Oct. 27/21: Inevitably, I suppose, I’ve been driven to dive deeper into the question of what happened to my old Ruta de Morgan skipper, the inestimable Eric Thiriez, on his last voyage in 2017. I have been in touch with some of my contacts in Cartagena, Colombia, Eric’s homeport, from which he set out for the last time on April 7 of that year. I have interviewed at some length one survivor of the disaster. I have now a much better sense of the circumstances in which Eric lost his life, but still there are unanswered questions.
In that this is the story of a boat that suffered some sort of massive failure and sank, the first question is: what sort of boat was it???
I found this photo on the MarineTraffic site and have concluded Saquerlotte was most probably an older Alubat Cigale 16, of turn-of-the-millenium vintage. Aluminum construction, some 53 feet in length. Eric purchased this boat secondhand in France some six years before his death and subsequently sailed her back across the Atlantic. According to Lee Miles, an American expatriate in Cartagena who knew Eric well, he ranged far and wide on her. Cruised her far out into the Pacific as far as Tahiti, then returned via the southern tip of South America, bringing her ultimately all the way back up the east coast of the continent to Cartagena.
Unlike Alubat’s more popular Ovni line, which sport centerboards and short rigs, the Cigales have deep fixed keels, tall rigs, and are much more performance oriented. Eric being Eric, a very successful engineer who was always full of ideas, he couldn’t leave well enough alone. According to Lee, he pulled the boat into the workshop of his company Etec and replaced the fixed keel with a retractable one. A very major modification.
In the spring of 2017 Eric was preparing to sail Saquerlotte from Cartagena back to Europe and planned to cruise the West Indies a bit en route. He had lined up a crew of three to join him: Francisco José Aldana, who had often sailed with Eric and helped him find the boat in the first place; another experienced sailor named Frank Camacho; and Eric’s faithful mate Luis Miguel Herrara, known as Lucho, who had helped sail the boat around South America. At the last minute Francisco had to drop out and was replaced by Roberto Reyes, who had some limited experience with boats, and very little sailing experience.
I spoke with Roberto at some length earlier this year. He remembers that Saquerlotte and crew departed Cartagena around 0900 or 1000 hours the morning of April 7. Conditions were ideal and the boat was soon sailing fast toward the north. According to published reports, they were bound for the Dominican Republic. But according to Roberto, Eric had decided they should aim for Jamaica instead.
Just a couple of hours into the passage, around noon, there was a large sound under the boat, as though something had struck the hull.
“We all looked at each other, and nothing happened,” Roberto recalled. “We just kept going. We didn’t see that anything was broken. Nothing. Just that big sound. At that moment nobody paid too much attention to it.”
Later that afternoon there was some sort of problem with a headsail and when Frank and Lucho went below to get geared up to go forward and deal with it they found a small amount of water pooled up in the galley on the lee side of the cabin. No one thought much of this at the time. A couple of hours later though, after the headsail problem was finally resolved, Frank went below to fetch a beer and found the water had risen to knee level.
By now it was after dark. The crew continued sailing north as they searched frantically for the source of the leak.
“Eric was a little worried, but in control” Roberto recalled. “Just find the hole. Find the hole. That’s what he was saying every five minutes. We need to find the hole. So we went for another 45 minutes to an hour. And nothing happened. Frank came out of there all wet, and he told Eric up front: Hey, we need to turn around. We need to head towards shore. And Eric agreed.”
But as soon as the crew tacked over and headed back south, there was another loud noise under the boat. And very soon the water belowdeck went from knee-level to chest-level.
This was around 2030 or 2100 hours, according to Roberto. From this point forward the focus was mostly on preparing to abandon the boat. Roberto remembers Frank made a Mayday call on the radio and got responses from two ships. Then “all the electricity on the boat exploded. It just went BOOM! And everything turned dark. Everything went off. In that moment we got scared, all of us.”
What is very unclear is what the situation with the liferaft was. What Roberto remembers is there was a big struggle aft trying to get the dinghy untied. What Lee Miles heard later from Frank was that Frank was forward trying to free the liferaft when the boat sank out from under him.
Roberto remembers jumping into the water from the cockpit and seeing Eric trying to jump clear behind him.
“That thing went down like a rocket,” he told me. “And in that exact moment Eric went with the boat. I could see the boat going down, Eric next to it. And because of the light he had on his chest, I could see his face looking up to the surface, looking at me. And he completely disappeared in the bottom of the sea. His light disappeared into the darkness. At that moment, as I was watching him die, something grabbed my back-pack and pulled me down too. I was pulled with this force I had never felt before. And I thought: Oh my God, now it’s me. Now it’s my turn. But something happened, and my back-pack broke. And I came out again from the water.”
Fortunately, the crew had managed to make a sat-phone call to a family member on shore with an accurate GPS position. And the three survivors had managed to grab life-jackets before they all ended up in the water with no raft or dinghy to sustain them. The immediate crisis after the boat sank , according to Roberto, was that Lucho, who didn’t know how to swim, started to panic. But Frank and Roberto managed to calm him down, and the three men clung to each other, in rising wind and waves, all through the night and into the following morning.
At about 1110 hours on April 8, the Colombian navy frigate ARC Caldas, with the help of American DEA search planes, located and recovered the three survivors some 45 miles north of Punta Canoas, between Cartagena and Baranquilla.
The survivors in the water, as seen from deck of ARC Caldas
Boarding the ship
Safely on deck, from left to right: Frank, Lucho, Roberto
Lee Miles believes that Eric’s modification of Saquerlotte’s keel may be what caused her to sink. To me this seems highly likely. Roberto’s report of two large noises low in the boat, one on each tack, seems indicative of a keel failing as it was stressed first from one side then the other. And this was a hugely ambitious modification. Indeed, I’ve never heard of anyone trying to do such a thing before. Building a case for a retractable keel into an existing hull, making major structural welds, wedding new metal onto old, must present all sorts of challenges.
Lee also believes, and Roberto seconded this, that Eric’s age and increasing lack of mobility may also have contributed to his inability to get away safely from his sinking boat.
It is tempting to say something trite about all this, that an old sailor like Eric would appreciate going out this way, doing what he loved, going down with his ship. But for those of us who appreciated Eric, his family especially, it is no consolation.