Rower’s Boat Recovered, Memorial Service Planned
CHATHAM — When retired Chicago cardiologist Nenad Belic rowed away from Stage Harbor on the afternoon of May 11, he gave himself about a 50-50 chance of making it to Europe, with a 2 percent chance of being lost at sea. As it turned out, the numbers were against him.
Last Friday, some Irish fishermen confirmed the worst when they found Belic’s empty rowboat floating upside down a quarter-mile off the shore of County Clare. The 20-foot heavy weather rowboat, the Lun, had a broken hatch and was encrusted with marine life; while it contained some of Belic’s personal artifacts, there was no trace of the rower.
For Belic, the trip represented his life’s ambition. He had invested his own money for the journey and for the boat, and outfitted it with the best equipment and supplies.
"There is no boat like this in the world," Belic said proudly, shortly before his departure. Built of cold-molded wood and epoxy, the Lun was designed to sustain heavy surf and could right itself after capsizing—as long as it remained watertight.
The journey was expected to last several months, but Belic was running precariously low on food when he radioed a passing freighter for help on Sept. 18. The ship Rigoletto of the Wallenius-Willhemsen Line slowly came to a stop, and crews threw the tiny rowboat a line. Elisabeth Fahlstrom, the ship’s cook-steward, prepared a parcel for Belic and had it sent down the line. In an account posted on a Web site by Belic’s brother, Predrag Cvitanovic, Fahlstrom said the rower looked healthy and happy.
"It was a special moment to meet a man who was fulfilling his dream," Fahlstrom wrote. "We offered him to join us, we were heading for [the] USA, but he was absolutely going to finish his trip."
On Thursday, Sept. 27, Belic called meteorologist Dane Clark for a recorded weather forecast, and heard about the possibility that an intense, mid-latitude ocean storm would develop in Belic’s vicinity the following weekend, with winds predicted to gust over 50 knots and seas topping 20 feet—the stem-to-stern length of the Lun.
That evening, he left a message on the answering machine of Kenneth Crutchlow of the London-based Ocean Rowing Society.
"I ran into some beastly weather," he said. "So, sitting on sea anchor, but everything is OK, basically. Made some progress." He wished Crutchlow well, and said goodbye. His 89-second answering machine message was one of his last communications with shore.
As in all of his satellite phone calls with shore, Belic sounded cheery and well. Oceanographer Jenifer Clark, who was charting the Gulf Stream for Belic, said she quickly grew fond of her client.
"I felt like Nenad became a part of our family, and we really miss him," Clark wrote. Several days earlier, on Sept. 24, she had urged Belic to call off the trip. "He said, ‘No, if I push the EPIRB [the emergency radio beacon], the coast guard will rescue me and not the boat.’ I told him he should anticipate a capsize."
On Sept. 30, around 230 miles from land in storm force 10 conditions, Belic did activate his EPIRB, launching a massive search by the English and Irish coast guards. The radio beacon was recovered, but there was no sign of the Lun. A subsequent aerial search, chartered by Belic’s
family, failed to locate the boat. Family members and friends hoped that the radio beacon had simply become dislodged during the storm, and Belic was still in the Lun, perhaps disabled and adrift.
Those hopes were ended last Friday. Two fishermen on the boat Molly Bawn, Gerry Concannon and Tom Walsh, found a strange object in the water, drifting out to sea from a position about a quarter mile off the Irish coast, six miles from Kilkee, Clare County, Ireland.
"They immediately knew it was Dr. Belic’s boat, because of all the publicity it had been given," said Crutchlow. Only a small portion of the Lun’s keel was visible. Local volunteers from the Kilkee Rescue Service brought the boat ashore, which was difficult given the strong currents and waterlogged condition of the boat, according to Gerry Mc Inerney of the local weekly newspaper, The Clare Champion.
"The boat was towed ashore in Kilkee Bay by the Kilkee Rescue Service, and given the volume of water in the boat—an estimated quarter ton—it took them nearly four hours to travel the six or so miles," Mc Inerney said.
"A lot of personal items, a diary, navigational maps, a small fishing rod, packaged dried food were recovered from the boat," Mc Inerney reported. "A search of the area followed, but no body was recovered."
Crutchlow said the Irish Customs Service has worked hard to weed through the necessary formalities, and will arrange to have the boat returned to the United States as soon as possible. Customs Agent Terry O’Sullivan asked the fishermen and volunteers whether they needed to be reimbursed for any expenses during the recovery operation, Crutchlow noted.
"In every instance, every one of them said, there’s no charge, God rest his soul."
The Lun was said to be in remarkably good condition, though a small window on the aft side of the superstructure had been broken. One or more of the boat’s three hatches were intact, but loose. It is not clear how much of the damage had been done after the Lun foundered.
"There’s definitely going to be a mystery with this," Crutchlow said. "The boatbuilder has shown great interest in studying the photographs, and we will await his comments." The boat was built by Steve Najjir of California, using a design from Phil Bolger of Worcester.
Kilkee resident Tom Byrne, who helped pull the Lun ashore with his four-wheel drive truck, was moved by the experience.
"It was gut-wrenching to see someone’s dream die with such tragic consequences," Byrne told The Chronicle. Recently appointed the chairman of the Kilkee Civic Trust, Byrne said he plans to contact Belic’s family with the idea of having a memorial erected in the rower’s honor.
Belic is survived by his wife, Ellen Stone Belic; two daughters, Dara and Maia; two sons, Roko and Adrian, and brother Predrag Cvitanovic. A memorial service for Belic is scheduled for Dec. 16 at 4 p.m. at the Chicago Sinai Congregation, Chicago.
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