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A Storm Too Soon

Four Rhode Island-based sailors set off from the Virgin Islands six years ago, only to encounter a deadly storm off the coast of North Carolina. Survivors and rescuers are now telling the tale of what it was like on the water that terrible day.

Illustration by Kim Herbst

At about 3:30 a.m. on May 7, 2007, Geoff Pagels receives the emergency signal from the sailboat Flying Colours. As a longtime United States Coast Guard search and rescue specialist based in Portsmouth, Virginia, Pagels knows that for an experienced captain to set off the equivalent of a mayday, something serious, perhaps cataclysmic, must have happened onboard. 
Pagels is juggling multiple search and rescue missions: Three different emergency signals have been received from sailboats approximately 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina. He is worried about the location of the boats: They are in or near the Gulf Stream, which is known for generating deadly waves.
The crew of the Flying Colours is from Rhode Island: thirty-nine-year-old Captain Patrick “Trey” Topping; thirty-four-year-old Jason Franks; twenty-six-year-old Christine Grinavic; and twenty-two-year-old Rhiannon Borisoff. The foursome left St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands eight days earlier to deliver the fifty-four-foot single mast sailboat for owner Robin West, a former Cabinet official under presidents Reagan and Ford, to Annapolis, Maryland. 
Trey has been the captain of the Flying Colours for two years. He takes great pride in the boat; Robin allows Trey, a master carpenter, to make whatever improvements or maintenance are necessary. During the winter months, the Flying Colours’ home port is the Virgin Islands, and Trey considers sailing friends of Robin’s around the Caribbean his dream job.
Although Trey is friends with the new crew he has recruited for this trip, it is the first time all four have sailed together. He and Jason both hold captain’s licenses and Christine and Rhiannon also have prior sailing experience, but none of the four — or for that matter few people on earth — have ever been ambushed by a storm as fierce as this one.


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