Forty-eight hours into a life-and-death battle with the Atlantic Ocean, there were a lot of things James Moore didn’t know.

He didn’t know where the quarter-inch gash on his face had come from.

He didn’t know exactly how this trip, which was supposed to be a pleasurable five-week cruise from New Jersey to Panama, had gone so terribly wrong in just a few short days.

And most pressingly, the 30-year-old Readfield native didn’t know whether he was going to survive the next five minutes.

Moore was standing on the deck of the Elusive, a 41-foot sailboat. It had a failed engine, possible structural damage and minor leaks, and was helpless against the 25-foot breaking waves, any one of which could capsize it.

Alongside the Elusive was the Bow Clipper, a 600-foot tanker from Norway that loomed 30 feet above the surface of the ocean.

The crew of the Bow Clipper, responding to a distress call conveyed by the U.S. Coast Guard, was attempting a rescue at sea.

It was not a high-tech affair – the ship rolled down a rope ladder.

When the Elusive was in the trough of the waves, the bottom of the ladder was 15 feet above Moore’s head as he stood on the boat’s deck. Only when the boat bobbed up on the crest of a wave was he able to reach it.

The sailboat repeatedly banged into the ship as the vessels were driven together by the waves, raining chips of orange paint from the ship down onto the deck of the smaller boat.

If, while attempting to transfer his weight to the ladder, he were to lose his balance or his grip and fall into the space between the two boats, Moore knew he’d be lucky to just lose an arm or a leg.

The two other members of the sailboat’s crew had already evacuated along with 10 bags of gear. Moore had tied a tow line to the Elusive.

It was time.

But before he stepped into the void, with the raging sea all around him, Moore had one last important task to perform, this time with the boat’s satellite phone.

It was a strange moment. He might die, but he had a magic phone that could call anywhere.

He punched in the numbers and called his parents.

He told them he loved them. And he apologized profusely.

CLEAR SKIES

Moore dates his own interest in sailing back his childhood days on Maranacook Lake in his hometown of Readfield.

“I grew up on the water,” he said in an interview this week.

Over time, he developed an interest in sailing and, as an adult, began to accumulate the hours at sea needed to qualify for a captain’s license.

When he heard earlier this year that a father-son pair, Larry and Sean Monesson, were looking for an additional crew member to sail the Elusive from New York to Panama by way of Bermuda, it seemed like a golden opportunity.

“I was laid off from my job a few months ago. I was also gathering sea time,” he said. “Getting to sail down to Panama was an almost priceless amount of experience.”

On May 17, a Saturday, the three men headed out to sea, starting at Liberty Harbor Marina in Jersey City, N.J., within sight of the Statue of Liberty. The plan was to visit Bermuda, then the British Virgin Islands and then continue on to Panama. Allowing a few days for unforeseen mishaps, they figured the entire trip might take five weeks.

“We were ahead of hurricane season, so it was considered not that risky,” Moore said.

The first few days were everything they might have hoped. They enjoyed the vastness of the ocean, and took turns cooking, navigating and sleeping.

But four days out, on that Wednesday morning, a low pressure system crept into the area. Moore said he could see it on the radar screen, where it appeared first as a yellow wall slowly encroaching on their territory until.

At first, the storm was mild, but its force increased. The entire screen turned yellow.

“The weather continued to build and build and build,” Moore said.

The storm brought with it 45 mph wind, torrential rain that cut visibility to zero and the large, rolling breakers.

Moore was familiar with heavy fog and brisk wind from his time sailing off the coast of Maine, but this was beyond any previous experience.

“The breakers can swamp you,” he said. “There were lightning strikes all around us as well.”

The men continued to rotate watch, but the rough tossing sea meant there was no sleep, even for the man below decks.

“The last 24 hours, I truly believed that we were going to die,” he said. “I didn’t believe we were going to make it out.”

BATTLING THE STORM

When sailors encounter rough seas, they draw on a collective body of maritime wisdom, a hard won storehouse of information developed over hundreds of years of humans braving the perilous seas.

The Elusive’s crew was no exception.

The boat constantly rocked, leaning 45 degrees to one side, then swinging to a 45-degree dip in the other direction.

“You go into survival mode,” Moore said.

First, they abandoned any idea of trying to maintain their route to Bermuda, which had become a potentially deadly waste of precious energy.

They realized there was no way to pilot their way out from the reach of the storm, and began relying almost exclusively on the storm jib, used to reduce the sail area to the smallest size possible while still exerting some control over the boat.

For the most part, they went wherever the wind and the waves carried them, and used the jib to change the position of the boat relative to the incoming waves.

“You orient the boat in a defensive posture so the waves don’t roll your boat over,” he said.

Lightning, constantly flashing, was another danger. A strike could disable their electronics. To preserve some link to the outside world, they put a spare radio and GPS system into the oven, which doubled as an insulating box.

Despite the crew’s best efforts, the storm began to wear the boat down.

The engine broke. They fixed it, but it broke a second time and they couldn’t get it working again.

Just as pressing was the condition of the two masts, each of which ran all the way through the boat to the bottom of the deck. If the 40 mph wind tore either mast down, it could tear a huge hole in the bottom of the boat, sinking them.

A secondary mast seemed to be holding up well, but the rigging, known as stays, holding up the large mainmast were another story. The forestay, Moore said, was becoming dangerously loose and weakened further every hour.

“I worried about it snapping,” he said.

Then there was the storm jib. Up until now, the sturdy little jib had allowed them to dodge the worst of wave after wave, but the stitches had begun to rip out. If the damage worsened, they would be wholly at the mercy of the waves.

The storm lasted for days.

In the face of the grim situation, Moore said the men isolated themselves from each other.

“Once we got in the thick of it, it was a surprising amount of loneliness,” he said. “There was almost nothing we were doing together. After a couple of days, it was a lot of short sentences, not a lot of complicated grammar.”

CONNECTION TO HOME

Before leaving, Moore had filled out a float plan and given it to his father, an air force pilot and experienced sailor. The float plan documents a ship’s plans while at sea – information that could become critical during a crisis.

“It’s like hikers telling people where they will be,” he said.

Moore called his father, who now lives in Portland, several times on that Wednesday to report their condition.

There were no emotional outpourings, he said. Such a display seemed like a luxury that he couldn’t afford.

“It was some incredible cold-blooded conversation,” he said. “We talked about what was happening and how our prospects were deteriorating.”

His father, Bill Moore, said that from his side, he didn’t fully appreciate the gravity of the situation and was unsure of what, if anything, he could do.

“When your kid has a broken leg, you take them to the hospital,” Bill Moore said. “This wasn’t like that at all. I didn’t know what to do. Should I be concerned? Should something be happening?”

By 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Bill Moore said he knew things weren’t good. It was his wife who finally convinced him to act.

“She said, ‘We need some help. We need an expert.'”

At about 1 a.m. Thursday, Bill Moore called 911 and was directed to the proper Coast Guard officials. He gave them the float plan information and they used it to communicate directly with the Elusive before diverting the Bow Clipper from its regular shipping path to the area. It wasn’t yet clear that the crew of the Elusive would need to evacuate, but the diversion was seen as a precaution.

When the tanker came into view, about two miles from the Elusive, Moore said the crew had their first substantive conversation since the ordeal began.

“It was brief and to the point,” Moore said. “We decided to abandon ship.”

THE RESCUE

Even with the tanker in the area, the rescue was more difficult than Moore expected.

They considered donning orange rubber dry suits, so that they could be picked up from the sea in a motorboat, but Moore said they decided that was too risky.

“Jumping into the water is considered the best way to die,” he said.

Eventually, the tanker captain brought his vessel parallel to the Elusive. He then allowed the massive craft to drift alongside the tiny sailboat, exerting a level of precision and control that Moore called amazing.

Bill Moore said that, even when his son told him on the satellite phone that he loved him and apologized for worrying them, he didn’t fully grasp the importance of that final phone call.

He was just happy to hear that another ship was rescuing the crew.

“I was more relieved than anything,” he said. “I didn’t know they had a serious problem. I hadn’t thought about what the process of getting off the ship meant until a few hours later.”

In a prepared statement, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Tim Eason, the coordinator of the rescue mission, credited the response of the Bow Clipper’s crew, which he said allowed it to “be in position to effect an immediate rescue when the situation aboard the sailing vessel Elusive deteriorated.”

Shortly before 7 p.m., a tired and bleeding Moore stepped off the deck of the Elusive and scrambled up the rope ladder as quickly as he could force his weary muscles to carry him.

On deck, the Norwegians asked him if he wanted food and he accepted, eager for nourishment, but picturing packages of hard rations.

Instead, they took him out of the howling storm and into what seemed like a luxury restaurant. The contrast was jarring.

“It was the most surreal experience, going from fighting for your life to fine dining. I was wearing foul weather gear with a cut on my face. There were knives strapped all over my body. And we sit down at this table. There’s a little spoon above the plates. They had dough balls with bacon in the middle, lamb chops, fresh carrot juice. I mean, fresh carrot juice!”

DRY LAND

The Bow Clipper deposited Moore and the other crew members at its next port of call, Wilmington, N.C., not far from the home of some of Moore’s cousins, who picked him up.

He flew up to Maine to see his parents, and has since returned to his home in New York.

Moore’s flood of relief at surviving the experience expressed itself in a torrent of thank you letters, about a dozen in all, to “the various people and products that contributed to us not dying.”

He wrote one to the crew of the Bow Clipper. He wrote another to the prime minister of Norway. Others went to the manufacturers of products that had performed well at sea – Global Star, makers of the satellite phone; Garmin, makers of a GPS system and the producers of Cliff Bars and Pedialyte, who he credited with keeping his body fueled and hydrated.

A special one went to B&M Baked Beans, made by B&G Foods of Portland, which Moore credits with providing the only hot meal he and the other crew members ate during their ordeal. The violent pitching of the ship made it impossible to cook and prepare most foods, but Moore said he was able, with a half-hour of diligent effort, to open and heat a large can of beans.

“Objects took on an added importance,” he said. “A lot of products performed in unimaginable conditions. To me, it made me really grateful.”

The Elusive was lost at sea after the rope binding it to the Bow Clipper was torn off by the forces of the ocean. Moore said it might have gone down and wound up on the bottom of the ocean, largely intact. Or it might have been shredded by the storm.

If it did survive the storm without sinking, he said, it was likely discovered and taken by another ship, perhaps a tuna boat out on a fishing expedition.

He doesn’t expect it to be returned.

“The laws of the sea are completely different,” he said. “If you find a boat, it’s yours.”

It’s just one more reminder that the sea is rougher, more dangerous, and more exhilarating than most places on dry land. That’s a lesson that Moore has now learned in a very personal way, but it hasn’t driven him away.

In mid-July, Moore returned to the ocean on a sailing trip from Bermuda to Long Island, N.Y.

He is still in pursuit of his captain’s license.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

[email protected]

Twitter: @hh_matt

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