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Boats race to save stranded O.C. sailor

Two months into his globe-girding solo voyage, Ken Barnes drifts far off Chile in a storm-wrecked sailboat.

January 04, 2007|Dave McKibben and Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writers

Ken Barnes Jr. put everything he had into his dream.

The 47-year-old Newport Beach man sold his house and his swimming pool maintenance business and poured the proceeds into buying and equipping a 44-foot sailboat, dubbed Privateer, for a solo trip around the world.

Barnes sailed out of Long Beach on Oct. 28, but on Wednesday was the subject of an intense search-and-rescue effort off the coast of Chile. Heavy storms near Cape Horn on the tip of South America crippled his boat. A Chilean naval ship and several civilian vessels were homing in on Barnes' satellite distress signal. A commercial fishing boat is expected to be the first to reach the vessel about 6 p.m. today Pacific time, authorities said.

"The report is that his sailboat is de-masted and he has no power," said Petty Officer Prentice Danner of the U.S. Coast Guard, which is coordinating with the Chilean navy on the rescue operation.

A Chilean aircraft spotted Barnes about 5 p.m. Wednesday. He was on deck, waving to the plane overhead. The visibility in the southern hemisphere's summer night sky was reported to be clear, with 20-knot winds and 18-foot seas, and weather conditions improving.

Coast Guard officials and Barnes' friends in Newport Beach said his life is not in immediate danger because his boat is still afloat, he's in phone contact and appears to have enough supplies and food.

Barnes called a friend at 5:30 p.m. to say he was all right but had suffered a gouge to a leg. He joked to his 21-year-old daughter, Teryn, asking if she had sold his belongings yet.

At the Newport Beach condominium that Barnes shares with girlfriend Cathy Chambers, his family, friends and two ex-wives hugged and cheered at the news of his sighting.

"Praise God," Chambers said, with tears in her eyes. "I feel like our prayers are being answered."

The plane was supposed to drop a survival package, including radio equipment and an inflatable lifeboat. But Barnes phoned home later on the dwindling batteries of his satellite phone to tell them he didn't get the equipment. Barnes had equipped Privateer with a survival suit and life raft.

"The good news is that he was standing and waving -- that's huge," said longtime friend Ron Vangell. "But he's probably in for another 24 hours of this, at least."

A second rescue plane is expected to attempt another drop this morning.

Barnes turned on his emergency satellite beacon Tuesday afternoon, indicating his position at about 500 miles west of Chile's coast.

One of the civilian sailors heading toward Barnes is Donna Lange, based in the Virgin Islands and also on a solo voyage around the world. Aboard her boat, Inspired Insanity, Lange said she was 150 nautical miles due west and several days from Barnes. The wind had calmed from 50 knots to 20 knots, she said, and radio chatter indicated that several boats searching for Barnes were nearing his location -- but a "very large-looking [storm] system" was looming.

What gives her hope, Lange said, was that "a boat doesn't sink unless it's got holes in it, and his boat doesn't have holes in it."

Barnes called Chambers early Wednesday on his satellite phone. He told her that the boat's two masts had broken off, that the electrical system and engine were down, and that the vessel was taking on water.

Her bloodshot, dark-rimmed eyes testified to a sleepless night spent waiting for Barnes to check in and coordinating with the Chilean navy.

"I didn't want him to go," she said. "But he has had this dream for 15 years."

Barnes, who has been keeping his satellite phone turned off to preserve power, called Chambers again about 12:45 p.m.

"Keep warm. Drink water," she told him. "Eat as much food as you can." He told his family he was surviving on Pop-Tarts and granola bars. He has more food but can't get to it.

Barnes told Chambers that Privateer wasn't sinking, but that he knew he was going to lose it.

"I don't care about the boat. I care about you. Leave the boat," she replied.

She then called the Chilean navy captain in charge of the rescue and told him Barnes was safe but increasingly frantic. "He's fine physically, but mentally distraught," she told him. "He hasn't been eating."

"Clearly he's sleep-deprived," Vangell added. "He's physically and mentally drained, and he doesn't want to lose his boat."

Vangell, who runs a website (www.kensolo.com) detailing Barnes' journey, said his friend had a lifelong passion for the sea.

"His love is anything involving the ocean: surfing, sailing, even swimming pools. He's a water guy," Vangell said.

Barnes' father, Ken Barnes, said his son grew up on the water in Long Beach and started sailing at age 10.

"He's always been a water rat," the father said. "He's gone surfing on Christmas morning for the last 35 years."

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