Sailboat sinks during Whitebread race, crew rescued by fellow racers

The sailboat Optimistic, seen here on the left with sail number 148  behind a fellow racer Buccaneer, jockeys for position before Saturday's Whitebread race. The boat would later sink off Shelter Island in rough seas.
The sailboat Optimistic, seen here on the left with sail number 148 behind a fellow racer Buccaneer, jockeys for position before Saturday’s Whitebread race. The boat would later sink off Shelter Island in rough seas.

A 28-foot sailboat participating in Saturday’s 21st annual Whitebread race sank off the coast of Shelter Island during rough seas this morning, the U.S. Coast Guard has confirmed. 

All four crew aboard the boat Optimistic — including owner and skipper Bill Archer — were pulled from the water unharmed by other sailing vessels that quit the race to rescue them, race officials said.

Optimistic began taking on water near the MOA buoy off Ram’s Head in Gardiners Bay and sent out a distress call about 11:15 a.m. that was picked up by a Douglass Marine employee, the company confirmed.

When the employee attempted to contact Optimistic again, there was no reply.

Douglass Marine contacted the U.S. Coast Guard, which had not heard the distress call, and sent boats out to the scene to rescue anyone in the rough seas.

About that time, Mahlon Russell and his crew aboard Sea Breeze were rounding Shelter Island and were about 1,000 yards away when they saw Optimistic in distress.

“They were flooding and sinking,” he said. “The people were scampering to the front of the boat. It was going down stern first.”

The crew aboard Sea Breeze dumped the wind from its sails, dropping out of the race.

“We were actually doing pretty well in the race,” he joked. “But so what? C’est la vie.”

They turned back around to help Optimistic and were first on the scene.

“We threw some life flings out,” Mr. Russell said. “By then the boat was sunk and they were in the water floating and [we] dragged them over to our boat.”

Tidelines, another boat from the race helmed by Bob McIlvain, also stopped to help and pulled Mr. Archer from the water. 

The three remaining crew — two men and one woman — were rescued by Sea Breeze.


Update: Despite sinking in race, Optimistic to sail again


Race officials received second-hand notification of the sinking by witnesses after the distress calls never reached their radios due to low signal strength, said Dave Bergen, who was stationed near Cedar Point on the auxiliary racing committee boat.

A Suffolk Times reporter who was aboard that auxiliary committee boat Sol Searcher, anchored a few miles southeast of the sinking, also didn’t hear any distress call over the radio.

Optimistic apparently sank quickly, having been completely below the water by the time the Coast Guard arrived from Montauk with a 47-footer and the Cutter Ridley, said Petty Officer Jason Rodocker.

Mr. Russell said the boat went down in a matter of minutes.

He says the boat appears to have taken on water after a wave crashed over the bow, flooding the cockpit of the sailboat. Optimistic began taking on more water as each passing wave on the deck weighed down the ship more, Mr. Russell said.

The four crew members were placed aboard Sea Breeze and taken back to land at Greenport. Tidelines headed back to New Suffolk where the race began.

Optimistic was one of 92 boats competing in the race that began at 8:45 a.m. Saturday. The racers followed the course north around the west side of Shelter Island and then back to Cutchogue Harbor.

Race officials said the Whitebread has never been cancelled due to poor weather, adding that wind conditions were worse during last year’s run.

Though vessels have previously been de-masted and had their rudders torn off by high winds, no ship has sunk before, Mr. Bergen said.

This also wasn’t the first time Optimistic has issues during a Whitebread race. Last year, the boat did not finish the race, according to results. Mr. Bergen said the boat had begun taking on water near Greenport and turned back to port.

Mr. Russell said he’s never had to rescue another boater in more than nearly 30 years of sailing.

“I’ve never seen a boat sink in a race,” he said. “And I’ve raced a lot. I’ve seen boats have collisions and that kind of stuff and lent a hand … but never anything like this.”

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