When the Pride of Baltimore Sank, Eight Sailors Got a Crash Course in Ocean Survival

updated 07/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On May 14 the Pride of Baltimore, a 136-foot handcrafted schooner that served as a goodwill ambassador for her namesake city, sank in a storm 240 miles north of Puerto Rico. Capt. Armin E. Elsaesser III and sailors Nina Schack, Vincent Lazzaro and Barry Duckworth drowned. The rest of the Pride's crew—John (Sugar) Flanagan, Joseph McGeady, Leslie McNish, Susan Huesman, Daniel Krachuk, James (Ches) Chesney, Robert Foster Jr. and Scott Jeffrey—drifted for four days on a leaky raft before being rescued by a Norwegian tanker. Jeffrey, 27, a native of Linthicum, Md., who had signed aboard the Pride in March, talked to correspondent Andrea Pawlyna about the tragedy.

May 14 started out as a really comfortable sailing day. I had the 3 to 7 dawn watch. The skies were gray, and there was a good breeze but no rain. I was in bed asleep when the "all hands" call came at 11 a.m. It meant we all had to go up on deck with our harnesses on. Each harness had a six-foot-long tether with a clip on the end that could be attached to the boat to prevent you from falling overboard.

On deck I took my position on the starboard side at midship. Squalls were appearing on the horizon, so we shortened sail and for the first half hour everything was under control. Then I heard this tremendous whistling in the rigging. The boat started to lean over, but nobody panicked. The Pride was a wet boat, and you got used to her taking heavy rolls.

Suddenly the wind jumped to 70 mph or more, and the boat heeled way over. I assumed she was going to come back up, but after 15 seconds I realized that wasn't going to happen. Joe began running along the deck cutting everyone loose from their harnesses. Water started to work its way up the deck, and soon the boat was lying sideways in the water.

All of a sudden the boat rolled over. The next thing I knew, I was underwater. I saw Susie next to me. I reached down, grabbed her and gave her a yank to bring her up to the surface. Once I surfaced I knew I wasn't going to die. I just knew it wasn't my time. As I reached the surface, I saw the Pride go down. It took only 60 seconds. As she went she righted herself and sank with her sails up and her flags fluttering.

At first there were nine of us scattered in the water—everyone was accounted for except Nina, Barry and Vinnie. We saw two life rafts floating about 50 feet away. One was partially inflated, and the other was just a blob of rubber. We swam for them, but Armin started swimming in the other direction. He must have seen someone. We shouted for him, but he didn't hear. We never saw him again.

The squall was over in about 10 minutes. We all had reached the rafts when we saw Nina floating face down. Everybody was wearing foul-weather gear except Ches. He was wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. So he took Nina's gear and put it on. In the end, it helped save him from exposure and may have saved his life. We never saw Vinnie after the ship sank, but an hour later we saw Barry floating on his back. He had swallowed a lot of water and his stomach was distended. He didn't like to swim, and we could tell he was exhausted. We grabbed him and held on to him for about an hour and a half. But there came a point when the life just went out of his eyes, and he died, and we had to let him go.

For the first couple of hours, we tied the two rafts together and just hung on to the sides. We were trying to inflate them but we couldn't figure out why they weren't working. We tried hooking up a hand pump, but that proved useless. Then Sugar tried blowing one up. It was a superhuman effort but the raft still wouldn't inflate. Then we realized that it was torn. Ches went to the other raft and started blowing it up. It was a little victory as we saw it start to take shape. It was about dusk when we all got into the raft. We had been in the ocean treading water for about six hours.

I don't remember much of that first night. I just collapsed out of exhaustion. If we had to go to the bathroom, we pretty much went in our pants. The next morning we were sitting in our own urine and waste. We used saltwater to clean out the raft and decided that from then on we would go to the bathroom in a can. There was no place for modesty. Nobody was embarrassed. You just didn't have a choice.

Some debris from the Pride was floating in the water. We grabbed whatever passed by—a water jug, biscuits, flares, an emergency kit—and from that we organized rations for 10 days, although we didn't expect to be in the raft that long. We decided not to eat or drink for the first 24 hours to let our bodies shut down so that we wouldn't feel so hungry. When we did eat, we each had half a biscuit and one and a half ounces of canned water a day.

On the second day or third I grabbed seaweed from the water, and we ate that. It played havoc with our stomachs, but it was a psychological boost. You were putting something in your mouth. We tried fishing. We thought that we could have raw fish, seaweed, water and biscuits. Boy would that be dining. But we had no weights, so our hooks just floated on the surface. And we were also scared of puncturing the raft.

One day we caught rainwater by making channels out of the flaps on the raft. Each of us had a cup of water that day—a real treat. There was always seawater in the raft. It had a pinhole or seam slit in it, and we had to bail it out every few hours. I was never dry. Nobody was. Sugar sat in water for 4½ days. He couldn't move from his spot because at 220 lbs., he was our ballast, but that also meant that the water always gathered where he sat. The raft was just five feet square and was meant to hold only six people. You stayed in one spot until it was so painful that you had to say, "Hey guys, I'm sorry, but I'm gonna move." If you wanted to stretch your leg, you had to get it out from under seven other people.

To distract ourselves we sang songs. The first one we picked was Don McLean's American Pie, but when we got to the part that goes, "This'll be the day that I die," we thought, well, that's not too appropriate. Then we tried Yesterday, but when we got to the part about troubles being "here to stay," we stopped that, too. Somewhere along the line we sang Puff, the Magic Dragon. That was a nice, safe song. We could all deal with Puff.

Everybody was grumpy. You reached a point where you were so frustrated that you broke. You cried. It happened to all of us at different times, but when it did, you had seven other people there to put their arms around you and tell you it was going to be okay. Generally we talked a lot, but there were other times when we were in our own worlds. I thought about my family and getting home. I spent a lot of time thinking about what happened on the ship, about the people I had worked with.

I was too scared to sleep at night. It was pitch black. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face. And it was cold. The temperature dropped into the 60s at night. I remember sitting with Joe on the low side and his teeth were chattering. Another night Ches was hallucinating and got up to take a walk. We had to physically restrain him. We all breathed a sigh of relief when morning came.

We hadn't had a chance to send a distress signal before the Pride went down. No one knew where we were. We knew that we were in shipping lanes and that ships would be passing by. On the first morning, we saw a cruise ship, and we fired our remaining flares, but she just kept going. After that we saw at least one ship a day, and each time our hopes would rise. We'd stand up and wave our yellow foul-weather gear, but no one saw us.

The night we were rescued we had a feeling that this was going to be it. We were just so tired of that damn raft. It was about 11 p.m. when Leslie told Sugar and Robert that she saw a boat on the horizon. I was in a sleepy daze, but I heard them say that it was too far away for us to signal. Leslie stood up, and with two flashlights she started signaling an SOS. At first the boat went right by us, but then it turned around. They hit us with their spotlight, and we saw this tanker sitting there, just a huge wall of steel. We were all excited, but we remained pretty controlled. We didn't want to be so close to being rescued and then do something stupid like capsize.

When we got on board, our legs were so wobbly that the crew had to hold onto us. The Norwegians were incredible. They gave us orange juice, coffee and tea, whole wheat bread and crackers. We pigged out. They also gave us ointment for our skin. A lot of us had developed rashes and boils from sitting in saltwater, and we smelled really bad. As the ranking officer, it was Sugar's job to call the Coast Guard to tell them about the sinking. They launched an air and sea search but no bodies were ever found.

The whole ordeal has made me look at things a little differently. I don't worry so much about the bills or the car insurance. It wasn't a good experience. I lost four friends. I feel a sense of loss, of course, but I don't like to dwell on it. Things could have been a lot worse. The raft leaked, but at least we had a raft. The biggest thing that came out of this, though, was the beauty of the human spirit. There were so many little acts of heroism. If somebody lost a piece of biscuit, seven other people gave parts of theirs. If you were cold or crying, someone would put their arms around you. I have seven friends who saved my life, and we'll always be tied together.

I was supposed to be on the Pride for nine months. Then I was going to decide whether to pursue sailing seriously or get out. For obvious reasons, it's just not something I want to do now. I can go back on a boat without any problem, but the desire to making sailing my life—it's just gone.

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