His voice was cut off by a bad connection. But on December 3rd, Joe DiTomasso left a message for his daughter: The sailboat trip to the Florida Keys went well.
Then the 76-year-old, a former auto mechanic from New Jersey, stopped responding.
Over the next 10 hectic days, fears grew while the silence endured. That The Coast Guard launched a massive search of 21,000 square miles of ocean for DiTomasso and his friend Kevin Hyde, 65.
The two men and a dog named Minnie had left New Jersey on a 30-foot sailboat bound for Marathon, Florida over Thanksgiving weekend, but have not been heard from since arriving in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
“We mentally prepared for the worst,” Nina DiTomasso, 37, told USA TODAY.
That was until Tuesday, when a tanker spotted what appeared to be a drifting sailboat more than 200 miles off the Delaware coast. On deck, men waved their arms and a flag. The tanker came alongside and plucked them to safety.
“We all started screaming when we heard the news, cried and cheered because it was just so incredible,” said Nina DiTomasso.
By Wednesday night, they were near the New Jersey shore again, sailing into New York Harbor, this time aboard a 600-foot vessel.
When the tanker picked them up, Nina DiTomasso said, the men were “just super exhausted.” Exhausted, barely able to speak, the men had left much in the dark about their voyage and the fate of their boat. Only one thing was certain: they were home.
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Intended for warmer weather
DiTomasso’s family said the two are boating friends and are looking for warmer weather for the winter.
DiTomasso was a skilled boater, said his daughter, who had long worked as an auto mechanic but often sneaked off to go saltwater fishing. His experience was mostly on power boats, she said.
“He was on shore every second he got,” she said. “He loved fishing.”
More recently, he lived part of the year on a boat at a Cape May marina where some called him “Joey Tomatoes,” said David Reistad, 38, DiTomasso’s son-in-law.
As the family gathered for Thanksgiving, DiTomasso was excited to embark on a new trip with a friend he knew from the marina.
They would take the friend’s sailboat from Cape May and head south to Marathon in the Florida Keys.
DiTomasso had made the trip before, but not in a sailing boat.
“My dad actually did this before, but with a different group of friends on their boat. And he had a great experience,” said Nina DiTomasso. “He was very excited.”
Hyde’s family could not be reached immediately.
While DiTomasso’s daughter was confident in her father’s boating skills, she knew less about his route. The two planned to “go from port to port,” DiTomasso’s daughter said, but she didn’t know if each leg would go in open water off shore or along the Intracoastal Waterway, which runs inland along the Atlantic Seaboard.
They left on November 27th. Nina DiTomasso knew he would have cell phone service and would call to keep his family updated.
The ship was a Catalina 30 sailboat, a popular coastal cruising design from one of the largest sailboat manufacturers. A typical model would have a single mast with a twin sail sloop and a small diesel engine. Without major remodeling it would have enough fresh water tanks for two people for a few days.
But unlike a typical white fiberglass boat, this hull was a brilliant navy blue. The name “Atrevida II” adorned its crossbar. The word has several meanings in Spanish. One of them is “daring”.
Into the open sea
Her father started by calling family or friends for regular updates.
Nina DiTomasso was at home outside of Philadelphia while her father was away traveling. She said the crew was Last heard after leaving Oregon Inlet on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
The crew had already left New Jersey behind and crossed the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
Before them lay the south coast and the blue waters of Florida. But before that were the Outer Banks, the stretch of barrier islands where waves and ocean currents churn over shallow waters. Its shifting shallows long ago earned it the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic”.
A friend of the men said he was talking to DiTomasso when his phone died. At first nobody panicked. He often forgot to charge his cell phone.
Another friend looked around the marina and found that Kevin’s phone appeared to be dead as well.
“My mom looked at my dad’s credit card statement and he hasn’t made any new purchases since December 3,” she said. “That’s when we got really concerned.”
Days passed without a word, then more days. On December 11th The Coast Guard was notified that the two sailors were overdue and subsequently launched a search that would stretch from Florida to New Jersey, the agency said.
Coast Guard cutters and planes participated in the search along with US Navy ships and commercial and recreational vessels.
“They worked tirelessly day and night. They sent planes to search, a helicopter and put them on social media,” Nina DiTomasso said.
She said Coast Guard officials said the boat previously reported problems with a generator and ran aground, but then put back to sea.
But without a cellphone service, DiTomasso’s family had no idea where to find Atrevida II. They had no idea how much food or water the men had on board.
Nina DiTomasso told a TV news outlet, “My friends and everyone said, ‘If anyone’s going to survive this, it’s Joey Tomatoes.'”
Reistad said he was concerned because he had read online that if the boat had become disabled, it could have been pushed by currents along the Outer Banks and eventually swept away by the Gulf Stream.
This ocean river is a powerful water current that flows north along the Atlantic coast. Somewhere offshore – maybe a few miles away, maybe as much as 75 miles away – a boat would reach the river’s edge.
“Probably they eventually drifted into the Gulf Stream” and “couldn’t do anything about it other than just be pulled north,” Reistad said. “Recently the temperatures up here in the north were around 20 degrees.”
Once in the Gulf Stream, a disabled boat would be sucked inexorably north and further offshore, toward the icy waters of the North Atlantic.
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Spotted from a ship
As of Tuesday, more than two weeks into the men’s journey, no one had heard from Atrevida II.
Then someone aboard the tanker Silver Muna, itself in the midst of an Atlantic crossing, carrying fuel from Amsterdam, noticed a sight out at sea.
Aboard a small sailboat, two men waved their arms and a flag. The hull of their boat was a brilliant navy blue.
Photos posted online by the Coast Guard reveal something about the condition of Atrevida II. In them, the boat has no mast, meaning its sailing rig was overturned. Some of the lifelines that encircle the edge of the deck for safety and other deck fittings all appear to be smashed.
Relatives said they later learned the boat had no fuel or electricity. Their radios and navigation equipment were disabled after a storm near Hatteras threw them off course.
After the drift, the men spent two days without water, cutting lines to pull out the last drops, they later said.
“You’re in the middle of the ocean with no power, no anything,” Reistad said. “It’s just incredible.”
The men and a dog were brought on board the tanker shortly after 4 p.m. An evaluation by the ship’s medical staff did not reveal any immediate concerns, the Coast Guard said.
“This is an excellent example of the maritime community’s concerted effort to ensure the safety of life at sea,” Daniel Schrader, a spokesman for the Coast Guard, said in a statement.
Schrader also stressed the importance of Sailors traveling with a device commonly known as an “EPIRB,” or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. It allows people on a boat to broadcast their position First responders in an emergency.
The ship arrived in New York on Wednesday evening to be reunited with the family. Nina DiTamasso drove from her home in Pennsylvania to meet him.
DiTomasso said they experienced high winds and mountainous waves. He said the boat lost power, rigging and steering.
“I’ve never seen such strong winds — roar,” he told Coast Guard officials during a video showing the men being taken ashore from the tanker.
Hyde commended the crew of the Silver Muna for spotting her given “the size of his ship and the size of the ocean compared to this toothpick I’m swimming around in,” according to ABC7.
During her ordeal, DiTomasso said he wasn’t sure he would see his family again, explaining what helped him get through: “My granddaughter. And the cross of Jesus. Every morning I would wake up and kiss it and say that Our Father,” he said.
Coast Guard photos posted to Facebook showed the men being received in New York on Wednesday night, the dog in tow.
Nina DiTomasso said she plans to “just hug him” and then stay with her dad in New York. The trip, which began on Thanksgiving weekend, hadn’t gone as planned. Instead, she said, it ended with a “Christmas miracle.”
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Contribution: The Associated Press
Chris Kenning is a national reporter. Reach him on Twitter @chris_kenning.
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