Rebirth on the deep blue sea

The Prodigal lies nearly on its side in the north Atlantic off Nova Scotia during the rescue of author Michael Hurley.

RIDGEVILLE — The idea was romance, a long ocean sail to Ireland to capture the spirit of it for a novel. The reality was as biting as the salt air.

Author Michael Hurley of Ridgeville launched The Prodigal in late May with his marriage on the rocks, wrestling with his demons, wanting to find something of a redemption in the mystic green land across the ocean. His life had become the stuff of a novel.

In the deep sea, the ship would founder. Redemption would be found.

The Prodigal, named for Hurley’s best known book, was a half-century old ketch only 30 feet long — small for an Atlantic crossing but easily handled by one person. A veteran sailor, Hurley had taken her on a shakedown cruise from Maryland to Bermuda and then on to Charleston. He felt good about the 3,400-mile voyage.

The rest of his life was a torment. He was separating from his wife, didn’t have any real plan to return from Ireland and brooded away the long hours under sail.

“No matter how angry she was with me, she was still my best friend,” Hurley said. “When you’re on a boat and you’re 800 miles out to sea you have to live with your thoughts and your regrets.”

Communication between the two was reduced to 160 character satellite messages and was not going well. The trip had started badly, against a stiff east wind that pinned the boat to the coast and forced Hurley to pick his way past the dangerous shoals off Cape Hatteras. Then the wind shifted to the south.

“The Gulf Stream current kicked in and I was just flying,” he said. “There was nothing that was not working right on the boat, which is unusual for a sailor.” But the wind kicked harder and the seas rose.

“The boat was getting hammered,” Hurley said. Meanwhile, the tone of the messages changed. After five days not seeing a single ship, he was hailed by a “ginormous freighter” whose captain wanted to know if the little sailboat was in trouble and the man aboard realized how far out to sea he was.

Hurley asked the captain to call his wife and tell her he loved her. The captain called later to tell him she loved him, too. Then came the satellite message: “Please come home and work on our marriage.”

But that couldn’t happen. The circuit of the Gulf Stream clockwise around the Atlantic and prevailing winds gave Hurley only one way to go. They made plans to meet in Ireland.

Three days later, he was in real trouble. Hard winds were pushing him too close to the 45th parallel. Beyond that were icebergs and the fabled sunken liner, the Titanic.

In the bigger seas, the bilge pump had been running constantly to remove water seeping in the old hull planks, and had all but exhausted the ship’s batteries. Hurley had shut it off and was now pumping by hand. A barrage of wind struck and he had too much sail up. He battled until the winds died, then fell into his cabin exhausted.

After midnight, the winds came back — with a vengeance, he said. The boat reeled and swayed in 10-foot seas and he couldn’t get the sails down. He “hove to,” setting the rudder at cross-purposes to the sail to ride out the swells.

“I was laid over on my side,” Hurley said. “I could see my port light was underwater.” Before long the cabin was, too, with three inches of freezing sea sloshing back and forth as the hull rocked. Hurley texted the U.S. Coast Guard to let the service know he was taking on water. The service asked if he wanted rescue and he declined.

“It wasn’t like it was sinking,” he said.

He figured he could still limp his way to Ireland, pumping by hand. But the seas weren’t done. The winds kicked to 40 knots — tropical storm strength — and the forecast was getting worse. The boat was riding with its side rails underwater.

The Coast Guard asked again if he wanted rescue. He stared at the text, knowing what it meant: abandon ship. He was more than 500 miles east of Nova Scotia.

“The dang thing is, there’s probably a 60 percent chance that boat would have made it to Ireland,” he said. But a merchant marine training ship was little more than an hour away, headed for Maine. Hurley had had enough. He had someone waiting.

The training ship lowered netting for him to climb to a ladder to get aboard, the ladder rocking like a pendulum as he labored his way up.

“Students today got a first-hand look at near disaster,” said Nate Gandy, commandant, in an academy release.

At the ship’s rail, Hurley turned for a last look at The Prodigal, on its side in the swells, drifting away.

“I thought, ‘God, she’s a beautiful boat,’ ” he said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.