The Passion of Mike Plant
America’s greatest solo
sailing hero takes his final ride in Coyote
by Marlin Bree
from Broken Seas
Photo courtesy of Billy Black
In a bitter storm on the North Atlantic in 1992, Minnesota racer Mike Plant disappeared under mysterious circumstances in his new racer, Coyote. In an exclusive, Northern Breezes is publishing a five-part serialization excerpted from the new book, Broken Seas. This is Serial 5 of 5 series.
Exactly what happened to Mike and Coyote will never be fully known. His body was never found – and his death probably will remain a mystery of the sea.
Some sailors theorized that Coyote could have hit something in the water, such as a sunken container, or even a whale. But this seems improbable and the report of the Coast Guard investigation published in July, 1995, stated that there was “virtually no significant damage to the Coyote other than the fact that the bulb was missing.”
The report went on to say that the fin showed “no signs of being crushed or struck by any object. The sides of the foil showed no signs of impact either. Finally, the hull itself was intact and undamaged. Were the Coyote to have struck a submerged object, the object would have had to have been at the same precise depth as Coyote’s bulb.”
Ominously, the report concluded: “It appears that the only submerged object that struck the Coyote’s keel bulb was the muddy bottom of the Chesapeake Bay.”
The coast guard report focused on the design and construction of Coyote’s fin keel and ballast bulb. With her draft of roughly 14 feet, Coyote’s hull drew 1 foot 3 inches of water. Her fin itself was 11 feet 2 inches deep. Below the fin’s bottom hung the 18-inch-deep 8,400-pound ballast bulb.
The fin keel itself was 45 inches long. The U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Casualty report showed that the fin keel was basically in three parts: The center main keel assembly was 32 inches long and heavily built of Kevlar and carbon fibers. In addition, the keel had a leading edge of 3 inches and a trailing edge of 9.8 inches. The front and aft edges were of relatively soft foam and fiberglass filler construction to give the foil its shape. The exact foil length was 44.9 inches. It was about 6 inches wide.
The ballast bulb was 112-inch long and molded of lead. Originally, Mike wanted to attach a tungsten keel bulb, which would be smaller and offer less drag in the water, but the cost was prohibitive to him at $80,000. Mike had to settle for a lead bulb that cost $10,000.
Though the ballast bulb snugged up to a plate on the 45-inch long fin keel, it actually relied for its fastening strength on the center 32-inch-long main keel assembly, the Coast Guard report pointed out. It also said that this arrangement gave the 112-inch long bulb an enormous leverage upon a short span as Coyote pounded through heavy weather. In the racer’s drive across the stormy ocean, the fin must have had tremendous forces upon it.
The foil emanated a humming noise and a vibration that Mike and other crewmembers aboard Coyote could hear and feel during tests, the Coast Guard Report noted. It reported that a number of individuals looked at the keel’s foil and bulb through the Coyote’s sight glass while the vessel was underway, but “none of those persons, however, reported seeing any movement of the keel or bulb as the vessel worked in the seas.”
The report concluded on this point that “the effect these vibrations had on the joint securing the bulb to the foil is unknown.”
The two groundings in Chesapeake Bay’s mud, however soft they may have been, drew the attention of the Coast Guard investigation: “The grounding that the Coyote experienced in Chesapeake Bay was probably the single largest contributing factor to the loss of the vessel’s keel bulb.”
It explained that efforts to free the vessel while it was stuck in the bottom “resulted in the bulb being twisted and dragged through the mud. In addition, the entire weight of the vessel shifted across the bulb while the vessel was aground. The vessel originally grounded with a 15 – 18 degree list to starboard. The Coyote tacked and began to list to port, but remained stuck in the mud. As the vessel tacked the list changed from starboard to port. This caused the weight of the hull to momentary shift across and be partially supported by the keel as the vessel ‘flopped’ from an 18 degree list to starboard, through the vertical and then over to a list to port.”
The report concluded that “the 112-inch-long lead bulb extended 34 inches forward of the foil and 45 inches aft of the foil. The twisting and dragging of the bulb, and the shifting of the vessel’s weight across the keel, most likely weakened the 31-inch joint that fastened the bulb to the foil.”
“At the time of the grounding,” the Coast Guard report said, “none of the parties aboard felt that it was serious enough of an incident to require that the Coyote be hauled out of the water or to have the keel inspected. The Concordia project manager, however, did feel the incident was serious enough to conduct an internal examination of the vessel. The responsibility for deciding whether or not to dry dock the Coyote after the grounding was Mike Plant’s. He did not have the vessel dry docked, nor did he have any divers examine the keel. Considering the fact that the keel was a new design, it would have been prudent to have the vessel inspected after the grounding.”
The Coast Guard noted that “the fact that the vessel was not launched until September of 1992, due to financial delays, probably influenced Plant’s decision not to dry dock the vessel. He was on a tight schedule from the day the vessel was launched through to the day he departed New York City for France. His schedule did not allow for unanticipated delays such as hauling the vessel out of the water.”
Though the fin keel itself survived the capsize and was recovered with Coyote, the ballast bulb was missing. The Coast Guard reported that Coyote’s bulb was fastened to a stainless steel faceplace that was about ½ inch thick and had six holes cut into it and threaded. Each hole had a ¾ inch nut welded into its bottom. Stainless steel bolts came up through the ballast bulb into both the threaded faceplate and the nuts, for a minimum of 1½ inches of threaded steel.
The Coast Guard report said that an overlap laminate of 15 layers of carbon fiber helped secure Coyote’s plate to the base of the keel. The report also said that Mike was “comfortable with the design and felt it was satisfactory.”
When Coyote was recovered, the Coast Guard noted, “There was virtually no significant damage to the Coyote other than the fact that the bulb was missing.”
The Coast Guard stated that that “the loss of the Coyote’s keel bulb was a failure of the carbon fiber materials used to secure the 8,400 pound bulb assembly to the base of the keel’s foil. When the material failed, the bulb assembly – which included the lead bulb, the keel bolts, and the stainless steel plate – dropped off of the keel and the Coyote capsized.”
Toward the end, Mike probably was at the helm, sitting in the dark beside his big wheel. It was after midnight on the stormy North Atlantic and the seas were rough. Black waves big as islands roared toward him.
He probably was running on the last of his adrenalin reserves, taking pride in his big racer’s handling and speed. It kept him going. He had been hand steering for days on end and he probably was having a terrible time keeping awake and concentrating – yet he knew he could not sleep. Though he was toughing it out mentally, he was physically probably almost overwhelmed by a combination of fatigue and cold.
He was probably telling himself he and his boat could make it if they’d just hang in there. He’d hand steered for days before. Ahead lay port – he could sleep then.
His boat was ripping along, tacking hard into the wind, her sails sheeted in nearly flat, her mast and rigging taking a lot of pressure, despite being deeply reefed. Mike had reefed down to the third reef in his mainsail, putting up only 444 square feet of sail area. The big forward genoa was furled and he was tacking with his relatively tiny 250-square-foot storm jib. Perhaps he was thinking of powering down some more.
Coyote’s hull was probably working hard, slamming through the oncoming waves with water rushing over the lee rail. Shock was being transmitted throughout Coyote’s long hull. Mike heard and felt it with every jolt in his tired and bruised body.
Reconstructing the final moments, it seems apparent that Mike was pretty much on course and sticking to his intended route east to France.
Below the hull, immense forces were at work. As the relatively flat hull pounded up and down, the 8,400-pound bulb ballast and keel fought to keep the giant racer upright. As Coyote crashed into the faces of oncoming waves and fought to raise her bow, there were huge twists and pressures on the end plate.
The noise and vibrations probably were worse than ever. There might have been other warnings Mike would have felt earlier, had the boat not been moving so quickly or making so much noise with her battle with the storm.
Or if he had not been so fatigued.
It was not as if he had a choice: he was nearing the middle of the stormy North Atlantic and he probably felt his safety and refuge lay dead ahead. He had to push on to the best of his ability and, like other sailors, keep the faith that his boat would hold together. He had fought against the odds before and he had won.
He had water ballast in the port ballast tank to help stabilize the boat on its low port tack, probably heading off at speed through the waves. Coyote did everything at speed.
Coyote’s sails were loaded up when he felt a different sort of motion. The hull vibrated badly. Suddenly, the deck slammed under his feet.
From somewhere below, there was a final cracking, shattering noise.
A shuddering probably shot through the hull. The damaged carbon fiber holding the bulb plate had finally worn through and snapped, with a bang-like noise. The ballast bulb, along with the keel bolts and the stainless steel plate, dropped off the base as a single unit.
When the ballast weight was released, Coyote’s hull bounced up a little. She probably went off course, began to slow and heel over.
Dark, green water began marching up her leeward rail.
The pressure of the wind and oncoming waves were too much. The beamy hull probably slowly reared up on its side. Coyote became quiet, almost eerily so.
She hung there for a minute, then went over, hard. Still on a port tack, her long boom with reefed sails caught in the water, then swung back viciously toward the boat’s centerline. The boom cracked under the pressure, broke off, and was swept back. All that remained was the first two feet where it was attached to its gooseneck near the base of the mast.
As the tip of her 85-foot mast speared the water, it began to bend and finally snapped several feet above the deck. It slammed back against the cockpit, crushing the top of the cabin doghouse. The broken mast then trailed below the overturned hull, held by the stainless steel rigging, sails still hanked on. In the capsize, gear had gone flying.
Fatally wounded, Coyote came to rest upside down, her desperate battle to cross the North Atlantic over. All was quiet, save for the sound of the wind and the waves.
Exactly what happened to Mike Plant that dark night on the North Atlantic remains one of the enduring mysteries of the seas. Had Mike been uninjured and able stay with his boat, or, if he had been pitched in the water and able to swim back to Coyote after the capsize, she would have sheltered him.
Even overturned, her bottom floated high on its five airtight chambers and there would have been more than sufficient air pockets to live under. Probably, he could have fashioned the underside of a bunk to keep him out of the water, just as other survivors of a similar capsizes had done. He had provisions and survival gear on board and the hull rode high on the water.
Not an organization given to speculation, the Coast Guard succinctly concluded its report in this manner:
“Mike Plant probably was killed when the vessel capsized.”
The report added that, “Had he survived for a period of time afterward, he would have remained with the vessel and marked the hull in some fashion to indicate he was inside – such as by putting a rag through the sight glass in the hull. He also would have tethered the EPIRB to the vessel to prevent it from drifting away and inflated the life raft to be able to get out of the water. The water temperature in the area where the vessel was located was 55 degrees F. Survival time for a person submerged in water of this temperature is less than 2 hours. Had Mr. Plant survived the vessel capsizing, it is unknown if he would have survived until 22 November 1992 or if he would have succumbed to exposure.
“Because it is unknown where or when the vessel capsizing occurred, the weather at the time of the capsizing is also unknown. The onscene weather on 26 November 1992 consisted of 25-knot winds and 5 – 7-meter seas. This weather may have been a lingering result of the storm, which passed to the north 3 weeks earlier. Whether Mike Plant was in the vicinity of the storm or if the weather additionally contributed to the casualty is unknown.”
On October 27, the day Mike is presumed to have been lost, his EPIRB emitted three short bursts before it was forever silenced and lost. The unit was never recovered when the overturned vessel was found and inspected in the water. Like most racers, Mike had mounted his EPIRB inside the vessel’s cabin on the starboard side so that a boarding wave would not knock it off the boat from its manual release or, worse, set it off. It would be handy, but he’d have to reach inside the cabin to activate it.
Why did it only emit an incomplete and misleading signal? Sailors give varying rationales on why this happened. One is that in the moments he had left, Mike sensed something was fatally wrong and in the darkness, reached for his EPIRB. He pulled it out of its holder and managed to trigger the switch. One blink, two, three – only to have the disaster cut his signals short.
The second explanation offered is that the EPIRB was knocked out of its mount during the capsize and had only a few seconds to emit a few signals before it, or its antenna, was smashed by falling rigging or the overturning hull.
Most sailors feel the only way for an EPIRB to go off is for someone to set it off.
The Coast Guard report says: “..when the vessel was recovered in January of 1993 – approximately 3 months after the capsizing – it was noted that the manual release on the mounting bracket had been opened, but the hydrostatic release had not. Whether this was opened by Plant or somehow knocked loose by debris awash in the Coyote’s cabin after the capsizing is unknown. If Plant did not release the EPIRB, then it probably remained inside of the Coyote’s cabin for some period of time until it was eventually washed out as the vessel worked in the seaway. This could explain why the device failed to operate properly.”
It was over coffee at the Minneapolis Boat Show that I again met up with Capt. Thom Burns and we began discussing Mike Plant and his final hours. The ex-naval officer told me he believed the scenario went something like this:
“The bulb fell off the boat and the boat went over probably to 80 or 90 degrees at first. Mike pulled the EPIRB out and whatever else he could grab as the boat was going turtle, probably in less than a minute. The EPIRB fired off a few signals before it was trapped under the boat. Mike may have been trapped there also or just been unable to get back on the overturned hull or in it. The hull composite would not sink, which kept the boat afloat in an ‘awash’ state. But Mike was in an exhausted state from manually steering hundreds of miles, so his probability of survival was greatly diminished from both the catastrophic event and his physical and mental state of exhaustion.”
There is another mystery to unravel, that of the critical loss of power on about the third day at sea which rendered Mike’s autopilots, computers, and, radios useless. The Coast Guard report analyzes this with guarded words: the “cause of the vessel’s loss of power is not known, but it appears to be linked to a failure of the manual backup control for the voltage regulation system while Plant was underway.”
It adds that the supplier of the equipment had recommended that a new manual control for the backup voltage regulation system be installed on Coyote. “The new system was not installed,” the Coast Guard report says, “even though the parts were delivered to the vessel in New York prior to the beginning of Plant’s voyage to France. The decision to forgo installation of the new system was probably based on the time constrains which were being felt by Mr. Plant.”
A contributing factor to Coyote’s power failure was that the engines that drove the alternators were “underpowered for the demands placed upon them. This fact necessitated the installation of the complex voltage regulation system.”
In the drama of man against the sea, Mike was a realist. He had been through a capsize before in the Indian Ocean, in chill waters, and, he had survived.
Capsizing was not high on his priorities of dangers. Instead he felt that “the worst thing that could happen is hitting something. But I really don’t think about the boat ever sinking.”
He was correct: Coyote never sank.
On January 26, 1993, Coyote was again found. Incredibly, she had drifted to a position about 60 miles south and west from the Irish Coast. To bring her in, the tug Ventenor secured towing lines to the overturned Coyote’s foil and to both of her rudders. Ignobly, Coyote was towed stern first to Cobh Harbor in Cork County, Ireland. Reports say that the inside of her hull had been pretty much gutted by wave action.
A Post Casualty Inspection, as contained in the Coast Guard Report, said that Coyote’s two forward forestays, which had self-furling foresails, appeared to be in the furled position. The back forestay, also known as the “baby stay,” contained the tack of the storm jib which was, the Coast Guard reported, “all that was left of the sail.”
The report stated that water ballast was found in the vessel’s portside water ballast tanks. It concluded, “The fact that the storm jib was flying, that the self-furling sails were furled, and that the water ballast was in the port ballast tanks, indicates that the Coyote may have been sailing in heavy weather on a port tack when it capsized.”
It added, “An equally likely explanation for Plant’s using the storm jib is that the autopilots were not functioning due to the power failure. This would have required Plant to steer the vessel manually. Flying the storm jib would have made the Coyote easier to handle and less fatiguing over the duration of the voyage.”
She was hauled aboard a freighter for her trans-Atlantic trip back to the U.S. There were no cheering crowds to greet her arrival back in the U.S.
Though Mike never knew it, insurance for Coyote had been approved while he was at sea.
News reports told of surveyors checking over her hull. Incredibly, after months adrift on the open Atlantic, she was pronounced sound after extensive ultrasound testing, but to add additional stiffness, designer Rodger Martin added an interior skeleton of carbon fiber tubing. She got a lighter, more streamlined deckhouse, a bowsprit, and a reconfigured rig to carry more sail area as well as a new keel and bulb. In the rebuild, she got even faster after shedding about 1,000 pounds of weight.
On Aug 28, 1994, she was returning from her first major voyage after being rebuilt when she collided with a fishing boat. Coyote’s strong hull was reportedly undamaged, but the 62-foot fishing boat began taking on water. Coast Guard planes dropped pumps to crewmembers to keep flooding under control.
Undaunted, she returned to racing. With David Scully as her skipper, Coyote finally got her around-the-world run. She successfully circled the globe in the BOC 1994-95 race and came in fourth. With an admirable total time of 133 days 56 minutes and 35 seconds, she averaged 8.21 knots.
She placed second in her class in the 1996 Europe One Star Transatlantic Race.
Mike’s family established the Mike Plant Fund at the Minnetonka Yacht Club to help underprivileged children participate in sailing programs. Each year, kids from throughout the area learn to sail in the same waters that Mike sailed on as a boy.
On September 6, 2002, in a ceremony held in Newport, Mike Plant was inducted into the Museum of Yachting’s Single Handed Sailor’s Hall of Fame.
His friend, Herb McCormick, said at the dedication ceremonies:
“One of the great tragedies of Mike’s passing is the awful timing. Here he was, finally, after three circumnavigations, truly ready to contend for the crown. If all went well, if he had that mix of luck and execution required of all champions, he was ready to challenge the best on his own terms. He was ready to live his biggest dream.”
Excerpted from Marlin Bree’s new book, Broken Seas: True Tales of Extraordinary Seafaring Adventure (Marlor Press, 2005). Visit his web site at www.marlinbree.com.
Continue The Vision
The Mike Plant Memorial Fund was established to provide a sailing experience for inner city kids. Donations can be made to:
Mike Plant Memorial Fund
in care of the Wayzata Sailing Foundation
P.O. Box 768
Wayzata, MN 55391
Visit www.wayzatasailing.org/mikeplant for more information.