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The Mystery of Richard Carr

Outside Online Article

A while back, I found a post on San Francisco Single Handed Sailing Society forum, which drew my immediate attention.

Sleep deprivation

The article referred by the post is linked below.

My Father’s SOS—From the Middle of the Sea | Outside Online

The writer, Ali Carr Troxell is the daughter of Richard Carr, a 71-year-old man who disappeared after sending cryptic messages while sailing alone from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to Hiva Oa in French Polynesia.

By the time I finished reading the article, I was, for the lack of a better word, mesmerized.

The way the article drew me in speaks volume for the writing and the emotion it contained. There is also an aspect that’s close to us sailors. If you are a sailor, especially if you like sailing short-handed as I do, I think you’ll understand when you read the article.

Carr’s Blog

The article did lack one thing, however. The point of view of Richard Carr himself. I could not help but wonder how things were like from his vantage point.

I noticed there was a reference to a blog by Richard Carr in the article. There was no link. I wanted to read the blog to get a glimpse of his perspective. Luckily, I came upon the blog after spending a few minutes on google.

Celebration at sea

The blog starts just as he began sailing from San Diego with his crew. It ends right before he heads to Puerto Vallarta from where he was to go on sailing alone.

I have lived in San Diego for 40 years. I have sailed for more than 20 of those years. The blog felt close and local, as it was set in the area and setting that is familiar to me.

I read all the postings in one go. It was a good read, a typical cruising blog in some ways, but it was also surprisingly emotional and personal in other respects.

According to the blog, Carr’s boat kept having non-trivial break downs before the passage even began. One can say that he was having a shakedown cruise, and was finding all the issues. These breakdowns, however, required the help of professionals or crew, something you will not have hundreds of miles away from the land, alone.

The question of whether he can handle these breakdowns on his own, hundreds of miles offshore, must have been on his mind. And it must have “tormented privately,” as Carr puts it himself when the boat sprang a leak that caused a sinking scare.

This is something us sailors can relate to.

Carr’s Track

As I read through the blog with great interest, I saw that Carr used InReach. InReach is a satellite messaging and tracking system used by hikers and sailors who venture outside the confines of civilization.

In practice, InReach is a small device you carry. It publishes GPS positions and it also allows you to send messages through a satellite uplink. You can also post short public messages on a map on the web. This is called the MapShare. You can think of MapShare as a micro-blog on a map. Wondering if Carr had shared his track via InReach, I tried a few URLs.

As it turns out, Carr did have such a public page.

Note: Carr’s MapShare is a publicly shared page, but I am not going to publish the URL, as it contains his geolocation information going years back. Below are screenshot images from Carr’s MapShare page.

From the shared page, below is his track.

Track of Richard Carr

The squares are public posts sent from his InReach device. Some of the messages are automated position reports, and the rest are messages posted by Carr.

Carr left Banderas Bay on May 2. Up to about May 13, he was on south-westerly track making good progress.

Then he started heading West. This may seem odd, but it’s not completely out of ordinary. He likely turned West to look for the wind and path through Doldrums to carry him South.

He went further West for a few days, then turned more South. Perhaps he thought there was a way through Doldrums here. At least he found enough wind to go further South.

On May 18th, he refers to having gone halfway, and the sailing seems to be going well.

May 18

Then he goes West again for a day, talking about halfway again.

May 20

He sails southwest towards the destination for a couple of days, then starts going more West at a good pace. He then slows down, and posts a message making references to “Preset speed”. Most likely this is a mistype of “present speed”. 3.6 knots is not brisk by any means, but the boat is still sailing. He is far from being becalmed.

On May 25, he is posting what looks like private messages. This message seems lucid and normal.

Sometime between May 25 and 27, he crosses the halfway point, the point to “turn to Hiva Oa” that he has mentioned twice.

Oddly, there is no course change, at least nothing different from the West/South West course changes he has been making. He also doesn’t mention having reached the “turn.” In fact, he doesn’t mention the “turn” at all after May 24.

It is true that once you reach the halfway point, the destination becomes closer than where you started from. From then on, it’s closer to sail to the destination than to return. In other words, Carr has passed a point of no return, and it was as if a new passage began. There is nothing out of ordinary in breaking up long-running effort into smaller manageable chunks like this.

On May 27, he started off a post by mentioning “intense rain”, which is consistent with squalls found within Doldrums.

This was followed by an explanation of the private messages he previously sent. He refers to “2 days of sleep dep”(deprivation), “Banderas Bay” (bay near Puerto Vallarta where he started) and “unknown playing on Shortwave radio” making him think he was in trouble.

Now, that does seem very strange.

Then on May 27, he sends a strange and cryptic message, starting with “Being kidnappedby filmcompany”.

There were more similar private messages, but they are not visible on his shared page. The private messages are mentioned in Outside Online article.

After another message and a position update, his track stops.

Experience and Preparation

Clearly, something happened to Richard Carr. We’ll likely never know what. I will not speculate here because I am not at all a fan of drawing conclusions without knowing.

What I can comment is that I don’t think this has to do with Carr’s lack of preparation or experience.

Carr has sailed on San Francisco Bay where the wind regularly pipes up to 30 knots. He sailed multiple overnighters to the Channel Islands. He owned the boat for a number of years and was very familiar with it. The boat itself, while having multiple issues before the passage, had numerous repairs and upgrades.

Truth is, many people sail to Hawaii and back with less experience and preparation.

I Thought I was Being Boarded in the Dark

I remember the very first night I was out on my J29 sailboat. The experience of sailing all day and all night was exhilarating, exhausting and at times surreal. I still remember vividly.

There was no wind and no light. We were far enough away from the shore that we could not see any light. I was in the cockpit in total darkness, making futile attempts to catch what little puffs there was.

Back then, I was even less experienced than I am now. I did not think to rest up before the nightfall. I was exhausted and I started to doze off with the tiller in my hand, only to be awakened by he mast and the boom constantly clanged. I jolted awake every time the boat rolled aimlessly by leftover waves.

Then I heard these sounds. It was the sound of someone surfacing and blowing out air. It was sudden and loud. I jolted. I was instantly awake.

The sound repeated. And it kept coming nearer. The sound was exactly that of a scuba diver surfacing and blowing air, at least to my tired mind.

I had little idea of what was going on. Finally, when it seemed like the sound was happening right beside me, I hailed with a shaky voice.

“Who’s there!?” There was no answer.

Someone must be trying to climb onto the boat, I thought. They don’t answer because they have ill intentions. The thought flashed in my mind. The realist in me knew there was a better explanation, but my heart still raced.

Surreal Reality

As it turned out, it was the seals. The seals were swimming around us, making loud noises as they surfaced and blew out air. Cautiously at a little distance at first, moving in closer once they saw we posed no harm.

The seals continued to swim around us for some time. Even after I realized it was just the seals, it made my heart skip every time they surfaced and breathed out loud in the dark. I was exhausted and groggy. Soon it became all very surreal in my half-awake state.

When I look back, I chuckle at how silly I must have seemed, especially to those seals. To me, though, the experience was very real and surreal at the time.

I would not be surprised at all if my mind concocted an outlandish story to make sense of such a reality. Especially if I was already sleep-deprived and bore a high level of anxiety.

Carr started sending cryptic and misspelled messages as he approached Doldrums and his progress slowed. He mentioned sleep deprivation on May 27 when he was barely averaging 2-3 knots.

He certainly did not become sleep deprived due to bad weather. Whatever caused him to not sleep, it was in the light, fickle winds and the squalls of doldrums which is not at all an unusual place to be.

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