Belic and his 21-foot rowing craft, Lun, were lost off Ireland in September.
Nenad Belic wasn’t looking for publicity or sponsorship. He didn’t want
to break any records. He just wanted to row across the Atlantic alone.
On May 11 last
year, the 62-year-old retired cardiologist from Chicago departed Chatham,
Mass., in his 21-foot boat, Lun, with aspirations of rowing to Portugal.
He never arrived.
The night of
Sept. 30, with winds gusting to 58 knots from the west/southwest and seas
over 20 feet, the British and Irish Coast Guards received an EPIRB distress
transmission from Belic, originating about 230 miles west of the Irish coastal
town of Dingle. Two planes and a helicopter rushed to the scene, where they
found Belic’s EPIRB. There were no signs of a boat or a survivor.
The family clung
to hopes that Belic was alive until Nov. 16, when Irish fishermen discovered
Lun floating keel-up. Belic was not on board, and all hopes of finding him
alive were dashed. Even with a survival suit — which he didn’t have — he
couldn’t have survived long in the North Atlantic. The family declared him
lost at sea, posted an obituary in the Chicago newspapers, and hosted a well-attended
memorial service in the Windy City. They wanted closure, explains Belic’s
younger brother Predrag Cvitanovic.
Still, the family
and those who knew him or followed his adventure continue to struggle with
questions about Belic’s final hours. What happened? Why didn’t he heed his
weather consultant’s advice to abandon the attempt before the weather turned
bad? And why did an accomplished doctor, with a loving family and no ocean-rowing
experience, have a burning desire to cross the Atlantic?
“Who knows what
happened,” says Kenneth Crutchlow, executive director of the British-based
Ocean Rowing Society. “If there are lessons to be learned, we want to learn
them.” But the reality, he adds, is the world rarely knows for certain what
happens when a solo rower or cruiser is lost at sea.
Belic was born April 1,1939, in Yugoslavia. A graduate of the University
of Zagreb’s medical school, he emigrated to the United States to continue
his studies. Belic trained in cardiology at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial
Hospital, where he eventually became head of the department until he retired
at age 60.
Belic as intelligent, kind and compassionate. He was witty and ambitious,
with a thirst for adventure. And, at 62, Belic was in top physical condition,
according to his brother.
“He was very
disciplined,” says Cvitanovic, a physics professor at Georgia Tech.
of rowing across the Atlantic. He wasn’t a fanatic about rowing, but as
a youth growing up in Croatia Belic enjoyed rowing around a small island
near the family’s home, says Cvitanovic. Belic didn’t get out to sea often,
but he had fond memories of his first voyage across the Atlantic. In fall
1952 Belic took a steam freighter from Slovenija to the United States to
visit his aunt. The ship changed course to avoid a hurricane, but even the
periphery of the storm impressed the young man. Belic wrote about that crossing
in his unpublished memoirs.
years, Belic talked about rowing across the Atlantic. “He was waiting until
his children were older, but it came a point where if he was going to go,
he had to go soon,” says Cvitanovic.
Belic has two
adult sons from a previous marriage, Roko and Adrian, who are critically
acclaimed documentary filmmakers who live in California. The duo co-produced
a film, “Genghis Blues,” that in 2000 was nominated for an Academy Award.
Belic also has two daughters — Dara, 17, and Maia, 13 — with his second wife
Ellen Stone Belic of the Stone Container Corp. family.
retired, it soon became clear to his family and friends that he was going
to row solo across the Atlantic, a feat fewer than two dozen have accomplished.
His family didn’t understand his aspiration, and even Belic couldn’t explain
it. In a rare interview prior to his departure — he didn’t want publicity
but was interviewed by a local Cape Cod newspaper — he said his desire to
complete a trans-Atlantic row was a mystery even to himself. “He had that
look, that far away gaze they all get when you know there is nothing you
can say or do to change their mind [about crossing the ocean],” says Jenifer
Clark, a Gulf Stream expert and Belic’s weather advisor for the voyage.
Belic already had commissioned a boat, designed by Phil Bolger of Gloucester,
Mass., and built six years ago by Steve Najjar, a boatbuilder in Redwood
cold-molded hull was built from three layers of 1/8-inch western red cedar,
with each layer diagonally cross-laminated on top of a web frame (a series
of longitudinal stringers and four permanent ring frames) and epoxied together.
The hull and deck were sheathed with 6-ounce fiberglass cloth, also impregnated
with epoxy. Storage bins inside the hull ran the length of the boat, aiding
the structure and keeping weight low.
A canopy, which
sat over the deck, was constructed of aircraft aluminum with Lexan windows.
The top of the canopy was plywood sheathed in fiberglass cloth. There were
three hatches, one at each end and one on top of the canopy; the boat has
four solar panels on deck.
The fully enclosed
craft was designed to be self-righting and extremely buoyant, even if flooded.
The key was ballast tanks, filled with fresh water at the start of the journey
and intended to be refilled with salt water as Belic progressed. The boat
was enclosed to protect the rower from the elements, particularly salt spray
that can lead to chafing and sores. The oars stuck out of openings on the
sides of the vessel.
the plans for the boat in the early 1990s from Bolger, a well-known designer
with more than 50 boats (including rowing craft) to his credit. Belic, who
invested more than $50,000 in the project, made a few minor adjustments
to the design.
He had the vessel
painted canary yellow and named it Lun. The name is from the Italian word
“luna,” which means moon, and lunatic, a veiled reference to Belic’s “crazy”
scheme to cross the Atlantic, according to his brother. “He often joked
about it,” says Cvitanovic.
Belic had no
ocean rowing experience but practiced for the journey by rowing from Chicago
to Mackinac on Lake Michigan, a 300-mile passage. He also attended a weeklong
seminar hosted by his weather advisor Clark, an oceanographer based in Maryland.
Belic stayed with the Clark family that week, and the Clarks grew fond of
the Yugoslavian immigrant.
“It breaks my
heart,” says Clark. “I wish he had been just another client, but he wasn’t.
He was one of my favorite people. He was down-to-earth, caring, intelligent,
fun to be with.”
Belic also was
determined, says Clark, who witnessed this when she dropped a key behind
a dresser. Belic worked for more than an hour to retrieve it.
“I said to myself,
‘If anyone can cross the ocean, he can,’ ” recalls Clark.
may have also been his downfall.
flaw was his stubbornness,” says Clark, who had advised Belic to abandon
his efforts just days prior to his disappearance.
Belic also didn’t
heed Clark’s advice to launch from North Carolina, where the Gulf Stream
can be as close as 20 miles from shore. Instead, he insisted on launching
from Cape Cod, about 200 miles from the Gulf Stream, she says. She doesn’t
know why he insisted on Cape Cod, except that is where adventurer Sir Chay
Blyth and John Ridgeway had set out on their Atlantic rowing expedition in
Help on the
Belic spent his first few weeks battling unexpected storms, and after
three weeks at sea he had barely gone 60 miles, says Clark. After his initial
misstep, Belic’s progress was slow but methodical. Through e-mail and satellite
phone he kept in touch with his wife, sons, Clark and the British-based
Ocean Rowing Society. Belic wasn’t a member of the society, but had expressed
interest in joining.
By all accounts,
Belic’s spirits remained high for the months he was at sea. Food supplies
were dwindling, however. He twice received food donations from passing vessels
but declined other assistance, such as a tow. Rhode Islander Steve Campia
and his family encountered Belic while en route to the America’s Cup Jubilee
in Cowes, England, aboard their 70-foot yacht Renaissance. Campia’s 10-year-old
daughter initially declared Belic a pirate, but the family quickly warmed
to the adventurer. They gave him enough food to last a couple days.
On Sept. 18
Belic radioed the passing Swedish freighter Rigoletto of the Wallenius Wilhelmsen
Line to ask for food. The ship’s cook, Elisabeth Fahlstrom, prepared a parcel
with a 10-day supply. She took the last known photograph of Belic.
“It was a special
moment to meet a man who was fulfilling his dream,” Fahlstrom wrote in a
message posted on Cvitanovic’s Web site.
Time also was
working against Belic. Most rowers avoid the Atlantic during the fall, when
hurricanes and storms are more likely. Clark’s last conversation with Belic
was Sept. 24, when she advised her client that a storm front was headed
toward him. She urged him to abandon his efforts and call the Coast Guard
for help. Belic declined. “If I do that, the Coast Guard will rescue me
and not the boat,” Belic told Clark.
“The irony is,”
Clarks says, “the boat was saved and Belic was lost.”
Clark told him
to prepare to be capsized or rolled, which would include securing the hatches
and buckling himself into a bunk below, according to the boat’s designer.
Trans-oceanic rowers routinely are tossed about during storms. Tori Murden,
the first woman to cross the Atlantic, capsized 11 times during a storm,
according to Clark.
On Sept. 27 Belic called Clark’s office and received a recorded weather
forecast. Clark’s husband, Dane, a meteorologist, warned of a complicated
weather pattern involving a low-pressure system over the eastern North Atlantic,
a dying hurricane in the middle of the Atlantic, and a secondary midlatitude,
low-pressure area to develop around 57N 23 W, with pressures as low as 950
millibars. “That’s a really deep low,” Clark explains. Winds were predicted
to be 30-45 knots with gusts more than 50 knots; seas were expected to exceed
20 feet. Belic’s position put him in the center of the maelstrom.
There are no
records that indicate Belic called for help. Both Clark and Cvitanovic believe
Belic was overconfident since he already had averted mishaps and near-starvation.
He may also have been naive about Atlantic storms. The evening of Sept.
27 Belic phoned the Ocean Rowing Society and left the following message:
“Hi, this is Nenad. I ran into some beastly weather. So, sitting on sea
anchor but everything is OK, basically. Made some progress. My current position
is 51 degrees, 8 minutes north; 17 degrees, 12 minutes west.”
It was Belic’s
Three days later,
his EPIRB was activated. A Royal Air Force helicopter from Chivenor in Devon
located the beacon, but there was no sign of Belic or his boat. Fierce weather
hampered the search. For weeks, both the Irish and British Coast Guards
conducted searches from the air and sea. All local mariners were advised
to keep an eye out for Lun.
were very intense initially,” says Rory Jackson, head of the Toe Head Irish
Coast Guard team, in an e-mail. Toe Head is one of 54 Coast Guard units
in Ireland. They are all volunteers, supported by the Irish government (equipment
Lun had been smashed by a monstrous wave. “My heart sank when the Coast Guard
called to say they found the EPIRB but no sign of the boat,” says Clark.
But no debris
was found — a possible sign that Belic and Lun may have survived and the
EPIRB had been lost overboard. Rowers are advised to attach the EPIRB to
the outside of the vessel to increase chances of being located. The beacon
cannot be activated automatically or accidentally, which suggests that Belic
was conscious, manually activated the beacon and tossed it from the boat.
Much of Belic’s equipment had been damaged during the voyage, so it is conceivable
the storm knocked out his remaining communications equipment, leaving the
EPIRB as the only alternative.
“One can believe
that, encountering some sort of trouble, Mr. Belic activated his beacon,
and to be sure the signal would be received, made it fast outside his boat,”
suggested famed French rower GŽ rard d’Aboville.
the emergency signalling device was ripped away by waves and wind. A similar
scenario occurred in 1997 during a 3,000-mile, trans-Atlantic rowing race.
Two brothers, Matthew and Edward Boreham, were found off Portugal after
three weeks adrift. They were without food and were navigating by compass
and the stars. Their EPIRB, which was fastened to the outside of the vessel,
had broken free. In Belic’s case, hope began to wane as the weeks stretched
to put into words the feeling when you can't find what you've been tasked
to look for,” explains Jackson, a Coast Guard volunteer for 13 years. “Your
feelings are for the families and friends. In the Nenad Belic case, for
me the thought that he was still out there alone and had come so close to
reaching his destination was enough to keep up hope.”
When the official
search wavered, the family chartered private planes to continue searching.
Belic’s son Roko traveled to Ireland to help coordinate efforts. Stories
about the missing rower appeared in publications throughout the United Kingdom
and United States. Belic would have hated the attention, remarks his brother,
but the publicity aided the search. The Ocean Rowing Society’s Web site
was soon filled with messages of hope and search tips from rowers around
the globe. Mariners were urged to continue watching for Lun. Both the boat’s
designer and builder expressed optimism that the boat could survive.
On Nov. 16, commercial fishermen Gerry Concannnon and Tom Walsh aboard
the vessel Molly Bawn spied an object drifting about a quarter-mile off Ireland,
near Kilkee in County Clare. Upon closer inspection, they saw it was a small
boat, inverted, with only a small portion of the keel visible. The fishermen
had heard the story about the missing rower, and knew almost instantly that
they had found Lun. Although the hull was bright yellow, its keel was dark,
which made it even more difficult for aerial searchers to spot. Search experts
compared it to trying to find a toothpick floating in a lake.
A local dive
team searched the submerged hull, but Belic was not inside. The boat was
brought to shore, where it was cleaned and adorned with flowers as a remembrance
to the lost rower.
touched by the people of Kilkee, the little Irish fishing village,” says
Cvitanovic. “They took it extremely to heart. Instead of ignoring him as
a crazy old man, they were very sympathetic to him.” Although they had never
met Belic, the villagers conducted a memorial service.
The boat showed
signs of being at sea — it was covered with barnacles and other growth —
but held few clues of Belic’s last days. Much of the contents were in order.
Belic’s wallet and passport were aboard, but there was no log. A small window
was broken and one hatch was open and loose, but there’s no way of telling
whether the damage occurred at the same time Belic was lost, or whether it
happened after the rower disappeared.
one knows for certain how Belic was lost, that hasn’t stopped the speculation.
Some suspect Belic opened the hatch — possibly to tether the EPIRB to Lun
— and was swamped or capsized by the large seas. A powerful gust could have
caught the open hatch and flipped the boat, says Cvitanovic. Or Belic may
have been lost overboard while trying to retrieve an object (the EPIRB,
perhaps). Without a survival suit, he wouldn’t have survived more than a
few hours at most in the 60-degree F water, says Clark.
Based on the
lessons learned from Belic’s disappearance, Clark says she will insist that
her clients set out equipped with all survival gear. She also will advise
rowers to attach the EPIRB to their body, not the vessel.
wife of the boat’s designer and co-owner of the Gloucester, Mass.-based
Phil Bolger and Friends company, has been striving to learn why the boat
did not right itself, as it was designed to do. From the photos, the designers
determined that the ballast tanks were open, and possibly empty. They wonder
if Belic failed to refill the tanks with salt water during the voyage, or
perhaps did not fill them at the outset of his voyage. It’s possible the
tanks could have been damaged during a mishap or during the long days adrift
at sea after Belic was lost. Used properly, the ballast tanks were key to
the boat’s design, says Altenburger.
says she wishes Belic had asked Bolger to inspect the boat prior to the voyage.
The couple could have given last minute instructions on how to maintain
the boat while at sea, she says. Instead, they didn’t know about his voyage
until they read that he was lost at sea.
by the approach that he took,” says Altenburger. “We are saddened by the
fact that he didn’t make it. He was living a dream that’s not that unreasonable.”
Some, like the
Ocean Rowing Society’s Crutchlow, resist the urge to make sense of the incident,
at least for now. “It’s been my experience that the families are incredibly
distraught,” he says. “Now is not the time to point blame.”
says to understand what went wrong on Belic’s voyage may help prevent disaster
on future rowing expeditions. When British rower Peter Bird was lost at
sea in 1996, for example, investigators learned that the wood beneath the
fiberglass sheathing on his boat had rotted during storage. The wood literally
crumbled from the force of a wave, says Crutchlow, who attended Belic’s
colleagues, former patients, family members and friends — including Clark
and the builder Steve Najjar — attended the Dec. 16 memorial service in Chicago.
is saddened, frustrated and even angry that Belic would risk his life. But
they take solace in knowing that Belic dared to live his dream, and that
he touched so many people in the process.