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 4 of 5 series.
Below decks, the racer was a maze of vibrations and movement as she sliced through the waves. Her hull was alive with the noises of her passage through the heavy water and she seemed to boom when she fell off a large wave. At above 9 knots, the keel made its humming sound and began to vibrate. Going down a wave’s back, when Coyote picked up speed, the keel vibrated and hummed more.
There was little comfort below decks, since Coyote was stripped out for speed. The interior of the boat was outfitted with a minimum of amenities and equipment: a chart table, with computers and navigational equipment, some shelves and a stove to heat up some food. There were stacks of food and provisions everywhere. He’d have time to sort things out better in France after he met his deadline.
The electrical system had worked OK during the brief shakedown cruise to Annapolis, but had failed at sea. Actually, Coyote had 2 electrical systems: a 12- volt and also a 24-volt. In theory, the 24-volt system would run his autopilots better and faster, a big advantage for steering a fast-moving ocean greyhound like Coyote. But it also meant that Mike had to deal with dual voltage systems and the related gear to power them, including generators, relays, regulators and wiring. Whatever the problem was, Coyote’s power was out.
Mike ended his communication to the freighter by asking the crew to relay a message to his fiancée, Helen Davis. He told her that although Coyote had a power failure, he was continuing on to France; that he would probably be delayed in arriving and that she should not worry about him.
It was to be Mike’s last message.
October is hurricane season on the North Atlantic and another storm with high winds and heavy seas erupted to the north of Coyote’s route. The hurricane, though worrisome, should not have been a crisis for a high-tech craft like Coyote. Mike himself had been through hurricanes before and had been around the world three times in all weather conditions. He had heavy weather experience and he was a resourceful seaman.
But after the radio message with the freighter, Mike did not made another contact. Mike’s family and friends grew concerned. Apparently, he still had not been able to fix his electronics problems.
Shortly before midnight on October 27, Mike’s EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) went off and sent a distress burst transmission. Both NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency) and CMC (Canadian Mission Control Center) reported receiving a short, weak, and, incomplete EPIRB signal. NOAA received 2 short bursts at 2321 GMT and the Canadian tracking station picked up 3 transmissions from the same satellite.
The signal was incomplete and not long enough to obtain an accurate fix on the EPIRB’s location. When the agencies ran a check on the registration for the hexadecimal code, they found that the signaling unit was not registered by its owner. Neither agency passed the distress signal on to the U.S. Coast Guard. Apparently, Mike had not completed his EPIRB registration information, so the agencies knew a brief signal had been sent, but they did not know who sent it. Or why.
They only knew that someone, or something, had set it off.
By Friday, Oct. 30, Mike had not arrived at the docks in Les Sables d’Olonne, France, and the people waiting for him became worried. Not only hadn’t Mike arrived at the time he said he would, but he had been out of touch since Oct. 21.
On Friday, Nov. 6, Concordia Custom Yachts wrote and telephoned the U.S. Coast Guard to tell them that Coyote was a week overdue in France. It requested that all ships at sea be on the alert for the missing sailor and gave Coyote’s emergency radio beacon (EPIRB) number and life raft identification.
On Tuesday, Nov. 10, Mike’s crew, waiting for him in Les Sables d’Olonne, turned to the French Coast Guard and requested they initiate a search for the missing Coyote. The French turned the request down, stating they said they first needed a formal request from the U.S. Coast Guard.
On Wednesday, Nov. 11, Mike’s parents, Mary and Frank Plant, requested a search for their missing son, but the U.S. Coast Guard declined the request because they said they had insufficient information about where to search.
On Thursday, Nov. 12, a friend of Mike’s took the initiative and talked to NOAA directly to check if any signal had been received from Coyote’s EPIRB. Alarmingly, he found that an incomplete signal had been recorded on Oct. 27 – though nothing had been done with the information. The signal, received the evening of Oct. 27 by a Canadian tracking station, consisted of 3 weak transmission bursts from Mike’s EPIRB. NOAA had received 2 bursts.
Technically, both agencies required a longer signal of 4 bursts for an accurate location. They had received only 3 bursts and no more. This was strange, since in an emergency situation, an EPIRB should continuously broadcast its location for many hours. They did not have a record of whose EPIRB was broadcasting, since Mike apparently had not registered his unit at the time of purchase or immediately afterward. Or, the registration card had not gotten to the right office.
On Friday, Nov. 13, the U.S. Coast Guard issued an alert for all passing ships to be on the lookout for the missing boat and they began a search covering an area northwest of Bermuda, on coordinates supplied by Canadian Mission Control, of 36-21 N and 52-45W, positioning Mike hundreds of miles south of his intended course.
On Nov. 18, the search was revised and extended to include an area north of the Azores. The searchers found nothing.
A day later, the search was called off.
In the meantime, a volunteer group, The Friends of Mike Plant, began lobbying their senators, congressmen and other elected officials to press for an additional search for the missing sailor. Our mission was to get the Coast Guard to resume its search for Mike and Coyote.
A member of the Friends, Capt. Thom Burns at Northern Breezes Sailing Magazine, sent a letter to the Commandant, United States Coast Guard, urging that the active air search not be suspended or cancelled, because the Coast Guard “has covered approximately one half of the total area its own computers recommended be saturated.”
Why had the Coast Guard suspended the active air search with so much area yet to be covered? Capt. Thom asked, pointing out that the search was “too narrow” and that “sailing experts have predicted possible drift patterns well outside the current parameters.” He urged that the Coast Guard continue to make “a realistic, moral effort.”
Later, Capt. Thom said that “the search needs to be visual instead of electronic.” He explained that the Coast Guard had been flying out to search for Mike using radar and sighting along a path 30 miles wide but “the problem is that at that speed and altitude you can’t see something as small as a life raft. And radar is virtually useless picking up a life raft, unless there’s a massive radar reflector on it.”
The former naval officer said that the 17-day delay in responding to an emergency beacon created a massive problem. “Delaying expands the search areas from 50,000 square miles to 900,000 square miles. And every day it gets bigger.” In a separate correspondence, he also urged the Coast Guard to ask the Navy for help, since the Navy flies submarine surveillance training missions out of Brunswick Naval Air Station in Maine.
The Navy authorized two P-3 Orion planes to join the search with infrared sensors that could detect heat in the water. The planes flew out of New Brunswick, Maine, joining 4 Coast Guard C-130 search planes from North Carolina and Florida.
The Plant family and some of Mike’s friends brought in meteorologists and navigation experts to try to determine Mike’s probable location, based on winds, his speed, and, weather conditions on the North Atlantic. They pinpointed an area well east of the original search area and north of the Azores.
On November 20, the Coast Guard resumed its search of an area north of the Azores. Aircraft and ships from four nations looked for Mike in an search area that eventually covered more than 215,000 square miles of open ocean. It was one of the broadest rescue missions ever in the North Atlantic and eventually involved aircraft and vessels from the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, Canada, Great Britain and France.
On Sunday morning, Nov. 22, the 750-foot long Greek tanker Protank Orinocco saw something dark lying low in the water, drifting upside down. At first the crew did not know what they had found because its dark bottom was awash in 8 to 12-foot waves.
Altering course to steer closer, the tanker captain saw that it was a capsized sailboat whose hull was intact, with twin rudders still upright and a thin keel that pointed heavenward.
In heavy seas and rain, the tanker came within 50 feet and cautiously circled the upside-down hull, scanning the boat with binoculars, looking for any sign of life. They saw none, but they noted that part of the vessel’s keel, the ballast bulb, was missing.
Because of the heavy sea conditions, the tanker could not come close or send a boat to board the upturned hull, but they recorded her position and reported them. The coordinates were 46-54 N, 26-51W, which placed the lost vessel about 1,100 nautical miles due West of Les Sables d-Olonne, France, and, about 500 nautical miles north of the Azores.
They waited. Even in heavy seas, they knew that the sound of the tanker’s big engines and thrashing propeller alongside the hull would throb loudly through the water, alerting anyone inside. No one appeared from the overturned hull nor gave any signal that they could determine. Slowly, the tanker turned and resumed course.
Later that day, two Coast Guard C-130s and a Navy P-3 Orion as well as a French navy patrol craft searched near the sightings. A British aircraft flew over the lost boat and conducted a flare search in the vicinity of the hull, but they located nothing in the water, such as a life raft or wreckage.
Still hope remained. Sailors worldwide felt that Mike had a fighting chance of being rescued alive if either he went aboard his life raft or was able to survive inside Coyote’s upturned hull, which was riding high in the water. The latter theory was particularly hopeful since other racers had lived for days inside their overturned but intact hulls.
Three days later, on the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 25, the French tugboat, Malabar, arrived alongside the overturned sailboat and positively identified that the hull was the missing racer, Coyote. French frogmen dove under the vessel and came up inside the hull, shining their lights about as they searched carefully through the watertight compartments. The hull floated high in the water and they found air pockets where a man could breathe. They located the life raft opened in the cockpit, but uninflated. The CO2 bottle had not been fired. A survival bag was attached to the raft, and nearby, an unopened bag of distress flares. They found a life jacket tied to a bunk and they also found the partial remains of a torn survival suit – but no sign of the missing sailor.
Because they had found the life raft and survival gear, but no one aboard the overturned hull, the searchers concluded that the lone sailor was no longer alive, for “there are no other possibilities.” They left and Coyote remained capsized and adrift at sea.
In the fading light of a late November afternoon, I drove to Lake Minnetonka’s old Lafayette Club, located near the beloved waters that Mike had sailed as a boy. In the parking lot were some Mercedes, BMW’s, a Lincoln Town car or two and some old, rusty vans. I stepped out into the chilling wind off the lake and walked into the wood frame building.
A number of people had come to pay their respects to America’s world-class sailor. Although his body was never recovered, Mike was lost and presumed dead on the North Atlantic. His devoted family had planned for about 300 people, but an overflow crowd of nearly 600 had turned up to honor him.
In the wooden hall, I slipped into a seat and the service began. John Simmons, Mike’s nephew, had written a poem, which Mike’s brother, Tom, read:
Deep Ocean blue is all you will see.
For the rest of time you will have the satisfaction of what you love.
Free as a dove
This is what you love...
This is what you love.
...So rest in peace..
Rest in peace in your deep heavenly blue.
We all hope to see you..so someday
Spirit and soul, visit us, we love you.
The speakers, one by one, got up to talk about the young sailor’s life. Mark Schrader, a fellow long-distance racer, recalled that during an around-the-world race in the Southern Ocean, when he was cold, wet and very tired one long night, he talked with Mike on the radio, voicing his fears that his boat was too slow and heavy. Mike was racing just ahead of him.
“Your boat is not too heavy. Your boat is not too slow,” Mike responded. Schrader said the admonition was what he needed to continue racing and finished his race.
Schrader admired Mike’s calm professionalism: “He sailed the world as though he were sailing across the lake.”
Rodger Martin, Coyote’s designer, talked about his work with Mike and his admiration of Mike’s remarkable concentration and determination. The tall naval architect recalled driving by a boatyard when it was closed for a winter holiday. In the icy yard, he was astonished to see Mike Plant all alone working the boatyard’s travel lift, slowly lowering his boat onto its awaiting keel.
Surprised by the visitor, Mike turned – and fell down. He had been concentrating on his work so much and for so long that his shoes had frozen to the ground.
One sailor told us he once had asked Mike why he didn’t feel fear when he raced a sailboat around the world. “It’s too exciting,” Mike had replied.
This was a memorial service to celebrate Mike’s life. We came together and shared our memories of him as well as some of his thoughts, words and loves. For a time after the services, we mingled a bit and talked.
I think most of us exited with a sailor’s sense of comradship. Whatever he had gone through in his final hours, his ordeal on the North Atlantic was over. We would not see him again, but he had left us doing what he wanted to do.
Those who had been privileged to spend time with Mike had their lives enriched. We admired his quiet courage and we were astonished by his giant deeds.
With his dreams and his passion, he had achieved so much in such a short period of time we could not fully comprehend that the North Atlantic had finally claimed him. He was our hero.
It was night when I drove out of the parking lot. My headlights shone over a dark lake that lapped at the shore. The trees were bare, with their thin branches swaying in the chill north wind.
In the next serialization,: The official Coast Guard report investigates Coyote’s construction details and draws its conclusions...
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.