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OCC Sailors Finally Hit Land

Rescue: Arriving in Panama after fleeing their sailboat at sea, their first thought is of pizza.

August 03, 2001|BERTA THAYER and JEFF GOTTLIEB | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BALBOA, Panama — After landing in Panama late Thursday, the Orange Coast College students who had abandoned their disabled 66-foot sailboat wanted to know one thing: Was there a Pizza Hut in town?

Looking calm and relaxed, Robert Pelletier of Newport Beach; Ryan Pauley of Tustin; Jason Boyer and Lyle Carlson of Huntington Beach; and Kevin Ramlo of Orange said the past two days on the German cargo ship that picked them up was like a vacation, with good meals and little to do.

The 635-foot Seurat rescued the sailors after the 80-foot main mast of the Bonaire, the ketch on which they were sailing from Hawaii to Newport Beach, dislodged at the keel, disabling the boat.

Boyer said he had just started his watch when he heard a terrific noise and saw the masthead drop.

Pauley had gotten off watch about 20 minutes earlier and was below deck trying to sleep. "I heard a noise like something breaking," he said. "Then I heard a yell, 'All hands on deck.' "

The boat drifted for two days while the captain and the first mates tried to sail it. On July 23 they called for help.

Carlson said the radio was not powerful enough to broadcast far but was able to reach another yacht, the Taxi Dancer, which had a satellite phone. The crew of the Taxi Dancer relayed their distress signal.

First a tug, the Navajo, tried to rescue them, but the water was too choppy. A mate from the Navajo leaned over to pull the boats together and came close to being seriously injured, Carlson said.

According to the Seurat's log, it received the distress signal from the Coast Guard in Honolulu at midnight July 24. It picked up the Orange Coast group at 8 p.m.

The giant cargo ship lowered a Jacob's ladder made of rope, and the members of the Bonaire scrambled up.

Pelletier was the only student who had paid for the trip. The others were on scholarship.

None of the students seemed shaken by the experience. "I had fun throughout," Ramlo said.

Said Boyer, 18, the youngest member of the crew: "It was fun, exciting. There's nothing like a new experience."

A Japanese auto carrier picked up Capt. Marcus Mackenzie of Newport Beach and first mate Robert White of Costa Mesa. They are expected in Panama in a couple of days.

Armando Eason, the other first mate, arrived late Thursday with the students. He said the Bonaire's mast was supposed to be held up by a metal plate in the bowels of the ship. The plate moved, and the mast was no longer erect, he said. The boat began leaking, but the crew could not figure out where the water was coming from.

Despite not having passports, the students and Eason made it through Panamanian customs with no problems. The boarding officer for the French Shipping Agency, Ismael Guadalupe, met them at customs and took them in an SUV to Panama City.

They leave today by plane to Miami and then to Los Angeles.

Carlson, who was on watch when the mast slipped, called it "a bad-break accident."

Asked if he would head back out for an ocean voyage, he replied, "I think I'm just going to stay close to shore."

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