When family members in Ohio had not heard from Richard and Debbie Stewart and their two children after several weeks at sea aboard their 65-foot ketch, the Jolly Joyce, they called the Coast Guard, which launched a massive air and sea search across a slice of the Atlantic Ocean the size of Wyoming.
That was in late August, and, two days after the seven-day, $400,000 search was suspended without finding them, the Stewarts called. They were stranded 15 miles off Ocean City, Md., their sails shredded from a storm, unable to steer their boat because of a hydraulic leak, short of food and water. The Coast Guard towed them in.
Late Sunday, the Stewarts again found themselves at the end of a Coast Guard towline after struggling in 14-foot seas off Cape Fear, N.C. This time a $39,000 rescue operation, including a C-130 search plane and two patrol boats, brought them and the Jolly Joyce safely ashore. The couple received a tongue-lashing from Coast Guard officials, who in a letter advised them to outfit the boat with new safety gear and have the engines repaired.
"The letter comes across to me as suggesting we're inexperienced and that's our problem," Stewart, 50, told WECT-TV in Wilmington, N.C. "I'd put our crew up against anybody."
Stewart's crew consists of himself, his wife, Debbie, 47, and their son Chad, 16, and daughter Mischa, 12. He told a reporter in September, after the first time he was stranded at sea, that his only experience on the water before buying the Jolly Joyce 18 months ago was a vacation on a Carnival Cruise.
The Coast Guard did not publicly release the letter from Vice Adm. John M. Shkor to the Stewarts. But in a news release that reported the cost of the rescues, the Coast Guard said the family should purchase survival suits, a radio beacon that could activate in an emergency and a long-range, single-sideband radio for the vessel. It did not say whether the Coast Guard would seek to recoup the search costs from the Stewarts.
"It's a lot of money to spend on a search, but if he's in distress, it's our job to go out and search for them," said Petty Officer Stephen Baker, a spokesman for the Coast Guard in Portsmouth, Va. "We don't want to discourage people from asking for assistance."
For their part, the Stewarts told the television station that they had never requested help from the Coast Guard in the latest incident. "I didn't want to be out there. I couldn't imagine they'd want to be out there, too," Richard Stewart said. "I'm a little concerned that the Coast Guard is more concerned about how much money they're spending than what they're doing."
Said Baker, "What would people say if we didn't go looking for them?"
The latest rescue came late Sunday when the Stewarts lost both sails and their engines conked out 25 miles off the North Carolina coast. They used a satellite phone to call a friend in Florida who alerted the Coast Guard in Miami. That station alerted Coast Guard officials in North Carolina who dispatched a plane, a helicopter, a 47-foot motor lifeboat and the 82-foot patrol boat Point Warde to search for them in seas churning from 40 mph winds.
The heavy waves left both the Stewarts and Coast Guard officers seasick, but they managed to attach a line to the Jolly Joyce, which was towed to a marina in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., for repairs.
The family told the Coast Guard and WECT-TV that bad fuel had caused their engines to fail. And they said that they would return to a Florida boat yard where they had spent $70,000 to overhaul the boat last year to demand new repairs.
The Stewarts are from Ludlow Falls, Ohio, near Dayton, where in 1990 Richard retired as general counsel from Allied Paper. Their seafaring misadventures began in July 1998 when the couple bought the Jolly Joyce from a boat yard in Florida, according to a story about them in the Providence Journal-Bulletin. The boat was badly in need of repair, but once they got it ready, the Stewarts shoved off from Fort Lauderdale.
Their inexperience showed. During their shakedown cruise in a Florida canal, they struck another boat and ran aground three times. The boat yard owner, Phil Chinnock, advised the family to take sailing lessons, and the Stewarts hired an instructor for 60 hours of training.
Their plan was to sail up the East Coast, down the St. Lawrence Seaway and spend last summer on the Great Lakes. They never made it past Rhode Island. Constant trouble with broken equipment on the boat slowed them. They made some repairs with duct tape.
Stewart told the newspaper, "It looked like Gilligan's three-hour tour."
They were cruising off Ocean City in late August when a severe storm reduced their sails to ribbons. Their wheel knocked out of commission, they jury-rigged a screwdriver into the tiller to steer. What they didn't know was that the Coast Guard had launched an extensive search for them after their 19-year-old daughter Elizabeth reported that they had been out of contact for weeks.
The family back in Ohio feared the worst. Chinnock told the Dayton Daily News at the time, "It was obvious they were in way over their heads."
Rescuers had failed to find the Stewarts, and the search had been called off, when the family contacted the Coast Guard on Aug. 29 after calling Elizabeth and learning of the effort on their behalf. They spent three months in Ocean City for repairs before heading out again--for their eventual second rendezvous with the Coast Guard off North Carolina.
"I really am appreciative of the job that they've done," Stewart said yesterday of the Coast Guard. "But I'm disappointed that they want to look at the deficiencies in us as a crew in operating this boat. Frankly, I don't know too many people who have the [nerve] to go out there, get stuck 50, 60 miles offshore in the middle of the storm with nothing, absolutely nothing but the boat floating beneath you."