamp firmly to their chests with their arms. The guests were also told to keep their arms close to their sides to protect themselves from snagging on the yacht’s equipment. The female guests were first, then the female crew. The male guests and some male crewmembers were then sent up.
The cargo ships and destroyer that had stood by all through the night were still in the area. The rescue lifeboat was almost at the site. Nadine was still afloat, but just barely. With the helicopter ship over at the horizon, there was a comforting continuous presence of one of the helicopters hovering right over them. The engines were still running and steerageway was still possible, with many jury-rigged stopgaps prepared in the lazarette. Mark, Justin, Bill Hudek and Patrick Manning were the only crew remaining on board.
Justin described the beautiful morning.
“The sun had come up -- and what a relief. If anything happened and we had to go into the water, we knew we would be found. By the light of the day, we could see that the weather was easing up. Mark was saying ‘I think we oughta try to keep going.’ The Rome Coast Guard was not so optimistic -- I guess they could see from their perspective how close she was to the edge of a death roll. They were saying to Mark, ‘You gotta get off the boat -- you gotta get off now!’ Mark was balking, ‘I think we can take it in, I think we can make it...’ As long as the engines were running, he wanted to keep going. I was fine with it, I felt comfortable. If he though we could get her fit for charters later, I would help. At night, with the same proposal, I would have wanted to get off, but now? With the sun shining? -- we had new reason to hope.”
Mark still felt he could bring her in.
“I knew Nadine was in peril but, well, I thought that it was not a realistic option to keep going. The storm had moderated, and what we were doing lifted our spirits considerably. Also, the engine room was in perfect condition; unless I actually shut down the machinery, the yacht would keep progressing at a sluggish two or three knots toward Sardinia as long as she stayed afloat. But it was risky to stay on board and possibly get trapped in a death roll. After debating with myself a while, I faced the fact that it would not be long before we lost her. I also knew that from the extent of damage to the yacht, the salvage repairs would have been so serious that it could take two or more years to do the work. In other words, it would be less costly just to start from scratch and build a new yacht.”
Justin was shaking his head in agreement.
“Mark came down to help Bill and me into the raft. Once we were safely loaded, Mark handed us a few bags or backpacks with everyone’s passports, the ship’s papers and log books. We were not allowed to take anything with us when we were being raised up in the helicopter. If a person tried to carry anything on, the pilot would wave them away. The raft was the only option for saving these items. With the rescue lifeboat now circling us, we knew we were safe if we could only float free and clear of Nadine. We almost had a problem with the transom coming down on us as we came around the stern, but then we were clear.”
With Justin and Bill safely away in the raft, Mark then had Patrick taken off by one of the helicopters. Mark stayed behind on Nadine and walked what was left of her sinking decks. Perhaps he was saying farewell to this yacht to which he had dedicated so many years of his life. His last official act on board was to go alone to the engine room and shut down all the machinery, which was also a request of the Coast Guard shore command. He climbed the decks to the sundeck and signaled to the helicopter to send down the cable hoist. The natural tendency is to look up to the rescuing craft, but Mark kept his eyes on the yacht that had played such a significant role in his life. What he saw with great sadness was the torn remains of a once proud queen of the sea.
Nadine sank below the waves just ten minutes after Mark was clear of her decks. Once the engines quieted, she swung abeam to the seas and was rolled onto her beam, where she filled quickly. Jim and Bill were aboard the rescue lifeboat and watched her go down. All hands and all passengers, safe after their ordeal, were being brought to Calle de Volpe for debriefing and a few days to rest. Strong friendships and lifelong bonds were forged on that stormy passage. All on board were thankful to Mark for bringing them out with no personal injuries and they unanimously praised his behavior during the crisis. He was truly heroic for his leadership and courage.
Shortly after Nadine went down, Mark was offered the command of Mr. Little’s next yacht, which was soon to be redesigned as the famous Starship. All but one of the crew rejoined him in this new venture, Mallory Weintraub having decided to leave the sea for good.
The insurance underwriter was quick to cover the loss without question.
The only floating remains of Nadine was the Intrepid tender that broke free before the height of the storm. It was salvaged without a scratch.
When asked about the sinking of Nadine Mark prefers to keep his serious feelings hidden, only saying lightly that his biggest regret was having to leave behind his beloved banjo.
Excerpt contributed by the authors of the book "Megayacht: True Stories of Adventure, Drama and Tragedy at Sea" by Doug Hoogs and Buddy Haack
ABOUT THE BOOK: "Megayacht: True Stories of Adventure, Drama and Tragedy at Sea" by Buddy Haack and Doug Hoogs, is an incredible ensemble of true stories of the crew and the captains of vessels at sea. This is a collection of ten short true tales, odd and infrequent cases where sometimes yachting dreams become nightmares, and others where a good plan comes together beautifully.