When the seven-member crew of the American schooner Niña set sail for Australia from New Zealand last May, they knew they might hit some rocky weather.
“The Tasman Sea is shooting gales out like a machine gun, living up to its reputation,” David Dyche, 58, the schooner’s owner and one of six Americans onboard, wrote on his Facebook page on May 26. “No doubt we will be dancing with one or two of them.”
Confident the 70-foot-deep hull on his wooden schooner could handle the rough seas, the veteran sailor still charted a course to avoid the worst of it. But on June 2 he found himself battling a series of unexpected storms with 29-foot-high waves and wind gusts up to 86 mph.
“The weather’s turned nasty. How do we get away from it?” crew member and retired University of Colorado computer science professor Evi Nemeth, using a satellite phone, asked New Zealand meteorologist Bob McDavitt, who helps cruising sailors plot their routes around the Pacific.
“You can’t run away from this thing,” he said, then advised them to head south or southwest.
Two days later, after apparently surviving the worst of the storms with just its sails shredded, the Niña seemingly vanished into thin air. A 77-hour search by New Zealand rescue turned up no sign of the ship and its crew, but their families, who created a website, refuse to give hope they are out there somewhere, floating around or stranded on an island, waiting for help.
“There is no evidence the boat broke up,” says Robin Wright, 54, of Baton Rouge, La., whose only child, Danielle, 19, was aboard the schooner.
“We know of seven other boats that got caught up in this Tasman current,” she says, “and took anywhere from five months to a year to end up in Australia.”
John Glennie, who, along with three other crew members, survived 119 days adrift in the Tasman atop his overturned sailboat and wrote a book about his ordeal, concedes it’s possible.
“If the boat didn’t sink initially and they’re still floating around,” says Glennie, 72, who now lives in Yelm, Wash., “they could catch fish and rig up water catchment systems to catch rain for drinking.”
Not long before rescuers stopped searching for the Niña, an unsent text message from Nemeth surfaced, fueling the families’ hopes that the 85-year-old mahogany schooner had indeed survived the worst of the storms relatively intact.
“Storm sails shredded last night, now bare poles,” Nemeth wrote on June 4 at 11:50 a.m., noting they were moving at 4 knots an hour. “Will update course info @ 6 PM.”
That last communication made the families more determined than ever to keep searching, so the Wrights enlisted the help of Texas EquuSearch. They and the other families pooled their own funds and raised $600,000 to pay for their own rescue mission.
“We’ve logged 400 in airplane hours and me, personally, 2000 hours,” says Ralph Baird, a commercial pilot who volunteers his time to the organization.
Though Baird was ultimately unsuccessful, the families’ relentless efforts led to Digital Globe’s discovery of a tantalizing satellite image of what they thought could be the Niña on September 15.
Their hopes were quickly dashed when New Zealand rescue officials said they would need better quality images before they could search again.
“It’s disappointing,” says retired chemist Ian Wootton, 65, of greater London, whose son Matthew, 35, was on board the Nina.
Wootton, who contacted Digital Globe for help and is grateful for what they’ve done so far free of charge, is also frustrated.
“It’s a pity we couldn’t have gotten better imagery,” he says, “which we believe is probably out there and not accessible to us.”
‘We’ll Do It Ourselves’
In November, frustrated by what they believe are lackluster searches and seeming indifference by the United States and local rescue agencies, Robin and her husband, Rick, moved to Australia to search themselves. Rick, 49, is even taking lessons to become a pilot so he can fly himself, which would save money.
“We just can’t lay back and do memorial services,” says Robin. “As long as we feel it in our hearts to look, we have to do it or we can’t sleep at night.”
Nigel Clifford, general manager of safety and response services for Maritime New Zealand, which coordinated the search, says his agency has “every sympathy” for the Wrights and the other family members.
“RCCNZ remains open to any new information about the whereabouts of the Niña,” he says, “and will carefully consider any new potential evidence that comes to light.”
While most of the family members still participate in the twice-weekly conference calls, others admit they’ve lost hope.
“It’s just unbelievable to think he’s dead but then it’s been such a long time so we’re kinda accepting,” says Caryl Dyche, 83, of West Palm Beach, Fla., who raised David and his twin sister, United pilot Cherie Martinez, as a single mom.
“If we could just get some closure,” she says. “It’s like one half of me is dead right now.”
The Wrights, however, who are running their business from afar, say they aren’t going home until they find Danielle.
“We have one daughter,” says Robin, her voice cracking, “and we just want her back. If she’s out there, we just want her back.”