Island man rescued at sea during sailing journey

Captain of boat drowns in Atlantic Ocean.

Balthasar Wyss experiences a gamut of emotions when he describes what occurred during his recent sailing trip with two other men across the Atlantic Ocean, commencing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with a planned destination point of Cape Town, South Africa.

With ultra-experienced Swiss captain Benno Frey leading the way in his Nina Pope 54-foot performance sailboat, Mercer Islander and Swiss-born Wyss was joined by fellow crewmate Marcelo Osanai of Brazil on the journey that was mapped at 3,600 miles.

The three sailors met through a website that connects captains with crew members, and they spent a few days together in Rio before setting sail on the vast Atlantic on Feb. 27. Within the early part of the scheduled four-week excursion, the trio sailed through severe and calm weather, swam in the ocean and caught fish and ate sushi on the boat.

After spending a couple of hours on the small, friendly island of Tristan Da Cunha (population 80) on March 12 to replenish their yacht with food and diesel, they learned of an oncoming storm and departed the island because its harbor is unprotected.

The trip would soon reach a harrowing turning point.

While the crew battled 26-foot-high waves and immense 40-plus-knot winds along its route a day later, Wyss, 58, said, “It was just mayhem.” He noted that the sailboat is built to easily handle such a storm.

The Nina Pope, however, couldn’t steer clear of what was floating in the Atlantic.

“There’s a lot of debris in the ocean. In that storm, we got hit by a big object. I didn’t see it myself, but my colleague said it was a big buoy,” said Wyss, adding that a large rope tied to the buoy became tangled with the front of their boat and ripped down the front rail. Water filled the boat and they tried to remedy the problem with a bilge pump, to no avail.

“At some point, we realized that we’re probably gonna sink,” Wyss said. They then issued a global SOS over a satellite communicator and five different coast guard agencies — from the United States to South Africa — began coordinating the rescue operation. The SOS also triggered emails to Wyss’s wife, Stephanie, back on Mercer Island and his sailing friends in Seattle.

After they readied a life raft, Wyss and Osanai, 38, clipped themselves onto the rail of the boat’s platform as captain Frey pulled the raft toward the boat so his mates could jump into the vessel after unclipping themselves.

It was the last image that Wyss has of Frey, 72, who drowned with the sinking Nina Pope.

Wyss leapt into the life raft first, was pummeled by a huge wave and fell into the ocean.

“And only because of Marcelo, who pulled me in, I’m alive today. Then I jumped back into the life raft, and then the sailboat sunk super quickly, and the captain simply couldn’t unclip himself in time and he was pulled down. It’s that bad,” Wyss said.

At this point, they were situated about 140 miles from Tristan da Cunha and 1,450 miles from Cape Town.

For the next five and a half hours, Wyss and Osanai drifted 18 miles from the coordinates relayed in the SOS, hoping that the alerted Front Pollux crude oil tanker would locate them. The sailors were thankful that the captain diverted his tanker and engaged in his search.

“It was total luck, otherwise we would have died right there,” said Wyss, who added that the wise tanker captain factored in the current and winds to pinpoint their location on March 14 amid the chaos that the sea unleashed during those days. The Pollux picked up a signal from Wyss’s satellite device and on radar as crewmembers scanned the ocean for the small life boat.

Regarding the critical daytime rescue, Wyss said: “Finally, we heard the horn and there was this massive ship, and then it took about 30 minutes to get us on board.” While the storm persisted, the crew hoisted the duo up a 60-foot steel wall on climbing lines.

Wyss and Osanai were fed, freshly clothed and given a cabin for the next four days until they reached Cape Town and met with the United States, Swiss and Brazilian consuls to help the uninjured men enter the country after all their personal belongings were lost at sea. Wyss and a crew member celebrated their birthdays while stationed on the oil tanker.

While floating in the life raft sans food and water, Wyss said he thought of his wife, three boys and other loved ones while he and Osanai were engaged in problem-solving and survival mode.

“I’m surprised how calm I was. There was massive storm,” said Wyss, adding that they received a crucial message on their device to keep them going. “At one point, that person sent us a brief text and said, ‘How are you guys doing?’ That is amazing when you think (you could) die — that you know there are people out there who care for you.”

Thinking back on his time with Frey, Wyss said the captain was a true leader and ace repairman who had 40 years of sailing experience under his belt. He was a fantastic person, the Islander added.

“Obviously it was tragic, but I also want to make clear that I really got to see the best of humanity. So this weirdly enough, something very positive in all of this. I would not be alive if complete stranger wouldn’t have come to the rescue. Or the captain of the sailboat, if he wouldn’t have given his life for the crew members,” said Wyss, who has lived on the Island for the last 12 years.

Wyss, who returned to the Island on March 21, formerly worked in the software industry and took a sabbatical to go on the sailing trip.

He and wife Stephanie, who is the registrar of the Mercer Island FC soccer club, are thankful for the community support during this trying time.

“The Mercer Island community was unbelievable. They brought food to my wife and my kids and there was a massive organization on the Island who helped,” said Balthasar, who has sailed for 15-plus years. “(Stephanie) was a rock star because she had to coordinate a lot of things from here.”

Added Stephanie, who was hosting a soccer team dinner when she received an SOS text message while her husband was safe on the tanker: “I already have a very strong circle of friends, but when something goes bad on the Island, people really rally.”

Stephanie, who received an intense phone call from Balthasar on the tanker following the SOS issuance, said that her husband has been composed since he returned. She, too, becomes emotional when imagining what he experienced at sea.

Balthasar doesn’t know at this point if there’s any sailing in his future. Spending time with family and friends are of utmost importance.

“I want to move on with my life and enjoy life,” he said. “I’ve gotten another shot at life if you think about it.”

In Tristan Da Cunha, from left, Balthasar Wyss, Marcelo Osanai and Nina Pope sailboat captain Benno Frey. Courtesy photo

In Tristan Da Cunha, from left, Balthasar Wyss, Marcelo Osanai and Nina Pope sailboat captain Benno Frey. Courtesy photo

From left, Balthasar Wyss with Captain Ravi (Ravichandra Vijayshankar Yadav) of the Front Pollux oil tanker and crewmate Marcelo Osanai. Photo courtesy of the Front Pollux crew

From left, Balthasar Wyss with Captain Ravi (Ravichandra Vijayshankar Yadav) of the Front Pollux oil tanker and crewmate Marcelo Osanai. Photo courtesy of the Front Pollux crew

Balthasar Wyss on board the Nina Pope sailboat. Courtesy photo

Balthasar Wyss on board the Nina Pope sailboat. Courtesy photo