His voice was broken up by a bad connection. But on Dec. 3, Joe DiTomasso left a message with his daughter: The sailboat journey to the Florida Keys was going well.
Then the 76-year-old, a former auto mechanic from New Jersey, stopped responding.
For the next 10 frantic days, fears grew as the silence continued. The Coast Guard launched a massive search of 21,000 square miles of ocean for DiTomasso and his friend, Kevin Hyde, 65.
The two men and a dog named Minnie had left New Jersey on Thanksgiving weekend on a 30-foot sailboat bound for Marathon, Florida, but hadn’t been heard from since reaching the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
“We were mentally preparing for the worst,” Nina DiTomasso, 37, told USA TODAY.
That was until Tuesday, when a tanker ship spotted a sailboat, apparently adrift, more than 200 miles off the coast of Delaware. On deck, men waved their arms, and a flag. The tanker came alongside and plucked them to safety.
“We all just started screaming when we heard the news, crying and cheering, because it was just so unbelievable,” Nina DiTomasso said.
By Wednesday evening, they were back near the New Jersey shore again, motoring into New York Harbor, this time aboard a 600-foot ship.
When the tanker picked them up, Nina DiTomasso said, the men were ‘just super drained.” Exhausted, barely able to talk, the men had left much unknown about their journey and the fate of their boat. Only one thing was for sure: They were home.
Destined for warmer weather
DiTomasso’s family said the pair were boating friends and were seeking warmer weather for the winter.
DiTomasso was an experienced boater, his daughter said, who had long worked as an auto mechanic but would often steal away to go saltwater fishing. His experiences were primarily on power boats, she said.
“He was at the shore every second he got,” she said. “He just loved fishing.”
More recently, he lived on a boat in a Cape May marina for part of the year, where some nicknamed him “Joey Tomatoes,” said David Reistad, 38, DiTomasso’s son-in-law.
As the family gathered for Thanksgiving, DiTomasso was excited to join a friend he knew from the marina for a new journey.
They would take the friend’s sailboat from Cape May and head south to Marathon, in the Florida Keys.
DiTomasso had done the trip before, though not in a sailboat.
“My Dad actually did this once before, but with a different set of friends on their boat. And he had a great experience,” Nina DiTomasso said. “He was extremely excited.”
Hyde’s family could not be immediately reached.
While DiTomasso’s daughter was confident in her father’s boating ability, she knew less about his route. The two were planning to go “go from port to port,” DiTomasso’s daughter said, but she didn’t know if each leg would track outside the coast in open water, or along the Intracoastal Waterway, which runs inland down the Atlantic seaboard.
They left on Nov. 27. Nina DiTomasso knew he would have cell service, and would call to keep his family updated.
The vessel was a Catalina 30 sailboat, a popular coastal-cruising design from one of the largest sailboat manufacturers. A typical model would sport a single mast with a two-sail sloop rig, and a small diesel engine. Without major modifications, it would have tanks for enough fresh water to last two people a few days.
But unlike a typical white fiberglass boat, this hull was a brilliant navy blue. The name “Atrevida II” graced its transom. The word, in Spanish, has several meanings. One of them is “daring.”
Into the open sea
Her father began by calling family or friends with regular updates.
Nina DiTomasso was at home outside Philadelphia while her dad was on his trip. She said the crew was last heard from after leaving Oregon Inlet, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
That meant the crew had already left behind New Jersey and crossed the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
Ahead of them lay the coastal South and the blue waters of Florida. But before that was the Outer Banks, the stretch of barrier islands where waves and ocean currents roil up over shallow waters. Its shifting shoals long ago earned it the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
A friend of the men said he’d been talking to DiTomasso when his phone died. At first, no one panicked. He often forgot to charge his phone.
Another friend asked around the marina and found that Kevin’s phone was apparently dead, too.
“So my Mom looked at my Dad’s credit card statement, and he didn’t make any new purchases” since Dec. 3, she said. “That’s when we really grew concerned.”
Days passed with no word, then more days. On Dec. 11, the Coast Guard was notified that the two sailors were overdue and subsequently launched a search that would stretch from Florida to New Jersey, the agency said.
Coast Guard cutters and aircraft participated in the search along with ships from the U.S. Navy and commercial and recreational vessels.
“They just worked tirelessly, day and night. They sent out planes to search, a helicopter and they put it on social media,” Nina DiTomasso said.
She said Coast Guard officials said that the boat had previously reported problems with a generator and had run aground but had then set sail once again.
But with no cell service, DiTomasso’s family had no idea where to find Atrevida II. They had no idea how much food or water the men had on board.
Nina DiTomasso told one television news station, “My friends and everyone was saying, ‘If anyone is going to survive this, it’s ‘Joey Tomatoes.'”
Reistad said he worried from reading online that if the boat had become disabled, it could have been pushed by currents along the Outer Banks and ultimately pulled along by the Gulf Stream.
That ocean river is a powerful current of water that flows north along the Atlantic Coast. Somewhere offshore – perhaps a few miles off, perhaps as far as 75 miles – a boat would reach the edge of the stream.
“They probably ended up drifting into the Gulf Stream” and “couldn’t do anything about it but just be pulled up north,” Reistad said. “The temperatures the other day up here in the north were 20-something degrees.”
Once entering the Gulf Stream, a disabled boat would be sucked inexorably northward, and farther and farther offshore, bound for the icy waters of the north Atlantic.
Spotted from a ship
On Tuesday, more than two weeks after the men’s journey began, nobody had heard from Atrevida II.
Then someone aboard the tanker Silver Muna, itself in the midst of an Atlantic crossing carrying fuel from Amsterdam, noticed a sight in the open ocean.
Aboard a small sailboat, two men waved their arms, and a flag. The hull of their boat was a brilliant navy blue.
Photos posted online by the Coast Guard reveal a bit about the state of Atrevida II. In them the boat has no mast, meaning its sailing rig had been toppled. Some of the cable lifelines that ring the edge of the deck for safety, and other deck hardware, all appear to be smashed.
Relatives said they later learned that the boat had no fuel and no power. Its radios and navigation equipment were inoperable after a storm near Hatteras blew them off course.
After drifting, the men spent two days without water, cutting lines to pull out the last drops, they said later.
“They’re in the middle of the ocean with no power, no anything,” Reistad said. “It’s just unbelievable.”
The men and a dog were brought aboard the tanker shortly after 4 p.m. An evaluation by the ship’s medical staff revealed no immediate concerns, the Coast Guard said.
“This is an excellent example of the maritime community’s combined efforts to ensure safety of life at sea,” Daniel Schrader, a Coast Guard spokesman said in a statement.
Schrader also stressed the importance of sailors traveling with what’s commonly known as an “EPIRB” or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. It allows people on a boat to deliver their position to first responders in an emergency.
By Wednesday evening, the ship had arrived in New York to be reunited with family. Nina DiTamasso drove from her home in Pennsylvania to meet him.
DiTomasso said they experienced high winds and mountainous waves. He said the boat lost power, rigging and steering.
“I never saw wind so strong — roaring,” he told Coast Guard officials during a video showing the men being taken from the tanker to shore.
Hyde praised the crew of the Silver Muna for spotting them given “the size of his ship and the size of the ocean, compared to this toothpick I’m floating around in,” according to ABC7.
During their ordeal, DiTomasso said that he wasn’t sure he’d see his family again, explaining what helped him pull through: “My granddaughter. And the cross of Jesus. Every morning I’d wake up and kiss it and say the Our Father,” he said.
Coast Guard photos posted on Facebook showed the men being welcomed in New York on Wednesday night, the dog in tow.
Nina DiTomasso said she planned to “just hug him” and then stay in New York with their father. The journey that started on Thanksgiving weekend had not gone as planned. Instead, she said, it ended with a “Christmas miracle.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
Chris Kenning is a national reporter. Reach him on Twitter @chris_kenning.