On Friday, December 8, the Picton Castle was sailing south from Nova Scotia to meet us in Grenada, when she was caught in a gale 475 miles east-southeast of Cape Cod. The wind was gusting to 40 knots; seas were running 25 feet or more. At 9:30 p.m. the ship’s stern was struck by a freak wave and Laura Gainey, a 25 year-old crew member, was washed overboard. The deck watch heard her shout and immediately threw life saving gear into the darkness. Then the crew brought the ship around and began a search that would last until the following Tuesday. The gear was found but Laura was not.
First news of this tragedy reached me at midday on Saturday via the tall ship network and HMS Bounty. I immediately informed our crew and offered them the option of backing out. No one took it. I offered to talk with concerned parents. No one called. In the midst of this tragedy we had become members of the tall ship family; Laura Gainey was one of our own. So I informed David Robinson, the ship’s agent in Nova Scotia, that we were standing by, ready to share the good and the bad with his crew, should they decide to sail in January.
We were not ignorant of the risks. In October we had driven to Mystic Seaport, to set a topsail the Charles W. Morgan and climb aloft on the Joseph Conrad. In South Hadley we watched Irving Johnson’s daunting film of the Peking, a larger version of the Picton Castle, rounding Cape Horn during a hurricane. So we knew what the sea could do. But we also knew that our ship had circumnavigated the globe four times without a serious accident, and that our little voyage would be in the lee of Caribbean islands in January. Our concern was for the Castle’s crew. They would be hurting, big time.