Disaster at Sea

By Allan D. Kissam and Richard W. Kissam

This is a true story of a death at sea. It is a story of weekend sailors and the US Coast Guard.

My father, Richard, was an experienced sailor. He studied sailing and boats, practiced maneuvers, and for years he sailed his sailboat around southern California. His long distance trips had included being crew on a Tahiti bound sailboat. He was better than most for seamanship skills.

He got the first boat in 1958, a 28-foot ketch that quickly became an obsession. Soon thereafter, his little red Triumph sports car was gone. The family car became a 1958 Chevrolet Nomad station wagon with more room for hauling sailing gear.

Nightly after work, he withdrew to his favorite chair to read about seamanship and voyages. He learned easily because in World War II he had been an airplane pilot. Later, in 1965, he upgraded to a 35-foot sloop – named Nixie. He retired at age 53 in 1972 and moved aboard his boat with my mother. Mom cried for months when thinking of her lost house. It was Nixie that he took to Hawaii in the 1980's when the death occurred.

He taught me to sail a boat and I helped with maintenance, like going up the mast in a boatswain chair. After college, the boating bug was in me and then came years of sea duty with the National Ocean Survey. The sea experience involved lots of ship handling, navigation, and running small craft around rough spots in Alaska, coastal California, and Washington. I left after eleven years service in the NOAA Corps* and discharged as a lieutenant commander. This service was previously known as the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. In parts of the story to follow, there are comments and experiences that supplement Richard's story.

Richard Kissam wrote the following story and I found it in his estate files. The participant names are changed. Some long sections are truncated to make what was certainly a first draft more readable –


9008842891?profile=originalIt all started during a beautiful late afternoon boat sit around in Long Beach Marina eighteen miles from Catalina Island.

. .. This particular afternoon one of these week end friends said, “Why don’t we take off and sail your boat to Hawaii”

I thought this was a great idea. Jake, the idea man was a great guy, … He was real easy to be around and I thought he would be a good companion for seventeen or eighteen days. ..We had a very adequate boat, an Alberg 35 that was well set up for cruising...

... Another friend on the dock who knew what I was up to said that I should put some ham radio gear aboard... I was not licensed and it is illegal to transmit .. except in an emergency.. Ignorance is bliss, because at that time my friend told me to set this knob at twelve o’clock , this one at three, press this lever and start talking and someone will hear you. This installation turned out to be one of the best things we had aboard as this trip progressed...

… Jake came aboard … concerning the possibility of another sailor joining us. It sounded alright. .. His name was Ted and he … had diabetes. That changed the whole complexion of the third man, but I was assured that there was no problem. ..Jake had sailed with him and being his close friend , he knew his health history. ... His doctor had cleared him for the trip and after all this would be his only chance to make this kind of trip…

... Nixie was a 35 foot full keel boat designed by the venerable Carl Alberg. She was built in 1965 during the era of the full keel race boats. The Alberg 35 now had the reputation of a comfortable, well built, reasonably fast cruising boat.

.. Outside of the protection of Point Conception the sea conditions take a dramatic change. The seas come rolling down from the north, winds can increase a bit and the associated chop can be uncomfortable. These conditions can extend offshore for 500 to 600 miles before you encounter the trade winds and experience the euphoria of down wind sailing.

First days out are the anticipation days as you watch the mainland disappear. After all the preparation and stowing gear, did we forget anything and was there anything that should have been checked? All seems to be in order and the Hasler vane is doing its job of steering and holding a fairly good course. The vane is an indispensable piece of cruising gear … A good well designed vane will steer by the wind for days on end without a complaint and require only minimal adjustment. This … was a copy of the original Hasler design which had been used in the early single handed Atlantic small boat races from England to the United States. Being a copy and hand built only the best materials were used... The one thing that was later to create a problem was the quadrant. The original was made of plywood and I had substituted a piece of one inch Plexiglass ...

As we proceeded westward. .. Ted was sitting in leeward corner of the cockpit not saying much, I wondered how he was feeling. I had been assured that sea conditions were really not a problem as Ted had his own boat for years. Jake had sailed with him and was familiar and knowledgeable regarding his problems, so I was enjoying the sail...

... Sea conditions were a little bumpy and we were rolling a bit and Ted was going to take the first watch. We could see the lights of coast wise ships as we were crossing their north south shipping lanes. ... The watch changed at midnight, Ted and I hot bunked it, as the watch changed I got out of the sleeping bag and Ted got in. Next morning Ted stayed in the bunk and was not feeling well. I was concerned but on talking the situation over with Ted, he assured me he would be OK soon. He did not eat breakfast and when lunch time came, he passed on that also along with dinner. That was not an unusual thing to happen when a person is sea sick. During my watch that night I had decided if he was not better the next day, I would turn around and go back to Long Beach. Morning came and Ted said he was feeling better and would be on his feet soon. So we sailed along fat dumb and happy but the anxiety was building and so were his assurances. Another day or two went by, we were still in the realm of reality of turning around for Long Beach. Three of us were below getting a dinner together, a terrific bang was heard from the stern of the boat, it sounded like a 45 revolver going off. I hurried to the stern and found a big chunk of the Plexiglass quadrant of the steering vane had broken off and was sliding around in the water on the deck. Repairs would be necessary even to sail back to Long Beach to put Ted ashore. I had a saw and hand drill aboard along with some bolts and nuts and proceeded to cut up a storage locker lid for some wood to do a patch job …

…It was now 7:OO o’clock in the evening … During the course of the repairs I was able to talk with Ted and more closely observe his now obvious signs. He had not been taking his Insulin because of not being able to hold his food down and thereby could go into a diabetic coma or something. He must have been getting way out of balance regarding his diabetes. He was coherent and insisting he could make it but the time had come to get him off the boat. Jake, his friend, was not any more familiar with Ted’s problems than I was other than giving him an apple or orange when he needed it. Ted must have been getting dehydrated because he would drink a quart of milk then a short time later he would drink a quart of water and it was not staying with him. What a dumb decision I made to have allowed myself to be talked into taking him. There had been lingering qualms regarding that decision but the Bon Voyage parties with all his friends and relatives, the very positive family attitudes, and no one questioning his decision must have played a large part in locking it together. I was not in the medical loop and was not informed.

The ham radio was hooked up … An amateur operator heard my call and I asked him to call the Coast Guard and alert them so I could talk to them…The Coast Guard came on the frequency and wanted my location which I had determined earlier in the day with a noon sight. Next a Doctor came on the radio and determined that it was necessary to get Ted off because of described symptoms... The Coast Guard decided to send a large C130 cargo plane out of San Francisco to locate us. A large cutter was dispatched from San Diego along with a helicopter to pick him up. We were beyond the range of the helicopters ability to make the round trip, so the cutter would retrieve the helicopter and medical personnel aboard would administer rapid treatment…

The C130 arrived in the morning and circled us …until the helicopter arrived. ... When that helicopter arrived, it created quite a stir. The tremendous air down blast from that planes rotor blades 100 feet above, pulled papers out of the interior of the boat. Water soaked cushions raised up off of the cockpit seats and general confusion takes place. The seas were quite lumpy and the wind was blowing, the helicopter crew talked to us by bull horn. They would lower the basket on the foredeck, along with a warning not to touch the basket until it was grounded because of possible static shock…Ted was told to crawl along the deck on the port side which he carried out with no problem. The basket was a rectangular shape which the occupant would sit in with his knees drawn up. When Ted was loaded in and ready to go , either the helicopter went up or the boat fell away in one of the large seas, the basket was now headed up and going to be jammed between the lower shrouds and the mast. Jake thinking quickly grabbed the basket and pulled it forward away from the mast, in so doing he forgot to let go of the basket. It all happened so quickly that the next time I saw Jake he was hanging on the basket 25 feet in the air on the port side of the boat. All my attention was devoted to keeping the boat heading in the pre-designated direction and in the … down blasting wind it was a tough experience. At this time the most unexplained maneuver happened which changed the whole rescue operation from success to tragedy.

… Jake…was doing loops as though he had been flung from the basket and was heading for the water on the starboard side. At the same time there was a tremendous crash as the basket came crashing down with Ted inside. It landing on the life lines and the starboard stern quarter of the boat, ... Ted and the basket had now bounced into the water. .. the command from the helicopter was , “pull off, we are coming down”.  Jake was attempting to get to Ted as the chopper neared the water. A corpsman using a pole with a large wire loop on the end pulled the two men to a platform ramp and into the chopper. After they had effected the rescue the copter hovered off to the side of my boat and they asked with a ‘bull horn’ if I could sail the boat back to San Diego by myself. I signaled OK no problem and they took off. While considering what could be done regarding repairs and the realization of how fortunate we were that the rescue had been successful, at least to the extent that Ted was on his way to medical attention... Repairs completed and the steering vane working satisfactorily, headed to San Diego. During this time I had the opportunity to reflect on the whole operation and possibly what had caused the basket to drop.

The basket with Jake hanging on must have been run between the backstay and the mast as the helicopter was maneuvering for position to pull away. The basket cable hitting the backstay with such force as to throw Jake off and into the water on starboard side must have exceeded it’s breaking strength. During the trip back to San Diego ... I heard the terrible news that Ted had died while on the cutter. I was feeling terribly depressed and could not get my mind off of the enthusiasm Ted had expressed for this sail to Hawaii, and now having it end like this. ..I was sailing back healed over going to weather. I put a single reef in the main for comfort. Under the circumstances sleep was impossible, besides crossing coastwise shipping lanes at night without a look out is crazy. The Coast Guard …were going to bring another cutter … Finally they located me and followed me at six knots for two days. During that time they became concerned because the winds were picking up and seas were roughing up. The radio started blaring, they insisted that I stop and take a crew aboard. It was in the early evening and the Alberg Iay to easy with reefed main and no jib…

... two young seamen were brought aboard... I made breakfast for the three of us while they took over the steering and were really enjoying themselves. The radio came on with the notification that they wanted to put an officer aboard. The kids said, “No, No, don’t let them put an officer aboard.” Well, the kids won and when we were inside the San Diego jetty a Coast Guard officer did board us and the first thing he did was put a tape recorder under my nose with the request, “Tell me what happened out there.”

When Nixie was put in a slip at San Diego ..a Coast Guard officer .. went over the back stay with a magnifying glass. I suppose they were trying to find evidence of the cable hitting the back stay causing the cable to break. Later on they would not admit that the basket had hit the boat as it dropped. Even though the stern quarter life lines were down the cap rail was broken and paint from the basket was in evidence. Jake and I were questioned extensively by two Coast Guard Commanders … Sometimes all that help and information comes back to haunt you. I was attached to the Coast Guard as a Co-Defendant in a $ 4.5 million dollar wrongful death suit. Two years later the suit was dropped.

Lessons Learned

So, there was a dead man resulting from a series of bad decisions already addressed by Richard in his narrative. He is not alone in having medical issues arise at sea. Monitor some emergency channels and hear about sick seamen or accidents aboard vessels. Oftentimes, the vessels are being run by the best in the business.

Another story is my friend who wouldn’t step foot aboard a small boat when I invited him sailing. Although he had retired from the Navy as a master chief and I consider him a true salt, the deck now had to be 400 feet long minimum. His story was about going out for day sailing in a small boat, the fast and wet type where you hang over the side to balance the boat. He got tossed overboard without a life jacket. Then, the skipper did not know how to properly sail around in a circle to pick him up, and after several attempts, the skipper simply ran him over in desperation. My friend was so tired and cold that he could not hang on or pull himself up to the boat. He nearly drowned.

So, the moral of these stories is that one never knows what can happen at sea. A good practice for the weekend mariner is to discuss in advance what circumstances can happen and what everyone will do. When underway for long voyages, think ahead about decision points on the route for changed plans. Small boat skippers rarely practice emergency procedures and their crews do not like wearing life vests. Drinking liquor and beer on hot days only heightens the risks.

Summer is approaching and the springtime winds are upon us here in southern California. In the eastern U.S., the boats are readied from winter storage. Hopefully, this story of disaster at sea causes skippers to revisit their training and manuals on safety procedures prior to taking a family out on the sea.


* National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps