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Skipper's cool head, preparation save sailing crew from dire straits

Buddy Payne greets granddaughter Sophie, 5, Friday as she boards the Coast Guard cutter Harriet Lane after his rescue Monday. He and his crewmates were saved from tough straits.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Buddy Payne greets granddaughter Sophie, 5, Friday as she boards the Coast Guard cutter Harriet Lane after his rescue Monday. He and his crewmates were saved from tough straits.

Friends describe Jopie Helsen as a sailor's sailor. The 63-year-old St. Petersburg yacht broker is a stickler for safety and makes his crew practice "man overboard" drills in the middle of the night before any long, open-ocean expedition.

So Sunday, when Helsen and four others were leaving Isla Mujeres, Mexico, and a monster wave snapped the rudder off their sailboat, the seasoned skipper knew what to do.

"The boat just started spinning around in circles," said David Knowlton, one of Helsen's shipmates. "When something like that happens, you have to get the boat under control real fast."

The 47-foot Jade had been surfing through the heavy seas at 14 knots, nearly twice its normal hull speed. It was returning from a 456-mile race from St. Petersburg to Mexico.

"We had checked the weather reports before we left at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning," Helsen said. "It called for 15-knot winds, dropping to 10, then 5 ..."

But instead the wind blew stronger. By 3 a.m. Sunday, the wind howled at 30 knots, and the seas towered at 20 feet.

"Every once in a while we would hit a stray 25-footer," Helsen said. "Those are fine as long as you are taking them head on. But the one that tore off our rudder and flooded the cockpit came at us from the side."

Without steering, Helsen's beloved boat was at the mercy of wind and waves. But he had prepared for a situation like this a dozen times before. In a matter of minutes, the boat's crew had hauled in the lines that control the sails and regained command of the stricken craft.

"Once we had the boat secured, I hit the EPIRB," Helsen said.

The Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, a small electronic device available for less than $1,000 at most marine supply stores, has been the subject of countless stories since the death of three football players off the Pinellas County coast in the winter of 2009.

If Marquis Cooper, Corey Smith and Will Bleakley had had an EPIRB aboard their fishing boat when it capsized in the Gulf of Mexico, they might have survived. But instead all three died, and the acronym EPIRB became a point of discussion for analysts on ESPN's SportsCenter.

The distress signal was picked up immediately by the U.S. Coast Guard, which then notified all ships in the area to be on the lookout for the disabled sailboat.

"Within 20 minutes, we were hailed by four different tankers," Helsen said.

When Helsen left Mexico, he had sailed north instead of east, hoping to catch the Loop Current, which runs north through the western gulf and then loops around, before heading south through the eastern gulf.

"We knew the loop would give us an extra two knots of speed, which meant we would get home a day early," he said. "Apparently all those ships had the same idea, which was fortunate for us."

Sunday afternoon, an airplane from Coast Guard Air Station-Clearwater spotted the Jade. A second airplane, this one from Mobile, Ala., re-established contact Monday morning, telling the sailors help was on the way.

"At that point, you are not scared, just uncomfortable," Helsen said. "It is like being in a washing machine that never stops."

A couple of hours later, the Harriet Lane, a 270-foot Coast Guard cutter on routine patrol in the central Gulf of Mexico, intercepted the Jade about 400 miles south of Panama City.

Once the cutter knew the sailors were safe, its crew tried to tow the sailboat back to St. Petersburg. But the rough seas, size differential between the two boats and the lack of a rudder, made it impossible.

Eventually, Helsen had to leave the 47-foot Helsen Hunter he had helped design drifting with the current. A salvage operator is expected to tow his pride and joy back to St. Petersburg in the next day or two.

The Harriet Lane docked in Tampa at noon Friday, returning Helsen and his companions to firm ground. "That was my first and last race to Mexico," said Joe Lettelleir, 65, from St. Petersburg.

Buddy Payne, 65, from Tampa, credited Helsen's planning, equipment and cool head for their safe return. But next time, he will choose another mode of transportation. "I think I'll fly," he quipped.

Skipper's cool head, preparation save sailing crew from dire straits 05/07/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 7, 2010 11:52pm]

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