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"Nowhere to Run"

A Donzi 65 takes on a 110-mph hurricane 300 miles offshore, and wins... And then loses.
Story by John Clemans

"If I got greedy and put it up to 900 rpm we'd slam off the last wave and get creamed by the next one. The banging was so violent I had big bruises on the backs of my legs. Every third wave I was taking green water on the bridge. Then it got worse. By nine o'clock the bridge had been flooded so often that the laser plotter shortened out and the electrical panel next to me caught fire. Flames were on my left and green water was washing over me as I held onto the wheel with both hands. 'Wait a minute,' I said, there's something wrong with this picture."

- Bill Holekamp


We're besieged by pictures. They inform our sense of the world and of ourselves. They let us relive past pleasures and pain ... and that of others. When Hurricane Andrew hit the Atlantic coast in August it was pictured on TV. We saw its bow-trees swaying, homes being secured; and we saw its wake-trees gone, homes gutted. But the middle was curiously missing.

When Hurricane Darby hit Oasis in the Pacific in July, it too was recorded on video, and the footage is much the same. There's a tape of it- but the middle is missing. The tape shows men fishing. It begins in Manzanillo on Mexico's west coast. Oasis sits majestically at Las Hadas, perennial hangout of The Rich and the Famous. The men sit around a table. They smugly exult in the good times they're having. The date on the screen is July 1.

There's a beautiful girl on the beach. There are scenes of preparation: filling bladder tanks; loading a Whaler and two jet skis on the bow. Then there's a sunset, and islands in the distance, followed by fishing. There are sailfish, there are wahoo, there are tuna. There's blue water and blue sky. The date is July 3.

Watching the men fishing and having fun on TV with the knowledge of what is to come provides an eerie echo of the hidden backbeat of life- how we all get up in the morning oblivious to impeding catastrophe. The fishing footage is extraordinary. Billfish leap all over the place. A blue marlin thrashes wildly across the transom knocking the top of the fish door open. Sailfish are tagged, tuna are taken. More tags and toasts and arms draped around the shoulders in group shots of glory. The boat looks strong and handsome. The date is July 4.

Suddenly the screen is gray: The sky is light gray. And it's rough. The men are inside, sprawled on the settee, smiling but not happy. The picture bounces. A shot from the cockpit shows the wake being devoured by the seething sea before it can even begin to form. Then the only outside view is from inside. The gray shape of an island is barely visible through rattling Levolor blinds, a spray-splattered window and airborne water. The men are in life jackets. Huge waves wash past. One wave is bigger than the rest. It explodes against the glass.

"What was that?" someone asks. The camera records upside down. It captures overturned chairs. The next shot is of bananas being loaded on a freighter at night. The lights above the vast covered berth are a frigid shade of green. "That first wave knocked us down," says Bill Holekamp, "The second one knocked us out..."

The second wave came eight hours after the first. Between them is an eternity of "adventure" unrecorded by the camera that is every boater's worst nightmare. Bill Holekamp ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time and had to take his boat through a 110-mph hurricane. His boat, Oasis, was new- a 65-foot Donzi sportfisherman that he had only fished aboard for seven days during the delivery trip it was on from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Holekamp's home on Naples Bay near Long Beach, California. With him were four friends. Also aboard were a captain and a mate. Their route from Manzanillo to Cabo San Lucas, at the tip of Baja California, included the Revillagigedo Islands, a 50-mile-long chain 300 miles offshore, where the fishing is phenomenal.

When Oasis left its anchorage off San Benedicto, the northernmost island, at dawn on July 5, bound for Cabo San Lucas, the sea was rough. Yet Holekamp continued on. His most recent weather update, relayed by a boat in Cabo from a weather fax, indicated a storm 400 miles to the south moving north at 10 mph.

The Right Boat

Why worry? At the Donzi 65's cruising speed of 30 knots, even in six-foot seas, Oasis did not seem at risk. One of the reasons Holekamp had decided to buy a Donzi Z-65 was the boat's strength. Bob Roscioli, who builds the 65 (as well as the Donzi 54 and brand-new Donzi 72) believes in over-building it. If Holekamp were to be caught 300 miles offshore in a major storm, at least he had faith he was on the right boat. He also had faith in the weather info he'd received the night before, but that turned out to be a big mistake.

"Don't rely on a weather fax when it comes to hurricanes," advises Holekamp, "Weather faxes can be six hours old, and hurricanes can change speed in a hurry."

Hurricane Darby swept up the Mexican coast and veered out to sea in a path that took it directly over the Revillagigedo Islands. With the wind and seas building as Oasis slogged on toward Cabo San Lucas, Holekamp began to have misgivings. He called his contacts in Cabo for a weather update, and learned that the storm to the south had become a hurricane with sustained winds of 90-100 knots, and that its speed was 19-20 mph, rather than 10 mph as the last report had indicated. He was 30 miles north of San Benedicto in 15-foot seas and was making only 10 knots.

What to do? Keep running north in hopes that Darby would turn westward (as such storms normally do) and that Oasis would escape the worst of the storm's northern edge? Or turn back and hope that the Revillagigedos could offer some protection? "It was an interesting call," says Holekamp, "If we had kept going and the storm had kept heading north, it would have hit us full force about 100 miles off the middle of nowhere." He decided to turn back, even though it meant heading directly into the hurricane: "We figured it was going to catch us one way or the other, so we decided to go for the protection- the lee of San Benedicto." Except there was no lee...

Diving Masks to See

Oasis reversed course about 11 a.m. The seas were approaching 20 feet, and the wind drove the spray so fiercely and unrelentingly that diving masks were needed on the bridge. The hoped-for relief from eight-mile-long San Benedicto was nonexistent. The south end of the island, which seemed to offer slightly calmer conditions from afar, turned out to be even more hellacious than the north end, and "inshore" was unapproachable because of the confusion of the waves and currents and the risk of losing power and being washed against the lava cliffs.

"The waves just seemed to sweep around the island from both directions," says Holekamp. They ventured around the island with large amounts of pumice blowing off the volcanic rock. "We had a gritty feeling between our teeth and in our noses," reports Hal Neibling, one of the four guests. San Benedicto has virtually no beach, and reaching the island by life raft seemed suicidal. The Donzi's bow was buried in oncoming waves, but the boat was holding it's own. The only feasible option was to wait out the storm in the west side of the island. Says Holekamp "We had plenty of fuel and we could trade watches and keep the engines running through the night. I think we would have been okay, except that at two in the afternoon a huge rogue wave came out of nowhere and just creamed us."

This was "the first wave," the wave that ended the onboard video. It engulfed Oasis as if she were a toy boat in a bathtub when a child suddenly stands up. The wave ripped up the Boston Whaler and the two jet skies off the bow and washed over the flying bridge. It killed the starboard engine and shorted out the electric throttle controls and most of the communications equipment. "It takes a lot to stop a diesel," muses Holekamp. "The impact alone wouldn't have done it. I don't know what did it, but in a single stroke we were down to one engine in forward idle, and we could no longer hold our position."

Dave Friedenberg, director of engineering at Florida Detroit Diesel-Allison, speculates that enough water came through the air vents to momentarily smother the starboard 16V-92TADDEC engine. Later, the starboard-side air vents were found to be missing.

A Wild Ride

With no throttle, no forward/reverse and only one engine, Oasis was off on a wild ride. There was nowhere to go but down sea and nothing to do but try to keep the boat from turning sideways. Waves bombarded the cockpit, washing gear overboard. And within no tome Oasis - surfing northwest at about 10 mph - was almost as far from San Benedicto as she'd been five hours earlier.

Darby had reached cruising altitude: Winds held at over 100 mph and seas assumed a baseline of 30 feet. "We feared for our lives, our boat and survival," is how Hal Neibling describes the prevailing mood on board. In retrospect, Holekamp considers the Donzi's performance extraordinary: "I was able to keep the boat pointed in the right direction at only 900 rpm. How many boats could have done that on one engine?" It was when the waves started filling the cockpit that tracking became more difficult. "The cockpit started taking waves that would have sunk most other boats. It was full to the brim three times," says Holekamp.

In an attempt to turn the bow into the waves, the sea anchor was deployed. It was about as effective as using an umbrella as a parachute. "Don't leave home on a boat this size without a 15 foot sea anchor with at least 300 feet of line," cautions Holekamp. We had a seven-footer. Captain Lance Ekberg, from Huntington Beach, Calif., and mate Jay Halford turned the helm over to Holekamp and headed to the engine room- their new home. While Holekamp, dreading the moment the steering system would lose the wrestling match he was having with the wheel, tried to keep Oasis from broaching using only the rudders, the crew attempted to revive the flattened propulsion system.

Just before dark-when things looked the bleakest, and Holekamp was lowering life raft canisters from the bridge and chucking $1,000 fishing rigs overboard because they were in the way- Eckberg and Halford were able to hot wire the starboard engine and reestablish forward throttle control, giving Oasis a fighting chance once again. But within the hour the starboard engine was back on the canvas. The boat was doomed to fight with one hand: port side power in forward gear.

Oasis responded surprisingly well to her new situation: Holekamp was able to turn the bow into the sea and inch back toward San Benedicto. At 875 rpm he could make one and a half knots. He could hold the semblance of a heading when he could read the compass through his dive mask. But it was hard to judge whether Oasis was winning or losing, especially from Holekamp's vantage point. The sea seemed vertical. Every third wave was washing over the bridge. And it was at about this time that a fire flared up to Holekamp's left from the short-circuited electrical panel.

Then, around 10 p.m., the second devastating wave hit Oasis. This one came from the side and shattered the salon starboard windows. "All of a sudden everyone in the salon was on the bridge saying, 'Bill, we're getting off now.' They were ready to bail out." says Holekamp. Mike Thomas' arm was badly cut. The wave had dumped three feet of water in the salon, and when the water washed against the electrical panel, "it looked like 'Star Wars.' We could feel a current of electricity up to our knees," recounts Neibling.

Rick Macklin, another of Holekamp's fishing buddies, had just stretched out on the settee to pray when the windows went. He thought they had met up with the Boston Whaler and it had come through the starboard wall. "As we all went under water in the salon, we thought the boat had turned upside down and we were going to the bottom," he says. The wave blew out the salon door and cascaded into the cockpit and down into the engine room, where Eckberg and Halford were already knee-deep in water from the blown starboard air vents and were being treated to their own version of "Star Wars" as they tried to re-wire the bilge pumps directly to the batteries. The generator and 12-volt system were now dead, but the 24-volt system held, which kept the radar going. "That was lucky," says Holekamp, "because without the radar we would have never found the island- or we might have found it when we didn't want to..."

The boat was being thrown around so violently that within one sweep of the radar, the island would change position 90 degrees on the screen. To see the overhead radar screen, Rick Macklin had to crouch behind the helm console and look straight up as Holekamp steered and Ed Ragone, the fourth guest, watched for breaking waves. With a fried electrical system; with virtually every built-in-appliance ripped from it's mooring; with the batteries under water and with just a handheld ICOM VHF operational, Oasis pounded back toward San Benedicto- so hard that the toilet in the master head split in half. But she endured reaching the island by 3 a.m.

The first Mayday had been sent out via single side-band 12 hours earlier, and the nearest coast guard C-130 Hercules had been dispatched from Sacramento 2,000 miles away. It circled Oasis most of the night at 4,000 feet offering some comfort, but little help. During the pre-dawn hours of July 6 Oasis waited in the lee of San Bendicto. The storm had diminished and a 476 foot freighter, the Chiquita Roma, had been persuaded by the coast guard to turn back from Cabo San Lucas. When it arrived at midday, Oasis had to move offshore and the seven men had to attempt boarding in 10-foot seas. Having survived their 30-hour ordeal aboard the Donzi, they now faced the dangerous maneuver of getting off onto a cargo net and rope ladders as Oasis banged against the side of Chiquita Roma.

"Our starboard side crashed into the rolling ship and was further damaged with no chance for anyone to get off. We all feared being hit by flying fiberglass and antennas or being crushed between the two vessels with the 20-foot rolling and heaving," says Hal Neibling. Extra lines were lowered and attached to Oasis' bow and stern cleats and the men made mad leaps for the ladders. Holekamp's head was nearly crushed, but they all made it onto "the best cruise ship we'd ever been on."

The hero of this tale is the boat. The 65-foot sportfisherman had done exactly what Bob Roscioli had built it to do- it had weathered conditions beyond the call of duty. It had taken on seas as high as 40 feet and winds well over 100mph with just one of its two engines running. Hurricane Darby was the ultimate sea trial. Such conditions are rarely, if ever, encountered in a lifetime of boating, and Roscioli could only believe his boats could survive them. Now he knows they can. Oasis had actually come through relatively unscathed. There were no cracks in the bulkhead and the engines and generators remained solidly mounted. The bow pulpit was undamaged and the anchors in place. The large etched glass aft window in the salon came through uncracked, which indicates a minimal amount of "racking". The heavy-duty bilge pumps had proved their worth. Holekamp, who has owned several other boats, is convinced that if it weren't for Roscioli's insistence on structural strength and on doing everything "right", he'd be dead today.

The boat had won, but in the end it lost. Having been through such a traumatic experience and thankful he and everyone else aboard were still alive, Holekamp, was unwilling to let the crew remain aboard to try to reach a safe harbor. Consequently, so as not to be a hazard to navigation, the sea strainers were broken, and Oasis was left to sink.

Bill Holekamp loves to fish. He had a close call and lost his boat, but he figures that his share of bad luck is behind him. The blue water beckons and he's determined to get back offshore. In what? Why another Donzi 65' of course.