“At approximately 8 pm on the evening of Wednesday, May 29th, 2019, our home and sailboat, The Bertie, was knocked down by a “White Squall,” and capsized, 65 miles offshore of the New Jersey coast. We were literally swamped and swallowed under within 60 seconds; water rushed in and we were catapulted off the boat and into the ocean. We were able to climb up on to the bottom of the boat and see if we could dive for the emergency epirb device. No luck, it just was not within reach for the breath we had. About 30 minutes later, the boat started to roll back up, leaving the port side with access, and miraculously with the epirb in view, we grabbed and activated it. That was the last offering of life that Bertie gave us. Peter built Bertie with his own hands and poured years of blood, sweat and tears into her being.
Thanks to the heroic efforts of the US Coast Guard, we are still alive! We were plucked from the water, placed in a basket, hoisted up to the helicopter and shuttled to the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center with nothing but our lives and just the clothes on our backs!”
I have lost a friend. Although I’m so thankful that Heidi and Peter are safe, my heart is broken. I ache for BERTIE, and for Heidi and Peter’s loss. Hand-built by Peter to the tiniest detail, BERTIE had the wooden hull of Joshua Slocum’s SPRAY, and the stern of Amundsen’s GJOA. Her rig included a 1,000 square foot Swatow Chinese junk mainsail. BERTIE was unique, truly one-of-a-kind. She was beautiful. And she was not just a boat; she was family.
For four weeks in the winter of 2018, I lived aboard BERTIE in Mexico. It’s an intimate thing, living on a boat. You and the other humans and the boat start out as friends, or maybe just acquaintances. Soon, you begin to operate as a community, then as a collection of symbiotic beings. If all goes well and it’s a good fit, you actually end up functioning as a single organism. I’m grateful and still a bit mystified by the way Heidi and Peter welcomed me into their BERTIE world, and how it just worked. I had looked forward to being part of that world again sometime soon. Now it will never happen.
From the skin of her hull to the top of her mast, I loved BERTIE. I can feel the warmth of her deck on the soles of my feet. The way she cleaned up nice when I dipped sea water out of the ocean with her canvas bucket, and sloshed and scrubbed her down. At night, when Heidi and Peter were below, I bathed myself under the starlight, first with sea water, then a fresh water rinse. I walked or simply stood on deck, while the warm breeze dried us both. It was my quiet time alone with BERTIE, before bed, when she would rock me to sleep.
I’m not sure how to write about grief. If you’ve ever lost someone you deeply loved, you’ll understand. So, I’ll share with you the last journal entry I wrote during my time with BERTIE. I really thought I would see her again.
Friday, March 9th, 2018: Today is my last full day on BERTIE, in Huatulco. I’m a bit sad, but excited about moving on, too.
I just got done slushing the mast. It feels good to give BERTIE some undivided attention, as a last farewell. Peter gave me some old bib overalls and a stained t-shirt to wear, and then I climbed in the bosun’s chair. He raised me up with the staysail halyard — all the way to the top of the mast. It was a little bit scary at first to be up so high (on a breezy day, too), but I quickly got used to it, and by the time I was back to the bottom, just above the mainsail cover, I was having fun.
I had the Bertie bucket tied next to me, with a jar of Vaseline and a t-shirt rag inside. My job was to scoop Vaseline out of the jar, smear it all over the mast, including the side I couldn’t see, and make sure to rub it into the cracks and any knots. This was done by feel, mostly, with my fingers smoothing the grease into every crevice, working it until it almost liquified. Then I wiped it all with the rag, polishing the wood. The end result is a perfect, varnished-looking shiny wooden mast. The Vaseline will keep water from soaking in, and I imagine it protects the wood from sun damage and drying, too. In the old days they’d use tallow. Peter calls Vaseline “yacht tallow” and “magic sauce.” They use it all over the boat, to grease the lines, and lubricate any squeaky or creaky bits. This is why all my clothes have grease spots on them: it’s almost impossible to be aboard for any length of time without receiving “Bertie kisses.”
BERTIE’S mast is Douglas fir. Like everything else on this boat, Peter hand-picked it with a fine eye for quality. This is the one he chose out of a mountain of six hundred Grade A pilings. So, in effect, I got to spend the morning with my arms and legs wrapped around a tree, which makes an old tree-hugger like me pretty happy. I got to give BERTIE lots of hugs. And I think that made her happy, too.
‘Til next time, my friend.
There’s a GoFundMe site set up to help Heidi and Peter recover from this tragedy. Click here if you’d like to contribute.