Mystery At Sea

After a massive sea and air search, the 60-foot racing sloop Coyote, was found capsized in the North Atlantic, but the fate of her skipper, round the world sailor Michael Plant, was still unknown
November 30, 1992

America's most renowned single-handed offshore sailor, Michael Plant of Jamestown, R.I., had been lost at sea for 32 days when his 60-foot racing yacht, Coyote, was spotted on Sunday morning—the day that Plant had originally intended to begin a nonstop race around the world. The sighting was made by a Greek-owned tanker, Protank Orinoco, 460 nautical miles north of the Azores, four days after the U.S. Coast Guard had suspended an air search for Plant that had covered some 200,000 square miles. It was one of the broadest rescue missions ever in the North Atlantic. With each passing day the likelihood of finding Plant alive diminished.

When it was spotted, Coyote was capsized, drifting upside down in eight-foot seas. There was no sign of Plant. Coyote's mast, plunging 85 feet into the cold waters, was still rigged with sails. The boat's hull was still intact; its twin rudders, apparently, were operational. The carbon-fiber keel was there. But the 8,400-pound lead keel bulb was missing. Without the bulb, the keel was useless for keeping the boat upright in a strong wind. Coyote, without the weight of the keel bulb, was unable to right itself once it overturned; it became a death trap.

In plain language, the boat broke. The fate of Plant, whose 42nd birthday was last Saturday, was still undetermined as SI went to press Monday night. It is possible no one will ever know. Was he still on board? Had he holed up in one of Coyote's five watertight compartments, in total darkness, somehow staying alive for as long as four weeks by using the boat's hand-held watermaker that turns seawater into freshwater? Was he adrift at sea somewhere in a life raft? Had he been lost forever at sea when the Coyote capsized?

Coast Guard efforts to reach the overturned vessel were impeded by the remote location in which it was found and by heavy seas and low cloud cover. But Plant's family has remained hopeful. "Knowing Michael and the way he's able to think quickly," said his brother, Tom, from his home in Gaithersburg, Md., "we believe he could still be in the boat and have found an air pocket. He would still have food on board, and he could have poked a hole in the hull."

But the U.S. Coast Guard was not so optimistic. "If he's aboard the vessel, we're of the opinion he's no longer alive," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Matt Giltner, who was helping to coordinate the search. "We're looking for a life raft."

Plant had sailed around the world alone three times, so it was with no special concern that he left New York Harbor on Oct. 16 bound for Les Sables d'Olonne, France. That was the starting point of the Vendèe Globe Challenge, a nonstop single-handed round-the-world race, in which Plant was expected to be the only American among the 18 entrants. He had sailed in the race before. In 1989-90 he completed the 24,000-mile route in 134 days, and this time around he had hoped to shave at least 25 days off that American record. Top Gun is what the French call Plant, because of his passion for sailing in wild winds and heavy seas.

The registration deadline for the 1992 Vendèe was midnight, Oct. 30, in Les Sables d'Olonne, meaning Plant had left himself two weeks to get there from New York, a very fast crossing. It would give him a chance to test the new $650,000 boat, with its lightweight fiberglass-coated foam-core hull, on the open seas under racing conditions. Built by Concordia Custom Yachts, Inc., in South Dartmouth, Mass., Coyote hadn't been launched until Sept. 10, six months behind Plant's original schedule.

"It was a brand-new boat, untested," Tom Plant said, before the capsized yacht was found. "It needed more sea trial. Michael had been harried the last several weeks. He had to put the boat in the water, do a practice run on it [from Newport, R.I., to Norfolk, Va.] and do the whole campaign himself without a sponsor or a crew."

"His biggest problem was he didn't have any money," said Dan Neri, president of Shore Sails, Inc., in Portsmouth, R.I., a friend of Plant's whose firm made the sails for Coyote. "Mike spent the last two weeks running around looking for sponsors. He had about six billion details left to do. Every boat keeps a list of things to buy and do before it leaves port. I asked him how he was doing on the list. He told me, 'It's so long now, I've lost the beginning of it.' When you sail around the world three times by yourself, maybe you treat things a little more lightly than you or I would. To him, sailing across the Atlantic was just a delivery."

But Plant had reason to be apprehensive about the seaworthiness of his boat. Just 2½ weeks before leaving New York, he had pulled the mast out of Coyote in order to have it reinforced; a day sail off Newport in 35-knot winds had revealed an alarming shimmy in one of the mast's sections. "Mike did say he was concerned he hadn't gotten to know the boat," said a friend, David Stevens, a writer who is working on a book about Plant. "He knew better than anyone the ocean's power. He was not an arrogant sailor."

By all accounts Coyote, which was designed by Newport naval architect Rodger Martin, was scintillatingly fast, able to reach a speed of 25 knots. It had a plumb bow, a broad, 19-foot beam and 50% more sail area—4,700 square feet downwind—than Plant's previous round-the-world boat, Duracell. Yet at 21,500 pounds, it was lighter than Duracell by 5,000 pounds, a differential that Plant estimated would enable Coyote to go 12% faster. "Every time I was out on that boat, at some point everyone would just start laughing," said Neri. "It was that fast. It was a radical design, by far the fastest 60-foot monohull ever launched in this country. Everyone involved thought the boat was capable of winning the race."

Plant had never won a round-the-world single-handed race. He had finished first in the 1986-87 BOC Challenge in Class II (boats 40-50 feet in length), sailing Airco Distributor, a yacht he had built in his own backyard. And he was fourth in Class I in the '90-91 BOC race in Duracell. He had proved he had the savvy and endurance to circumnavigate the globe single-handed. In Coyote, Plant wanted to prove he had the stuff to outsail the heavily funded French.

Soon after he left New York Harbor, however, Coyote apparently began giving Plant trouble. He lost all electrical power on or about Oct. 19, his fourth day at sea. This is surmised because Plant made a series of phone calls from the boat on Sunday, Oct. 18, and made no mention of a loss of power. "He left several messages on my answering machine," Stevens said, "and in one of them he said he was having some trouble steering the boat in these seas. It was blowing 35 knots on the nose, and he described it as 'god-awful.' I think he used the word laboring."

No one heard from Plant again until Oct. 21, when he raised a passing freighter, SKS Trader, via his battery-operated 12-volt VHF radio, which has a range of about 14 miles. Plant was almost one third of the way across the Atlantic, 940 miles from New York, 360 miles due south of St. John's, Newfoundland, and some 1,300 miles from the spot where Coyote was eventually found. "I have no power, but I'm working on the problem," Plant told the freighter's Russian captain, who spoke passable English. Plant did not ask the captain for a weather report or the position of any vessels that lay ahead. He ended the transmission with this request: "Tell Helen not to worry." Helen Davis, 43, is Plant's fiancèe. That was the last direct communication anyone had with Plant.

Sailing the Coyote without electrical power would be a formidable task. Lacking running lights, Plant would be in constant danger at night of being hit by a tanker. To avert such a disaster, he would have had to stay awake all night and take catnaps during the day. Without weather reports Plant was prey to the terrible whims of nature, and October is hurricane season in the North Atlantic. Without a functioning autopilot, it would be next to impossible for him to sail the boat while sleeping. Coyote was too fast to just lash down the wheel and go below to rest.

But Plant was resourceful. He had sailed through hurricanes before. He had survived capsizing in 45-foot seas in the Indian Ocean during the 1986-87 BOC, when the Airco Distributor was able to right itself. He had repaired a broken mast, fixed a busted generator, repaired a hole in his hull after a collision with another vessel off Cape Town during the '90-91 BOC. And he had had numerous close calls with icebergs.

Plant had practiced wilderness survival skills since he was 14, when he was part of an Outward Bound group in Minnesota. At 18 he became an Outward Bound instructor. Having grown up in the affluent Minneapolis suburb of Wayzata, Plant had learned to sail small boats on Lake Minnetonka and later captained larger vessels while delivering yachts in the Great Lakes, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. He was always independent and self-reliant. After dropping out of Colorado Mountain College, Plant had hiked alone through South America, trekking for nine months between Colombia and Patagonia. He loved adventure as much as sailing. As recently as last summer he was making plans to climb Alaska's Mount McKinley with Stevens. "I'm not quite sure where his adventurer's blood came from," his mother, Mary Plant, said from her home in Wayzata. "Ancestral genes, I guess."

Plant was working as a house builder in Newport in 1983 when he saw a film on a round-the-world race that introduced him to what would become his life's work. "I walked out of the theater," he once explained, "and it was like a light switch had gone on. I've never really looked back."

He enjoyed the solitude of single-handed ocean racing. "He hated having people on his boat," recalled Neri. "At first when we didn't hear from him, I told Helen, 'That's probably the good news. It means he's back in his racing mode.' "

It wasn't until Plant was a week overdue at Les Sables d'Olonne that his friends really began to worry. On Nov. 6 the U.S. Coast Guard put out an alert asking vessels in the Atlantic to keep a lookout for Coyote. No sightings were reported. If Plant were truly in trouble, his friends knew, he would have activated his battery-powered Raytheon 406 Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), a device which, once every 50 seconds, transmits a coded signal to a network of satellites. A ground station then picks up the satellite signal and relays the information to the nearest control center, in this case to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Suitland, Md. NOAA's computers should then be able to determine two things: the identity of the vessel that sent the distress signal and the exact location of the vessel, provided the satellite has received at least four transmission bursts. NOAA then notifies the U.S. Coast Guard, and a search and rescue mission can be deployed.

But the Coast Guard received no such notification from NOAA, nor was it notified of an unidentified distress signal from a 406 EPIRB. In Plant's haste to depart, his friends discovered, he had neglected to register his EPIRB with NOAA. It may have cost him his life.

On Nov. 11, Stevens was finally able to track down Plant's EPIRB identification number from the beacon's manufacturer. Armed with this new information, both NOAA and Canadian Coast Guard officials ran the number through their tracking computers. What they found made Stevens's heart sink. Seventeen days earlier, on the night of Oct. 27, Plant's EPIRB had sent out a brief distress signal—three weak transmission bursts—that had been picked up in Goose Bay, Canada. The next day two transmission bursts were found by NOAA when they reviewed their satellite data. Nothing more was heard from Plant's EPIRB. Because the transmission was so brief, and because the EPIRB number wasn't registered, both American and Canadian control centers failed to respond to the distress signal.

"The family feels," said Tom Plant, "that for NOAA to receive a 406-type EPIRB, which carries an ID number, and then to drop it without making any attempt to contact anyone is unacceptable." The question remained, however: Why had Coyote's EPIRB gone dead? The most likely alternatives were these: Plant had shut it off manually; the device had malfunctioned; or the EPIRB, and the boat, had sunk. Stevens analyzed: "A very short signal from a brand-new Raytheon EPIRB in the middle of the night—that's the signal from a run-over vessel."

But there were other possibilities, equally ominous. Tropical storm Frances may have been in Plant's general vicinity the night of Oct. 27, and it was possible Coyote broke apart in the gale. The boat might have hit a submerged object and capsized. It could have been dismasted, and the broken mast, caught in a network of rigging, slammed like a battering ram against the hull by the raging sea.

Using the three bursts received by the Goose Bay ground station to fix the location, Canada's control center estimated that the EPIRB had been activated some 300 miles due south of Plant's last known location, a site that made little sense to anyone—unless Plant had aborted his crossing and had decided to sail for Bermuda.

Still, that was where the air search began Nov. 13. Four C-130 aircraft from the U.S. Coast Guard, two P-3 aircraft from the U.S. Navy, plus two Canadian C-130s searched the Atlantic for six days, eventually expanding the hunt to include a site 500 miles north of the Azores in the hopes that Plant was proceeding toward France under jury rig. The search was suspended the evening of Nov. 18.

Three days later, working with data provided by Bob Rice of Weather Service Corp. of Bedford, Mass., Plant's family convinced the Coast Guard that their fix on the location had been erroneous and that they were searching in the wrong place. On Nov. 20 the order was made to resume the search, weather permitting, in a location northeast of the Azores. "We know Michael's out there," said Tom Plant. "We're tremendously hopeful. If I were to select anyone to get through this, it would be him. But what are the chances of no one seeing him? I just don't know. That's what's so frustrating."

When the boat was found on Sunday, capsized, it became clear why no one had spotted Coyote for almost a month. Overturned, the hull's black bottom and keel blended perfectly with the waters of the North Atlantic, making it extraordinarily difficult to spot from the air.

"Finding the boat has answered some questions, and has given us a whole new set of questions to puzzle over," said Darryl Davis, 26, the eldest son of Helen Davis, who as of Monday was still waiting in Les Sables d'Olonne. "Nobody here has lost any hope."

PHOTOBILLY BLACK TWO PHOTOSBILLY BLACKOn Oct. 16, Plant gave Davis a farewell kiss, then trimmed the sails on Coyote as he set out on his ill-fated voyage to France. PHOTOBILLY BLACKThe calm waters of New York Harbor gave no hint of what lay ahead in the North Atlantic. PHOTOBILLY BLACKThe boat's electronic equipment became useless when power failed. PHOTOBILLY BLACKWhen the Coyote was later found capsized, this keel bulb was missing. PHOTOBILLY BLACKEarly in the crossing, Plant's hurried plans began to go awry. PHOTOBILLY BLACKPlant, an expert solo circumnavigator, has always hated having others on his boat. MAPMIKE REAGANOct. 16
Plant, aboard Coyote, leaves New York Harbor
Oct. 21
Last radio message lat. 42°12' N, long. 53°30' W
Oct. 27
Emergency beacon signals lat. 36°21' N, long. 52°45' W
Nov. 22
Protank Orinoco sights Coyote at 7:40 a.m. EST lat. 46°54' N, long. 26°51' W
Oct. 30
Date Coyote due to arrive