Pair Tell of Terrifying Night Adrift at Sea After Catamaran Capsized


Robert Thornton clung to the side of his capsized catamaran, unable to kick in the frigid water.

Righting an overturned boat is difficult enough for someone with two good sea legs. For Thornton, it’s harder still. More than a decade ago, he lost the use of his legs in a dirt-bike racing accident.

So the 36-year-old Camarillo man is no stranger to adversity. But when his 21-foot catamaran, named E-Ticket, capsized this weekend, he experienced what he called the most terrifying ride of his life.


Thornton and a friend, Bruce Bowers, had been zipping along the Santa Barbara Channel at a brisk clip Saturday afternoon when Thornton suddenly slipped from the hull.

“Everything was just great, then we got a big gust of wind,” Thornton said. “I just lost my [balance].”

The boat capsized after Bowers, 45, also toppled into the water.

For hours, the pair were adrift off the Channel Islands. Thornton said he tried to use a two-way radio he had recently purchased.

“Mayday! Mayday! Please respond,” the lifelong sailor said repeatedly into the radio. There was no reassuring voice on the other end, he said. The wet radio had short-circuited.

He blew an ear-piercing whistle that only echoed through the dark, cold night. The pair fired a flare gun that blasted toward the twinkling stars. They flashed a blinking strobe light.

Help never came.

Thornton wore a wet suit that exposed his arms and legs. Bowers had on a long wet suit, a straw hat and rubber booties. They had no food aboard.

What had begun as a short, leisurely trip from Channel Islands Harbor to Anacapa Island and back became a nightmare.

Hitting Waves Like a Cement Wall

About 12 hours later, the capsized boat was crashing against 8-foot waves as if hitting a cement wall over and over, they said. Thornton said his exhaustion overcame him.

He said he began to dream he was inside a coffin that was slowly sliding off a seemingly endless plank. Before the coffin hit the black abyss of the sea, Thornton’s eyes popped open.

Even more than the chill, it was the loud, annoying barks of seals that the men said kept them awake.

“Bruce and I never talked about dying out there,” Thornton said. “I was thinking we could make it through the night.”

The friends avoided hypothermia largely by their own contrivances.

Bowers used his pocketknife to remove extensions known as wings that were tied to each hull. The wings are used to make a catamaran’s deck space wider.

They took both pieces of lightweight aluminum and placed them atop the catamaran’s trampoline, which was face down and submerged in the 58-degree water.

The wings acted as cots and kept the men above the waterline.

To keep his head warm, Thornton used a lunch bag made of the same fabric used for laptop computer covers. Bowers wrapped Thornton’s exposed feet and legs with a giant nylon bag used to hold sails, until Thornton looked like a mummy.

At daybreak, the water was glassy. Thornton said he was surprised to see they had floated farther out to sea. By noon Sunday, the pair estimated they were 15 miles southeast of Anacapa Island.

“We were looking at the back side of Anacapa,” Thornton recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh no, this is not good.’ ”

At one point they saw what looked like a military plane. Their hopes were lifted when the plane tipped its wings. Their spirits soon dropped as the plane disappeared into the horizon.

A Celebration With High-Fives

Fearing yet another night adrift at sea, the pair tried in vain to pull the boat upright. They tied a wing extension on the edge of the boat and Bowers walked to the edge, hoping the weight would force the boat on its side.

It didn’t work. They placed the wings one on top of the other. The thickness allowed Thornton to scoot to the wing’s edge. With both men at the end of the makeshift diving board, the boat suddenly plopped onto its side.

They eventually got the boat upright, mended a large hole in the mainsail with tape, and began a slow journey home.

It was several hours before they spotted tiny lights in the distance. They were nearing the Port of Hueneme.

“The weather was pretty violent,” recalled Thornton, a mechanical engineer who designs satellites for a division of Hughes in Los Angeles. “We were still tempted to go to Channel Islands Harbor. I asked Bruce, ‘Should we go for it?’ He said, ‘No Rob, let’s take it in.’ I said, ‘Good call.’ ”

When the men docked the tattered vessel, the first thing they did was give each other high-fives.

“We got ourselves in a situation and we fixed our situation,” Thornton said. “We saved ourselves.”

U.S. Coast Guard officials gave the sailors hot coffee and noodle soup. Then the men learned that nine search teams--using helicopters and auxiliary aircraft--had been scouring the ocean for them throughout the night.

“We don’t know why we didn’t see them,” Coast Guard Petty Officer Dawn Butler said Monday. “We completely saturated the area where they were reported missing.”

No Fear, but Lessons Learned

Rescuers had been told to keep a lookout for the E-Ticket’s bright pink and purple sail. But because the boat had capsized, the sail was submerged.

“That was the main thing people were looking for,” Butler said. “But they checked every craft in the area. They just didn’t see them.”

On Monday afternoon, Thornton and Bowers, a Ventura auto mechanic, sailed the damaged boat back to Channel Islands Harbor.

“I have absolutely no fear about going out again,” Thornton said before he set sail.

Bowers agreed.

“We triumphed over our obstacles,” he said. “If anything, I’m a more confident sailor. It was a learning experience for both of us.”

“The experience was worth its weight in gold,” added Thornton.