Terror at Sea
02/19/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
ON MAY 2, 1961, THE 92-FOOT BRIGANTINE Albatross was seven months out of Bermuda on its maiden voyage as a floating classroom for 14 high school boys from across the U.S. and Canada who had signed up to spend eight months at sea. The students had learned not just English and math but also the ways of the ocean. On their journey, which had taken them through the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, they had become adept at hoisting a sail and navigating by the stars.
But at about 8:30 that morning, in the Gulf of Mexico, the Albatross was rocked by turbulent water and flipped over by a rare, violent burst of wind known as a white squall. By the time the skipper, Christopher Sheldon, then 34, had gathered the 12 survivors—including two teachers—on two lifeboats, the Albatross had gone to the bottom. Gone, too, was Sheldon's wife, Alice, the ship's cook and four of the student sailors. The survivors were picked up by a passing Dutch freighter a day later.
For a brief period after their rescue, the survivors were celebrities. They were met by reporters upon their arrival in Tampa, and their adventure was featured in LIFE magazine. A year later, crew member Chuck Gieg, then 18, wrote a book about the experience, The Last Voyage of the Albatross. By that time the survivors had gone their separate ways. For the most part, they didn't speak to each other for 35 years—until Disney turned the incident into a movie. White Squall, starring Jeff Bridges, Scott Wolf and Balthazar Getty, opened Feb. 2, and though it takes liberties with their story, it has forced several of the survivors to re-examine the events of that day and their impact.
Today, Sheldon, 69, played in the film by Bridges, lives in Norwalk, Conn., where he runs a small mail-order skin-cream company out of his home. He has never remarried and has spent much of his life, he says, "blocking out everything about the ship," and trying to overcome the pain.
Sheldon, who had previously sailed around the world, wanted to run a school aboard the Albatross, he says, because "I had a romantic attachment to the sea, and I wanted to transfer that to the students." The boys were ready pupils. "It was every fantasy I could think of," says Gieg, who is played in the movie by Wolf. "Like jumping into a pirate movie." Tod Johnstone, who, like Gieg, lived in Connecticut, and is portrayed by Getty, says that he was having family trouble and thought "this would give me a feeling of self-worth." For a time the journey was everything the boys wanted it to be. "We made relationships," Gieg says, "that take years under normal circumstances."
Then the squall struck. "It was as if a giant hand took hold of us," says Sheldon. "In 15 seconds the Albatross was on its side. In 60 seconds it filled with water. And then it was gone—the ocean was calm." He tried to save his wife, last seen in the navigation room. "But the water pressure made it impossible to open the door," he says. "Next thing I knew, I was swimming."
Once in the lifeboat, the boys searched for their lost friends. "At first, I thought, 'Well, they're around, I'm just not seeing them,' " says Gieg. "Then you begin to realize they're not going to be there." For two hours they waited, until Sheldon decided it was time to move toward shore. "You had to deal with the living at the time," he says.
After the freighter Grand Rio plucked them from the water, Sheldon says, "I let myself go. I just collapsed. The responsibility was gone." But the disaster continued to haunt them all. "I was really angry at my friends who died and left me," says Gieg. "So I shut down. My family was supportive, but I wasn't letting people in." He spent years moving around the country until, "to shake myself up," he enlisted as a Marine and worked as a combat correspondent in Vietnam. Doing his best to escape too, Sheldon soon signed on for four years as the first director of the Peace Corps in Colombia. "I wanted to get [the sinking] out of my mind," he says. "But it stays with you."
Seeing the film made after all these years has helped the survivors, they say. Oddly, what has been especially helpful, says Gieg—who, along with Sheldon, served as a consultant on the film—is its highly fictionalized final scene, in which Bridges, as the skipper, is accused of negligence at a Coast Guard tribunal until his students rally around him. In reality, says Gieg, the hearing was strictly routine. "This was a natural power that came down on us. Nothing could have made any difference. But watching the tribunal kind of vomits everything out again and allows us to air it and complete things."
Today, Gieg, who has never married, has learned to be content with his solitary life as a business consultant on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket. Living near the sea, he says, "I love waking up in the morning. I can't wait to get up and get started." Sheldon, too, has found some peace. Being involved with White Squall, he says, "has been therapeutic. It gets me out and talking about it."
To Johnstone, however, now an artist in Stonington, Conn., the skipper's immediate desire to put the episode behind him left him wounded. "The real tragedy," he says, "is that none of us have talked to each other since '61. Skipper was like my surrogate father. I felt hurt for years that he never followed up to find out where we were."
But even that resentment is fading. Nine years ago, Johnstone took his wife on a cruise that crossed the site of the squall. As the cruise ship passed over the approximate spot where his crew-mates had died, Johnstone tossed a wreath off the deck. Looking over the rail, he says, he realized how proud he was of the voyage he had made on the Albatross. "The world was our classroom, and it was the best classroom I've ever been in," he says. "It was where Tod Johnstone started to come alive."
STEPHEN SAWICKI in Nantucket, Norwalk and Stonington