ST. PETERSBURG — Jim Slauson called his fiancee from the Gulf of Mexico as waves washed over the bow of his sailboat. He was soaked and bone-chilled but exactly where he wanted to be.
The 75-year-old retiree had prepared for months for this second attempt at the WaterTribe Everglades Challenge, a boat race from Fort DeSoto to Key Largo. He was even more determined this time around, after having to drop out last year.
On a blustery evening this March, the wind off the coast of Naples hurled his 17-foot sailboat south.
Sandy Humpel could hear how excited he was, despite the cold. Back home in St. Petersburg, Humpel was glad Slauson was happy even though she had tried to talk him out of sailing alone. Slauson was in good shape, but he had diabetes, and Humpel worried about him making the 300-mile journey.
Slauson told Humpel he loved her and hung up. The next day, the U.S. Coast Guard found the boat floating in rough seas far offshore.
They didn’t find Slauson.
His disappearance cast a pall over the race and left Slauson’s loved ones and fellow sailors wondering what went wrong. Humpel and his family have asked themselves if they should have tried harder to persuade Slauson to take a partner, but they doubt it would have done any good. The lifelong sailor had a certain resolve.
“They say that anybody who loves the sea as much as he does is not going to listen to reason,” Humpel said. "The worst thing is, he had all this come-rescue-me stuff. How is he gone?”
• • •
Slauson’s passion for sailing began on a small lake in his native Wisconsin.
The oldest of six siblings, he was born in Pewaukee, a small town west of Milwaukee. His family lived near Pewaukee Lake, where his grandfather Dick taught him to sail when he was about 5. Even in winter, they skimmed across the frozen surface in sailboats modified with runners.
Ryann Slauson said her father loved going fast, propelled only by Mother Nature. Sailing’s culture and camaraderie also drew him.
“He liked being outside and having the ability to move around and control his own path,” said Slauson, 33, of Philadelphia. “I think it was just in his genes, in his blood.”
Slauson continued sailing while at the University of San Francisco and went on to get a master’s degree in business from Northwestern University in Illinois. He became a computer expert and spent much of his career working in information technology.
Twice divorced, Slauson had three daughters and a son. Though he traveled often for work, he was an attentive dad, Ryann Slauson said. He taught the kids the basics of sailing, how to spot changes in the wind direction and identify which way the current was moving.
“He wasn’t good about talking about emotions and boys, that wasn’t his style," she said. "He was more like, ‘Let’s work in the woodshop together on this project.’”
Quiet and shy around strangers, Slauson was a jokester when you got to know him, his daughter said. His pun-heavy “dad jokes” drew groans and laughs.
Slauson moved with his family to Florida for a job in the 1990s. After his second marriage ended in 2004, he lived in a few places before relocating to Tampa to be closer to Ryann, who attended the University of South Florida.
In 2009, Slauson got a job that would change the course of his life. He took a position on the yacht of a California lawyer who wanted a knowledgeable sailor to tend to the vessel and entertain guests.
Slauson took out a classified ad seeking a cook to help. Humpel, a former nursing supervisor who stopped working after an injury on the job, saw the ad and thought the wording sounded hokey, something about the successful applicant needing to work well with him in close quarters.
She wasn’t interested in the job, but she responded by email anyway to tell Slauson the ad seemed like a sneaky way to get a date. They met for coffee and, later, for dinner.
At first, she figured they’d be friends. They didn’t have the same taste in food or art, and she wasn’t passionate about sailing.
“But he loved to travel and I loved to travel, and I realized how kind he was," said Humpel, 73. “He was just the gentlest guy.”
When Slauson was in Cancún, Mexico, working on that yacht, he sent Humpel a round-trip ticket. She stayed on the boat for a week. When she returned home, they talked on Skype for hours almost every day.
When Slauson quit the yacht job and left Mexico, Humpel picked him up at the airport. He planned to stay with her for a few days but never left.
Over the next few years, Slauson worked brief stints as a schoolteacher and as a private sailing instructor. In 2012, he edited his LinkedIn profile: “Retired,” it says. “Sailing for Pleasure.”
A couple of years ago, Slauson inherited money from his mother and an aunt, Humpel said. He bought a 1932 Ford coupe for $50,000 and a Core Sound sailboat with trailer, for another $13,500.
Humpel said she was angry he’d made such big purchases without talking to her, because she’d helped support him for so many years. They almost broke up but weathered that storm.
Slauson proposed last year — their 10th together — and got “Sandy” tattooed inside a heart on his arm.
• • •
Slauson bought the Core Sound to sail it in the WaterTribe Everglades Challenge.
Named after a group of small-boat enthusiasts, the race is the brainchild of Steve Isaac of Clearwater. Competitors who pushed off for the inaugural race in 2001 were in kayaks and canoes. The race later opened to small sailboats and catamarans.
About 100 entrants compete each year, coming from all over the world. The finish rate ranges from 20 to 80 percent, Isaac said. Every challenger takes a race name. Slauson’s was Sailorman.
The time limit to the finish in Key Largo is eight days. There are three checkpoints along the way, but no safety boats or support crews during the race. Participants must carry their own food and water. A GPS tracking device is required along with an emergency, position-indicating radio beacon that must be attached to each life jacket. Race organizers do an equipment check before competitors launch.
A three-page warning and waiver says the race is only for expert sailors and paddlers.
“Even if you are a well-prepared expert you may DIE," the waiver says.
“I put that in there for a reason," said Isaac, 71. “Because it’s true.”
A man competing in a canoe in 2018 had a heart attack, the only death in the race’s history.
Only a small percentage enter the event with designs on winning, said Alan Stewart, who has competed in the race for about 10 years.
“For most people, it’s just a fun thing to challenge themselves and to be a part of something,” said Stewart, a partner in B&B Yacht Designs in Bayboro, N.C.
B&B founder Graham Burns designed the Core Sound Mark 3, which features a small cabin and water ballast system for added stability, with the Everglades Challenge in mind. The fact that Slauson bought one for the race showed he’d done his research with an emphasis on seaworthiness, said Isaac, who is building his own Mark 3.
Slauson started the 2019 race with the enthusiasm of a first-time competitor. But he struggled to make progress in calm conditions, and then his rudder broke, and he had to be towed into the first checkpoint. He came home tired, sunburned and dejected, his family said.
His disappointment turned into resolve to try again. Slauson sanded and varnished the hull and then, unsatisfied, repeated the process at least twice. He added a third sail and a tiller extension.
“He worked on it so hard," Humpel said, “day after day.”
Humpel said she badgered Slauson to install something else — a safety line he could use to tether himself to the boat. He agreed.
“This race was so exciting to him, and he was so happy to be in it,” Ryann Slauson said. “We’d talk on the phone, and he’d say, ‘I’m at the boat.'”
Slauson asked Ryann if she’d race with him. She wanted to but couldn’t take the time off work.
She called him the day before the race and got his voicemail. She wished him luck and told him she loved him.
“I hope he heard that message,” she said.
• • •
Slauson left home about 5 a.m. that Saturday, kissing Humpel on the way out.
It was sunny and chilly, and winds from the northeast tossed the Gulf, said Humpel’s son David, who dropped off Slauson. The sailor had an air of “nervous excitement,” Humpel said.
“I don’t think anyone can or should undervalue the importance of this race to Jim and what it meant to him,” he said. “He saw this as probably his last big sailing adventure.”
Like the other competitors, Slauson had a SPOT tracking device that he programmed to mark his position every hour or so. He also could manually hit an “OK” button. The data appeared online, so organizers and spectators could track locations.
The data shows Slauson making good progress Saturday, staying close to shore. He dropped his sails and let the boat drift while he slept that night and got back on course Sunday morning.
As he passed the tip of Sanibel Island and into open water, Slauson remained on a southerly course about 20 miles offshore. The winds were strong and had shifted a bit, but nothing about Slauson’s course at that point raised concerns, Isaac said.
The rules say competitors must head to shore if there’s a small craft advisory, generally issued when sustained winds hit 23 mph to 38 mph. That didn’t happen Sunday, but conditions were still difficult. Some competitors dropped out during this stretch, said race manager Paula Martel. They figured they wouldn’t make the second checkpoint in Everglades City before the time cutoff.
“People were just beat up because of the wind,” Martel said.
Sandy Humpel said Slauson sounded fine when he called her about 7:30 Sunday evening. He was heading south and still about 20 miles offshore.
Humpel said she asked if he was clipped to the tether, and he said no. A lot of good that will do you, she told him. He promised he’d clip on.
“I really miss you,” he told her.
“You don’t miss me,” she said. “You’re sailing.”
“No," he said, “I really miss you, and I love you.”
That was the last time anyone talked to him.
Slauson pushed the OK button at 11:58 p.m. For more than seven hours after that, his course tracked to the southwest, farther out into the Gulf. He pushed the OK button at 3:37 a.m. Monday.
Watching Slauson’s course online, Isaac figured he was letting the boat drift while he slept and that once the sun came up, the course would shift back to the southeast.
At 7:24, the GPS tracker logged one final OK. Then, nothing. About 10 a.m, after race organizers called Sandy Humpel and advised her to contact the Coast Guard.
• • •
The Coast Guard launched a search, and a plane spotted the Mark 3 that evening about 50 miles west of Marco Island. The boat was upright and appeared to be empty when a Jayhawk helicopter crew reached it. The rotor wash caused the boat to capsize, a Coast Guard spokesman told the Times later. A diver entered the water and found no sign of Slauson.
No life jackets matching the one Slauson was wearing at the start of the race were recovered by searchers. There was no evidence to indicate how he got separated from the boat.
Weather conditions were rough for a 17-foot vessel, with east winds blowing about 20 mph and seas of up to 5 feet, a Coast Guard spokesman said at the time.
The Coast Guard crew let the boat drift and resumed the search for Slauson.
• • •
For days, his loved ones waited for word, hope ebbing as the hours passed.
Everglades Challenge competitors continued with the race. Alan Stewart, the B&B partner, and his father, Paul, arrived at the finish line at the Pelican Key Largo Cottages in their 22-foot Core Sound just before 6 p.m. Tuesday. By then, they’d heard the Coast Guard had found Slauson’s boat, but others knew nothing about what happened.
“They get to the finish line expecting to celebrate, and all of a sudden, they had a whole flood of emotions," Stewart said. “I think the biggest reason we keep doing this is we like hanging out with the people who do it, so to hear someone came down to be a part of that and didn’t get to go home, it doesn’t feel right to have a celebration at the finish line."
Thursday morning, the Coast Guard announced it had suspended the search after covering nearly 9,800 square miles.
On Saturday, Everglades Challenge participants gathered on the beach near the finish line for an awards ceremony. Isaac, who’d met Slauson briefly before the race, said a few words in his honor, then asked everyone to turn around, face the water and stay silent for a moment.
Along with the grief from a sudden loss, questions that may never be answered weigh on Slauson’s survivors. What happened in his final moments? How did he get separated from the boat? Why didn’t he activate the emergency beacon on his life jacket?
One theory is a medical episode left him incapacitated and caused him to fall overboard. Maybe a heart attack or stroke, though he had no history of either. Maybe his blood sugar dropped, and he passed out. Maybe he took off his life jacket for some reason and got thrown overboard.
His family wants to believe he died quickly.
Without a body, there has been no closure. Humpel wakes at night expecting to find him next to her. The need to stay socially distant during the coronavirus pandemic has compounded the loneliness.
“I know he’s dead, but I can’t get it through my head that he’s dead, and that’s an awful feeling,” she said.
• • •
In mid-April, Humpel got an unexpected call. Slauson’s drifting boat had turned up in Islamorada, about 15 miles south of the finish line.
David Humpel drove down, got the battered boat, brought it back and parked it in his mother’s back yard. In the cabin, under black, fetid water, she found a pack of D batteries, some screwdrivers and drill bits. She almost laughed when she pulled out a pack of chocolate pudding cups. Slauson loved chocolate but often enjoyed it in secret because of his diabetes.
She hasn’t yet decided what to do with the boat.
The pandemic has put plans for a memorial service on hold. His family said he’d made it clear over the years that he wanted his cremated remains to be scattered at sea.
In a way, he got what he wanted.