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Sailor Robert Parker dies during race across gulf

The crew of the Enigma gathers with mixed emotions just after winning the 41st Regatta del Sol on April 26. They had won but their skipper Robert Parker had died during the race. Crew members, from left, are Bob Revo, Parker’s daughters Martha Parker Shively and Robin Tomita, son-in-law Kent Tomita, Mark Requa and grandson Ryan Tomita.

Photo courtesy of Kent Tomita

The crew of the Enigma gathers with mixed emotions just after winning the 41st Regatta del Sol on April 26. They had won but their skipper Robert Parker had died during the race. Crew members, from left, are Bob Revo, Parker’s daughters Martha Parker Shively and Robin Tomita, son-in-law Kent Tomita, Mark Requa and grandson Ryan Tomita.

With the sea heaving 10-foot swells, the crew of the 72-foot Enigma was looking at a much bigger problem.

In the middle of a grueling 456-mile sailboat race from St. Petersburg to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, a metal sleeve that holds the mast to the deck began sliding up.

Losing the mast would be catastrophic.

Robert Parker, the 70-year-old skipper who vowed to regain the legendary Regatta del Sol trophy (first to finish) he had won two years ago, put on his safety harness, climbed up on deck and began banging on the sleeve with a hammer.

Suddenly, the hammer fell silent.

Parker told his son-in-law, Kent Tomita, he needed to go back to the cockpit. Tomita figured he was going for another tool.

"Then he dropped to the deck. We tried CPR, but it was no use."

• • •

They were halfway to Isla Mujeres with a dead skipper.

"What do you do?'' Tomita said. "Try to sail back against the wind. Go to Cuba? Key West? Keep going?

One crew member tried to raise help on the VHF radio, but their boat was out of range. The sun was setting. The waves were getting bigger.

The crew put Parker in a sleeping bag, then placed him on a bunk below deck. But the sea water was lapping over the deck and spilling into the gap at the base of the mast.

"We were taking on water,'' said Parker's daughter, Robin Tomita, 45.

There was no time for ritual or reflection. The crew was working feverishly to keep the boat afloat.

"When my father made up his mind to do something, he did it,'' said Robin Tomita. "I knew he wanted to finish.''

• • •

Parker was "a sailor's sailor.'' Tough, at times gruff, the former submariner in the U.S. Navy spent much of his life navigating the Caribbean and Atlantic.

At 70, his hair white and face browned and creased by the sun, Parker returned to St. Petersburg last month with one thing on his mind.

"I want my damned trophy back," he told friends at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

In 2008, rough weather took its toll on Parker's boat, tearing up five sails.

"We were two hours ahead when our last sail ripped,'' said Kent Tomita. "We had to sit there and watch the other boats just blow by."

Nothing would get in his way this year.

On April 23, the eve of the race, the St. Petersburg High School graduate quaffed beers and swapped sea stories with friends, confident that he and his 11-member crew would prevail.

Marlin Brigman, a 70-year-old retired jeweler and fellow sailor from Apollo Beach, said Parker was determined the night before the race.

"He wanted that cup back."

• • •

Born in Massachusetts, Parker's family moved to St. Petersburg when he was a child. He graduated from high school in 1956, joined the Navy and went to sea.

Parker bounced around after retirement, running a hotel in California, then a fitness club in Crystal River. He married and divorced three times. In 2001, he moved to Key West to be near his daughters and grandchildren.

"He played tennis and he swam,'' said Kent Tomita, 50. "He stayed pretty active. But back in 1999, he did have to have some bypass surgery."

Parker always had a sailboat. "He lost a 65-footer to Hurricane Wilma back in 2005," Tomita said. "Then he found this boat in Connecticut."

Parker sailed home in the 72-foot MacGregor named Enigma. But last year in Mexico he learned the boat had structural problems.

"They had the wrong size keel on it and the mast wasn't set properly," Tomita said. "But he worked on it all year and felt it was ready to go."

• • •

Regatta del Sol hasn't missed a start since 1969.

When the wind is good, a fast boat can make it in three days. When the weather is bad, a boat can linger in the Gulf of Mexico for more than a week.

Just finishing the race to Isla Mujeres is a gold star on a sailing resume.

On Day 1 this year, the seas were plate-glass. But on Saturday, the wind kicked up out of the southeast and started howling at 15 to 20 knots.

"We were making great time in 6- to 8-foot seas," Tomita said. "Then around 7 p.m., we started having trouble with the mast."

And that wasn't the only challenge.

On the map, Isla Mujeres looks like a straight shot across the gulf at 210 degrees.

The Loop Current can quickly spoil that perception. Moving at 4 to 5 knots, it runs through the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba, does a loop in the gulf and then works its way to the Atlantic. It can kick up huge waves or push a boat off course.

A damaged mast, high seas, treacherous currents and a dead captain.

Robin, now the skipper, decided to press on.

"It was a long night," she said.

• • •

The Enigma made good time on Sunday. By afternoon, the Mexican coast was in sight.

"At one point we hit a top speed of 19.2 knots," Kent Tomita said. "We thought that despite everything we had been through, we might just have a chance."

Robin handed over the helm to her husband. "It was a pretty emotional moment," he said.

At 5:26 p.m. on April 26, Parker's crew sailed Enigma across the finish line ahead of 28 other boats, the first to finish the 41st Regatta del Sol in one of the fastest times on record.

The Tomitas had Parker's body cremated and then sprinkled some of his ashes at a couple of Isla Mujeres' watering holes.

"Grampy liked his margaritas," Kent Tomita said.

The family plans to travel to the Bahamas later this summer to scatter the remaining ashes.

"We did it," Robin Tomita said. "We got his trophy. I know he would be proud."

Sailor Robert Parker dies during race across gulf 05/15/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2009 12:20pm]
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