The day after Christmas, Frank and Janice Balmer were more than 10 years into their around-the-world, post-retirement sailing journey.
Behind the Tacoma couple were ports of call such as Rome; Phuket, Thailand; Brisbane, Australia; and Barcelona, Spain.
What lay ahead was a trans-Atlantic crossing from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, three months of island hopping, and then on to Galveston, Texas. There they would sell their boat and fly home to Tacoma.
It was about 10 a.m. Dec 26. Frank, 69, and Janice, 70, both retired teachers, were in the cockpit of the Freewind. The 50-foot-long ketch was sailing with the wind, crashing through 10-to-15-foot waves whipped by winds reaching 35 miles per hour.
The Freewind was on autopilot as they sailed toward Grenada. About 700 miles southwest of the Canary Islands, the two-mast sailboat veered from its course.
“The boat just went off course. It wouldn’t steer,” Frank said in a recent interview.
The feeling left him uttering something similar to, “Oh, shoot!”
“When I turned the wheel, I could hear a gurgling noise and I knew it didn’t have any (hydraulic) fluid,” Frank said.
For the next 45 minutes, the couple poured three liters of hydraulic fluid into the steering system and bled air from the lines.
“I put the autopilot back on, and five minutes later, the fluid drained again,” Frank said.
They repeated the process one more time, until they drained their reserve of hydraulic fluid and hopes of a quick fix.
Finally, Frank got out the emergency tiller. A 3-foot-long handle, it slipped over the rudder at the back of the sailboat, but requires muscle power to steer.
“I couldn’t control the boat with it in those seas,” Frank said, “46,000 pounds is a lot of boat to try to control.”
They even tied ropes from the tiller to the boat’s winches, which are used to raise the sails. It still wasn’t enough.
As the hours passed, the situation became more dire. Without debate, they agreed it was time to use the radio to call for help. Frank switched from channel to channel – dozens of them – each call met with silence.
Plus, there were no nearby ships showing on their automatic ship identification system.
“We hadn’t seen or heard a boat in six days,” Frank said. “We were a little concerned who was out there to lend us a hand.”
Reassessing the situation, they realized they had no good options.
They could try to turn the boat around and run into the wind, but that would take them to the sub-Saharan coast of Africa, almost as notorious for modern-day pirates as Somalia. They could try to ride out the weather and hope the currents carried them west, but Frank estimated it would take 10 weeks to drift toward the Carribbean islands.
So the Balmers used a tool never available to the likes of Magellan and Columbus – email.
“I emailed our daughters to contact the Coast Guard to see what we should do,” Frank said. “They told me to put our EPIRB on right away.”
The EPIRB – short for emergency position-indicating radio beacon – sends a signal via satellite establishing the sender’s location. It also contacts maritime search and rescue operations.
Within three minutes of activating the unit, the Balmer’s daughter Brandi Groce received a call confirming the beacon was working. Exhausted from trying to repair the hydraulic leak and manhandle the emergency tiller, the Balmers awaited word of what would happen next.
A blip appeared on the Freewind’s ship identification system.
The Mount Jade, a 730-foot Taiwanese bulk carrier bound for Brazil, was just 25 miles away and changing course. Within 25 minutes, the ship was closed enough to make radio contact.
While Frank prepared for a rescue and tried to keep the Freewind on course, Janice scurried about below, packing the couple’s valuables, some extra clothes and important documents.
“I was grabbing wallets, credit cards, important papers, our camera, jewelry, Kindles,” Janice said.
She also put some emergency supplies in another backpack and spelled Frank at the tiller.
As the day darkened, the ship finally came into sight.
“All I saw was this huge slab of steel headed right at us,” Frank said. “It could have squashed us like a bug.”
It was 6 p.m. when the Mount Jade arrived alongside.
‘YOU ARE COMING BACK?’
The first time the rescue ship’s crew got a line to the sailboat, the ropes snapped as the Freewind bucked in the waves.
The crew had lowered the ship’s boarding steps. But it was too risky, Frank said, because the sailboat’s mast could have become tangled in the steps.
Two other attempts to get lines to the Balmers failed or compounded the issues. On one pass, a stray line tangled in the sailboat’s propeller shaft, causing the transmission to burn out.
“I was most worried when he was on the deck,” Janice said of her husband of 46 years. “The boat was rocking back and forth and I was afraid he was going to get tossed off.”
At one point, the Balmers feared the worst when the Mount Jade appeared to sail off.
“I called them on the radio, ‘You are coming back?’ ” Frank recalled, now able to laugh at that moment.
Capt. Tsai Tung Kang quickly responded that the ship was just turning around.
Five hours later, on the fifth attempt, the crew and Balmers finally got the Freewind tied to the ship. Instead of the steps, the couple would have to climb a 65-foot-long rope ladder to reach the deck.
The crew also dropped a rope to the Freewind, and Frank tied it around Janice’s waist. Not wanting to risk a mishap, the crew unceremoniously hauled Janice up, her body bouncing off the side of the ship.
“I thought my back was going to break when they hauled me up,” she said.
“They were pulling her up so fast, all I could see were her feet going back and forth,” Frank said. “I don’t think they touched the ladder.
“It was the only time during the whole ordeal I smiled.”
Frank was next, but drained by the effort of the last 13 hours, he managed to climb only 10 feet up the ladder before the crew had to haul him up the rest of the way.
“When I got on the deck of the ship, I collapsed,” Frank said. “They had to carry me inside. But I felt good enough to give them all a hug.”
On board, the couple had only a small backpack with their passports and other key documents, and the clothes they were wearing.
Left aboard the Freewind was a bag too large to haul up the ladder. It contained $15,000 worth of valuables.
Then there was the question of the Freewind.
“When we got on the ship, they asked us what we wanted to do,” Frank said.
The couple had been advised by their insurance company to set the boat adrift.
“I told them we had to cut it loose,” Frank said.
He was convinced that the Freewind, battered and broken by contact with the 93,234-metric-ton carrier, was starting to sink.
So, as the Mount Jade returned to its original course, the Balmers left behind the boat that had been their home for more than 11 years.
“We lived on that boat longer than we lived in any house,” Janice said.
“It’s still hard to fathom that it’s gone,” Frank said. “I just didn’t see another alternative.”
While the final outcome of their boat remains unknown, the Balmers are convinced they would not be here were it not for the Mount Jade and its crew.
“I knew I couldn’t last. I think if I had spent another day fighting the boat, I would have had a heart attack,” Frank said, who had heart issues previously. “If something like that happened, I knew Jan would have been lost.”
Safely on board, the Balmers were sudden stars. Crew members who spoke English talked with the couple every chance they could, the ship’s captain made them dinner several times and the pair used the laundry often, since they had no other clothes.
They took the time to recover from their ordeal, including the mass of bruises Janice collected during her lift off the sailboat.
“It was weird on the ship,” Janice said. “Someone was cooking the meals. We didn’t have any chores to do.”
As the Mount Jade sailed for Macapa, Brazil, on the northern channel of the Amazon River delta, a new issue arose. Brazilian officials said that if the couple got off the ship without proper visas, the ship’s owners, Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp., could be fined.
The Balmers, never intending to visit Brazil, did not have visas.
That set off a flurry of emails among the ship’s captain; Andrew Aylward, vice consul at the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia; and officials in Brazil. At one point, Brazilian officials asked whether the couple could stay on board the Mount Jade and sail with it to Galveston, its next destination.
Finally, after more emails and a $240 bribe to an agent for the Macapa port captain, the Balmers were allowed to disembark.
After several plane flights, they arrived back home Jan. 5.
Now living with their daughter, Brandy Groce, and her family in Puyallup, the Balmers are slowly resuming life on land.
“I have a greater appreciation for people who have lost their house to a fire, flood, tornado, hurricane, any kind of disaster,” Frank said. “When you walk into a store and realize you have to replace everything you once owned, it’s just psychologically overwhelming.”
They have bought a car and are looking for a new home.
There are no plans, however, to get another sailboat.
There is no desire to go back and complete that last leg.
“The next time I get on a boat, someone is going to be serving me steak and lobster and some other guy is going to be steering the boat,” Frank said with a laugh.
They hope to meet again with Kang, the ship’s captain. He has relatives in Seattle and occasionally visits them. Frank also vowed to send some Northwest salmon to Kang after hearing the captain say how much enjoyed it.
Without saying so, the Balmers consider Kang and his crew heroes.
“They saved our lives,” Frank said. “They were so proud to have helped us.
“I must have said thank you 5,000 times. There aren’t word for someone who saves your life. Thank you just isn’t enough.”
Kang told the couple he had been aboard boats more than 50 years, and this was the first time he’d rescued anyone.
“The captain told us to save a life, they would always change course,” Frank said. “He was an angel with wings, aboard the biggest chariot you’ve ever seen.”