Four days after the start of the San Diego-Acapulco ocean race (due to end this week), fire broke out aboard the ketch Celebes and quickly engulfed her. Only other yacht within reach was the yawl Escapade, bearing SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Ezra Bowen. Here is as much of the story as Bowen was able to tell over a crackling ship-to-shore radio-telephone circuit before Escapade's batteries ran low:
At 12:42 p.m. last Thursday the port watch of the 69-foot racing ketch Celebes was below preparing for noon chow. Their ship was leading at the halfway mark in the 1,500-mile San Diego-to-Acapulco race. One of the crew, Nikita Kushelevsky, had just hit the deck and was standing beside his bunk in his underwear. The fire had not yet been discovered.
Topside, the skipper of Celebes, John Hedden, was huddled in the cockpit with crewman Dennis Jordan. The two were discussing their chances of pulling away from the yawl Escapade, which had been hugging their stern a mile and a half off for the past 12 hours. "I'm getting tired of looking at that damned Escapade," admitted Hedden.
Both ships were kicking along, rail down, on a 25-mile-an-hour wind, about 86 miles west of Cape San Lucas on the tip of the peninsula of Lower California, Mexico.
February 3, 1958
At that precise moment Captain Hedden noticed smoke up forward, apparently coming from the generator and the bilge. He went to the generator locker, opened it, and was scorched by leaping flames. The fire, fanned by the 25-mile breeze, gushed out onto the deck. Jordan, who was right behind Skipper Hedden, grabbed a fire extinguisher and pumped it dry, but his effort was useless. The flames spread hungrily to the port watch companion-way, blocking that exit for the six port watch crewmen below.
On Escapade, the crew was striving mightily to overtake Celebes. It was now 12:42 p.m., and I was making my way forward. I looked up and saw a heavy column of gray-black smoke pouring into the sky. There could be only one reason: Celebes was on fire. We called all hands on deck. The smoke was so thick I thought Celebes' fuel tanks must have exploded. Escapade's skipper, James Camp, immediately ordered the jib lowered, kicked on the auxiliary power and proceeded at full speed toward the smoke cloud.
When we drew close to the flaming Celebes we could not spot a living soul aboard. It was an eerie feeling. I knew if there had been an explosion there would probably be no survivors.
When the spreading flames on Celebes cut off the companionway as a means of escape for the six crewmen trapped below, they made their way to the forward hatch—and one of the bone-chilling moments of the whole drama took place. The hatch was closed and stuck shut. For perilous seconds the six frantic crewmen pushed and clawed at the hatch cover. "It's locked from the outside!" one man cried in honest despair. But it was not—just stuck. A great heave got it open, and the men scrambled gratefully to the deck.
Jordan and Captain Hedden, meanwhile, were trying to salvage life preservers from a burning locker. Though both got singed eyebrows and burned hands, they managed to get seven jackets and a ring before the heat drove them back. Other crewmen, at Hedden's command, grabbed the halyards to lower sail and slow speed, but the mainsail, pressed hard against the mast by the wind, would not come down. Celebes continued to make at least three knots.
Seeing that an attempt to lower canvas was useless, Hedden turned his attention to escape vessels. There was an aluminum skiff aboard, but it was too near the butane tanks in the locker. They might go up any minute.
But, fortunately, Celebes carried a life raft large enough to keep her 12 men afloat.
The flames had struck so swiftly that the time between the discovery of the fire and Hedden's order to abandon ship was no more than five minutes. Moreover, Celebes was unable to get a radio message out. The radio room was next to the generator and was filled with clouds of black smoke and heat too intense to enter. Captain Hedden said later, "I had a brief vision of a boy on a burning deck sending radio distress calls—and immediately rejected the idea."
At 12:47 p.m. Hedden gave the order to abandon ship.
As the crew prepared to launch the life raft, they took one good long look toward Escapade, no longer a tiresome object. They saw Escapade's jib come down, but it was impossible to tell whether this was another one of Escapade's frequent racing change of sails or whether the billowing smoke cloud had been spotted.
When the raft hit the water, Captain Hedden and crew followed suit. Two men were stationed on the raft; the rest clung to lifelines around its edges. They struggled to paddle away from Celebes, which by now was engulfed in flame, so as to get out of range of the expected butane explosion. Meanwhile Celebes, still catching the wind, sailed away at three knots.
Jordan and Hedden were the last men to leave Celebes, but it was Nikita Kushelevsky, underwear and all, who had the presence of mind to remember the orange tarpaulin sail which was in the skiff. "I thought it would be useful as a marker," he explained.
It was, and it may have saved 12 lives.
For 20 or more minutes, the men clung to the tiny raft, not knowing whether Escapade would find them—or pursue instead the burning derelict. Kushelevsky hoisted the orange tarpaulin on an oar. All eyes were on Escapade and her two distant masts. Escapade did seem to be following the empty Celebes. Then, as they watched, where they had seen two masts there was only one. The masts had come in line like the sights on a rifle, pointed at the raft and its orange tarpaulin. "Thank God," somebody said.
As we on Escapade lay off the burning wreck of Celebes, about 100 yards to windward, someone spotted the orange tarpaulin. If it had not been for that splash of color, we might never have seen the distant raft.
As the crew of Celebes clambered aboard Escapade to be given blankets, shirts and whisky, one of the rescued crewmen exclaimed, not without reverence: "You sons of bitches looked pretty good to us this time."
Escapade stood by the burning hulk until it sank at 5:05 p.m., then signaled the Coast Guard that the gutted Celebes was no longer a menace to navigation.
Then, with 24 hands aboard this time, we went back to the sport of ocean racing.