Ocean sailor and retired Santa Rosa urologist Jerry Morgan nearly surrendered to the raging ocean as the crew of a violently rolling freighter tried again and again in darkness to pluck him from the Tasman Sea after his sailboat sank off Australia.
?I was so exhausted. I couldn?t swim at all,? Morgan, 71, said Wednesday, 12 days after his ordeal in cyclone-like conditions about 350 miles east of Brisbane, Australia. He thought about his two sons and his grandchildren as he considered removing his flotation vest and letting go.
Three days earlier, on May 18, Morgan and a crewman from New Zealand, Stewart McCreadie, 38, had set sail from New Caledonia. They were bound for Brisbane, 780 nautical miles to the southwest, when a storm of near-hurricane force howled to life.
The seas rose to 25, 30 feet. ?These are mountains,? Morgan said. One huge waved pounded down directly on his 53-foot, Dutch-made Trintella sailing yacht and it began to take on water.
Morgan, who practiced medicine in Santa Rosa for 35 years and retired in 2005 to sail the world, knew at once what had gone wrong with the $500,000 boat he?d owned for a decade and had sailed more than 30,000 miles.
Just before he and McCreadie left from Ile de Pins, the southernmost island of New Caledonia, his 30-ton Fiberglas boat had dragged its anchor and grounded on a reef. He?d inspected it and saw that the keel had sustained some damage, but he thought it was not so serious that he couldn?t wait until arriving in Brisbane to have the boat pulled out and repaired.
That decision forever will be what Morgan refers to as The Mistake. When his boat, Sumatra II, began taking on water he realized it had been weakened by the grounding days earlier and was fractured by the blow from the giant wave.
The winds were howling at about 50 mph and the hammered sailboat was swamping when, at about 9:30 a.m. May 21, Morgan put out a distress signal through his EPIRB, Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. He also used his satellite phone to call the Coast Guard in San Francisco.
The Coast Guard alerted Australia?s Rescue Coordination Centre, which scrambled several Australian Coast Guard planes. The Sumatra II had been taking on water for about two hours when the crew of a twin-engine plane dropped a gasoline-powered pump into the ocean.
But Morgan and McCreadie were helpless to move the crippled boat to the pump.
?The engine was out. The sails were completely ripped apart. It was trashed,? Morgan said.
The Australian Coast Guard plane dropped a second pump and the sailors were able to grab the tether line, but when they reeled it in the pump had fallen away.
The crews of several other planes, including a big C-130 transport, spoke with Morgan and told him it was not possible to dispatch a rescue helicopter because the sailboat was too far from shore.
The Australian authorities put out a call for ships in the area and the Fijian captain of the Singapore-flagged cargo ship Scarlett Lucy, bound for Sydney, promptly offered to make a rescue run.
But the 4,000-ton, 320-foot ship was 70 miles away and darkness fell before it reached the almost fully swamped Sumatra II. The seas and the wind still raged, so the ship kept a distance of about a quarter mile rather than risk crushing the sailboat.