On the upside, Little Rock’s Mike O’Bryant will have a great yarn to tell his grandkids someday.
A caddie at West Pulaski County’s private Alotian golf course, O’Bryant was one of three men aboard an 80-year-old wooden sailboat in February when it began to take on water 90 miles off the coast of Nicaragua. How it got there, and how he lived to tell the tale, is a bro-story for the ages.
See, O’Bryant has this friend named Zach Morrison. Morrison, a Mississippi native who O’Bryant met while they were both working as golf pros at a course in the Magnolia State, is sort of a free spirit. So it was par for the course, pun intended, when Morrison called up O’Bryant one day to tell him he’d bought a double-masted mahogany schooner built around the time Prohibition ended. There was only one problem: the boat was currently anchored in Los Angeles. Morrison eventually hit on the idea that he wanted to sail it from there to the Mississippi Gulf coast.
“He has a lot of crazy friends, and I think I was one of his first calls,” O’Bryant said. “I was like, ‘Where is this sailboat? He said, ‘It’s in Los Angeles. I’m going to sail it home through the Panama Canal.’ I said, ‘Man, I’m in.’ “
Morrison and O’Bryant left Los Angeles aboard the schooner — rechristened Rebel Yell — on Dec. 15. By then, Morrison had been funded by a publisher to write a memoir about the adventure.
For a month, they cruised south down the west coast of Mexico, fishing, stopping in beautiful ports and soaking up the sun. Everywhere they went, the Rebel Yell drew a crowd.
“It was beautiful boat,” O’Bryant said. “The fun thing was, anywhere we stopped, the boat itself was a celebrity … anywhere we stopped and dropped anchor in a marina, everyone had to come look at the boat.”
O’Bryant’s father, Robert O’Bryant, joined them in Cabo San Lucas, and the three pressed on, soon leaving the coast of Mexico behind. They were 100 miles off the coast of Nicaragua when they spotted the black wall of a storm ahead, between them and their next port in Costa Rica. They had no choice but to sail into it.
Within hours, they were in a giant washing machine, tossed by 15- to 20-foot swells that rocked the boat every few seconds. Though they never saw much rain, O’Bryant said, the huge waves off the storm kept coming for days. “We were so tired,” he said. “I slept for about two hours one night, because I was so exhausted after two days. I woke up, and I had rugburns on my elbows and knees because I’d slid around in my bunk so much.”
Exhausted, the days blurred together. The relentless seas began to take their toll on the schooner as well. First, the jib sail at the front of the boat slipped out of the canvas cradle that held it and fell into the water, then the cables that held the mast began to snap. O’Bryant began to have a sense of impending doom. “Things kept going wrong, and I thought, ‘We’re never going to get to Costa Rica. The boat’s going to sink.’ “
That thought surely felt like a premonition when O’Bryant went below deck and noticed water standing in the bottom of the hold. At first, he didn’t really believe they were taking on water. The Rebel Yell was triple hulled and built on a solid oak frame, he said, a “tank” that could have sailed through a brick wall. Soon, however, he found the Achilles Heel by which the ship was eventually lost.
At the rear of the boat, below the water line, the rudder shaft came through the hull by way of two metal plates with a piece of wood sandwiched between them, all of it held together by two large bolts to form a gasket and keep out the sea. At some point in the past, O’Bryant said, somebody had installed a piece of regular ol’ plywood in the middle of that sandwich. The relentless swells pushing and pulling the rudder had caused the rudder shaft to rock back and forth, which caused a small leak, which soon soaked the piece of plywood. Once the plywood was wet, it started to disintegrate, allowing the leak to grow.
“A previous owner used an inferior piece of wood where he shouldn’t have and painted it black,” O’Bryant said. “This thing, it passed safety inspections, insurance surveys, but everyone just kind of overlooked it because it looked legit. … When it started getting wet, of course, that piece of plywood just started falling apart. By the time we realized it, this thing’s falling apart, we’re taking on water, we can’t fix this, we’re too far offshore. The only way to have fixed it was to take the boat out of the water, and take the rudder off. It was a big problem.”
Even when faced with the fact that the boat was probably going to the bottom of the Pacific in the middle of a storm, O’Bryant said that everyone on board kept their cool. “I said to my friend, ‘Man, we’re taking on water.’… I took him down there, and we’re watching this water just steady come into the boat, and he says to me, ‘You got any ideas?’ “
When it was agreed that they couldn’t fix the boat, they decided to call out a mayday. No one answered. They sent out an S.O.S. No one answered. Finally, they decided to activate the boat’s Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB, a satellite-linked system that sends a distress call out to the world via satellite. That call was picked up by the Coast Guard in San Diego, which relayed it to the Nicaraguan Navy, which relayed it to a 700-foot, Indian-crewed oil tanker which was then steaming north 70 miles away. The tanker turned and began heading toward them, but the three men agreed it might be 12 to 24 hours before they were saved. With none of them wanting to brave the seas in a life raft, O’Bryant said, they devoted all their energy to keeping the Rebel Yell afloat as long as possible.
While Morrison tried to slow the water coming in around the rudder shaft, O’Bryant started bailing water, carrying more than 75 heavy buckets up the steps from the hold during the next few hours and dumping them overboard before he couldn’t go on. “After awhile,” he said, “my arms and legs just completely burned out.” The ocean, meanwhile, kept coming.
Luckily for O’Bryant and his crewmates, the tanker was faster than they thought, arriving in around 10 hours. Their trouble wasn’t over, however. As they tried to steer the Rebel Yell into position for a rescue, O’Bryant said, the schooner almost capsized once, and then the steering cable snapped, leaving them adrift. Not wanting to risk running down the smaller boat, the tanker captain instead allowed them to drift in circles for another hour until they were finally close enough for the tanker’s crew to throw down ropes and pull them in. Finally a rope ladder was lowered. The three exhausted men climbed the ladder, and soon were safe.
O’Bryant has one last picture of the Rebel Yell, sitting low in the water with her sails down, taken from the deck of the larger ship. The tanker captain, O’Bryant said, asked them if they wanted to stay there and watch her sink, but all three said no. “It was unanimous,” he said. “No, we don’t want to see it.” The tanker steamed on. On the ship’s powerful radar, the blip that represented the schooner held stubbornly on for another six hours before disappearing from the screen.
Coincidentally, the tanker was heading back to Los Angeles, where they’d started out from 10 days before Christmas. O’Bryant said all three of them had their own cabins on the tanker. They spent their days on the return trip eating home-cooked Indian food, playing ping-pong, and exhaustively going over everything that had happened, asking each other if they did all they could to save the ship. It was a beautiful boat, O’Bryant said again, and a shame.
After a few days, however, the three started looking ahead. “After that,” O’Bryant said, “it was Zach going: ‘Hey, if I got another boat, would you guys want to do this again? We said, ‘Hell yes, we would.'” Asked what he’ll do differently if he’s given another shot at a sailing trip like that, O’Bryant thought about it, laughed, then said, “I’ll make sure there’s no plywood on the boat.”