On Sunday evening, May 23rd when the television news broadcast that Marina del Rey sailor Tom Kirschbaum, 55, was reported lost at sea on his sail back from Catalina Island, I did a double take.
Having spent the day on my boat, tied up securely in its Marina del Rey slip, I was well aware of the blustery conditions. My boat yanked at her docklines like an untrained dog tied to a tree and I was thankful to be where I was. On days like these, which are pretty rare in this area, the mind always wanders to the thought of who might be out in the ocean battling and struggling in such severe conditions.
I’m sure most everyone who sails these waters, and especially those who are familiar with the Pacific Singlehanded Sailing Association (PSSA), of which Kirschbaum was a member, were shocked at the image of his small (26-foot) but hearty International Folkboat named Feral lying helpless, fully rigged on a Venice beach.
For nearly all sailors, their boat takes on a human character, probably because it’s not like a car that shuttles you around town to complete your errands and get you to work during the week. Instead, it carries and protects us in hostile situations that are arduous, uncomfortable and sometimes terrifying. It’s this protection that makes sailors form spiritual connections with their boats, and nowhere are these bonds more vivid than among single-handed sailors.
I’ve interacted a good amount of times with various members of the Pacific Singlehanded Sailing Association in the course of my travels and have found all of them to have certain characteristics in common. The members I’ve met have been passionate about the sport of sailing, somewhat stoic in nature, humble with respect to the ocean and very safety conscious. While I never met Kirschbaum, it seems that he too matched that description.
Kirschbaum had sailed thousands and thousands of miles in his life, many of them solo, in a small boat and in demanding circumstances. Although the wind and wave conditions on the Sunday afternoon he disappeared were formidable, by Kirschbaum’s standards they were more than manageable. He had just completed a PSSA race that sent him around Santa Barbara Island, finishing at the west end of Catalina Island where wind speeds were clocked near 40 knots, with sustained winds in the 30-knot range, considerably more intense than what he faced on May 23rd.
Kirschbaum was reportedly very happy and satisfied with the way he and the boat had performed during the heavy weather contest.
“We spoke to him extensively at Emerald Bay in the morning before we headed back,” said PSSA Junior Staff Commodore Eric Lambert, who had also competed in the race and later conducted a run-through investigation of the beached boat. “He was absolutely elated, saying ‘this is what it’s all about.’ So, the conditions for the trip back were just a walk in the park for Tom in that boat, especially after what he had just been through.”
Gil Maguire, a fellow PSSA member was also returning from the island on Sunday, concurred that while the weather would have been overwhelming for a novice sailor, it was nothing to worry about for a sailor of Kirschbaum’s caliber.
“There were several boats that came across that afternoon so it wasn’t the type of situation where you shouldn’t do itÖ you shouldn’t do it if you don’t know what you’re doing, but Tom knew what he was doing,” said Maguire. “He was a good sailor. He’s not the type of person that I’d expect this to happen to, so everyone is left scratching our heads wondering what happened.”
What specifically happened to Kirschbaum is indeed still something of a mystery, but Maguire mentioned that seas were eight to ten feet most of the way between Catalina and Marina del Rey, but at times they witnessed much bigger sets.
“There were some big ones out there,” he said. “We saw some 12 and 15s every once in awhile; there were some impressive swells.”
Kirschbaum’s GPS track ended off the coast of Palos Verdes, creating speculation of a possible knockdown, although there is nothing concrete to substantiate that. There was also an empty safety harness in the cockpit, with the tether still clipped to a padeye on the port rail. The safety harness chest strap adjustment was in the loosest position — as if he were making an adjustment of some kind, perhaps to his clothing.
Some speculate that Kirschbaum may have possibly been struck by a large wave at the unfortunate moment he wasn’t latched to the boat. It’s unclear whether he was wearing a life vest.
Clearly there were no issues in terms of the boat. Lambert saw the powerful little vessel to be in solid shape. There was no indication that Kirschbaum’s physical state was in any way compromised. In fact, he seemed particularly prepared for the delivery back. It appears that this was simply a very unfortunate accident in somewhat heavy weather conditions.
For myself and I’m sure many others, this accident is a reminder of the inherent latent risks of sailing and boating in general. In the warmth of the Southern California sunshine, it’s easy to forget that there’s much fragility in navigating ocean waters and that to enjoy this frontier, we always have to be mindful of the possible consequences that hide in the beauty that stretches out before us.