Coast Guard towed rudderless sailors to Port Hardy hours before a powerful storm

Sails down, masks up for Ron and Sherry Pryde, who completed a 119 day journey that was supposed to be 70 days. (Zoe Ducklow)Sails down, masks up for Ron and Sherry Pryde, who completed a 119 day journey that was supposed to be 70 days. (Zoe Ducklow)
Helps to have a skill saw on board when you need to make a steering oar. (Sherry Pryde)Helps to have a skill saw on board when you need to make a steering oar. (Sherry Pryde)
“Caught, landed, cleaned, cooked, delicious.” (Sherry Pryde)“Caught, landed, cleaned, cooked, delicious.” (Sherry Pryde)
Sherry and Ron Pryde off of Maui in front of the Second Star. (Sherry Pryde)Sherry and Ron Pryde off of Maui in front of the Second Star. (Sherry Pryde)
Being towed by the CCGS Gordon Reid. (Sherry Pryde)Being towed by the CCGS Gordon Reid. (Sherry Pryde)
The CCGS Cape St. James towing the Second Star the final distance. (Sherry Pryde)The CCGS Cape St. James towing the Second Star the final distance. (Sherry Pryde)

A pair of rudderless sailors were towed to Port Hardy just hours before a massive storm hit on Thanksgiving night, and are under quarantine on their boat in Hardy Bay after a 119-day journey.

“We are thankful, thankful, thankful to be here,” Sherry Pryde, 54, told the Gazette through the Quarterdeck Marina gate on Tuesday.

“It’s a happy ending to a long story.”

Sherry and her husband Ron Pryde, 65, live on sailboats year round — summer in Lund and winter in Mexico. They have a boat in each place, and drive back and forth twice a year. Except this year.

The Prydes had been in Mexico since Dec. 2019, living on their 30-tonne green aluminum sailboat, the Second Star, in the Gulf of California near the port town Guaymas, back before anyone had any idea of how the coronavirus would change everything.

As the virus spread worldwide and Canada issued advisories for citizens abroad to return home, the Prydes felt stuck. They were already relatively isolated living on the small boat, and things in Mexico were changing chaotically.

“There were roadblocks, stores were closed, you weren’t really allowed to leave, but you couldn’t be there either,” said Rod.

They thought about storing the boat and driving home through the States, but there was talk of borders closings, and their boat yard was down to a skeleton staff accommodating only essential customers.

And so the Prydes decided to sail. They’d done it before, and knew it would take 40 to 60 days. They got supplies to last for 70 days so they wouldn’t need to stop in Hawaii. Ron charted a route along the Pacific High, a semi-permanent weather system that would let them ride the winds north of Hawaii all the way home to the Juan de Fuca strait.

They set sail from Mexico on June 18 right into a hurricane. A strange weather season had the Prydes dodging one storm after another as they moved west, but the real problem started when the storms stopped. The dreaded windless sea stranded them for three weeks. Ron spent days on his paddle board, the open Pacific ocean between Mexico and Hawaii was so calm.

What should have taken a couple of weeks had stretched into a month, and they started to notice how much water they were going through.

“We probably could have made it if we rationed, and went down to rice and beans by the end,” Sherry said. But why bother? Hawaii has a sea-time exception, allowing the couple to restock without quarantining. So they made a 10-day detour for some gloriously fresh tropical fruit, water and other essentials, and set off north again in late August.

RELATED: Denied entry into U.S., Kootenay couple still forced to quarantine for 2 weeks

The Second Star was 1,287 kilometres (800 miles) from Canada when gale force winds stirred up the ocean. It was the fall equinox, and the seas were “crazy and confused,” Sherry recalled. On Sept. 21, the last day of summer, the Second Star’s 4×4-ft. metal rudder bent and flexed one too many times, and broke off.

“It deep-sixed to Davy Jones’ locker,” she said, amused now, though at the time they’d just lost the ability to steer their boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Ron’s been on and around boats his whole life and regards sailing like most people feel about driving.

The couple – he a retired tug boat worker, and she a retired nurse – liquidated their two-property life about 14 years ago for a tiny-house-on-the-seas lifestyle. The first five years or so they had their son with them, now 25, who homeschooled from the boat. Ron does most of the sailing tasks, while Sherry runs the interior. She has a sourdough starter and makes bread or pizza every few days. They have a collection of DVDs and a flatscreen, and books – many books. Life on a sailboat is like a prison or a resort, Ron says – it’s you who decides.

Losing the rudder 800 miles off shore was an expletive moment, Sherry said, but she knew Ron thrived in chaotic moments like this and neither of them were overly worried. They stopped for a few days while he jury-rigged a steering paddle, which he says was like using a spoon to steer a canoe.

“A boat sails 90 degrees to the wind. I could choose which 90 degrees, but that was it.”

On the calm days they could make some progress, but if winds picked up, they had no choice but to sail backwards. Still though, Ron thought he could make it, between zigzagging and using the small motor once they got closer to land.

A small group of sailors they were in touch with over satellite texting were confused by their progress — it’s good weather, why aren’t you making progress? they’d ask. ]“We definitely did some donuts and lazy-eights out there,” Sherry joked.

The closer to B.C. they got the harder it was to maintain course. Winds forced them right past Juan de Fuca Strait. They were going up Vancouver Island now. At around 200 kilometres away (130 miles), Ron checked to find out if there even was a Coast Guard on the North Island. He figured if there was, he’d get to within 20 miles and then call for help to land.

But the Coast Guard answered, we’ll be there in 24 hours.

What the Pryde’s didn’t know was there was a massive storm coming, which cut off power to over 40,000 people on Vancouver Island on Oct. 14.

RELATED: Power restored to most after wind leaves thousands without power on Vancouver Island, including schools

The CCGS Gordon Reid found the Second Star and towed it into Hardy Bay Thanksgiving morning, hours before the storm.

The Prydes were extremely grateful for the Coast Guard’s help, and for the warm welcome they’ve received from RCMP and marina staff in Port Hardy. Though Ron is still confident he could have navigated with his rudder “spoon.” It just would have taken longer.

After 119 days at sea, 49 days since they last saw another human, they are still required to isolate for 14 days, but they aren’t complaining. They’ll be out just in time to celebrate Halloween where Sherry will be a fairy-godmother-accessory to her granddaughter’s Cinderella costume. Ron says he’ll be the grumpy old grandpa, holding the bag of candy.

Do you have something to add to this story or something else we should report on? Email: zoe.ducklow@blackpress.ca


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