The Sea Claims a Very Good Friend

She was very fond of ice cream. There was no escaping her tomboy smile when within reach of an ice cream shop. She dragged you in there and made you look through the fogged up Plexiglas. In spite of superhuman efforts you could never quite match the sparkling in her little eyes. But there was no getting away without tasting the best of the flavors offered. Elaborate discussions followed about how this local variety compared to others peculiar frozen gastronomical inventions in places all over the world. Ice cream is a global phenomenon and she had travelled the world like few other people can claim. Her effervescent personality could mutate in a second from the maturity and mandatory grumpiness of her real age to the innocent smirks of a seven year old and make stops everywhere in between on the slow way back up. The spirits of a rebellion had created a permanent nest in her gentle but firm and edgy persona. Whatever subject at hand amongst her ever-numerous company engendered a fizzling curiosity in her that bubbled infectiously. She would ask the most unexpected questions and didn’t let anybody within her reach get away with the slightest hint of indifference. Whenever there was this all too typical consensus within the group around her, where everybody duly nods and respectful exclamations like ‘that’s right’, ‘of course’, and ‘I couldn’t agree more’ are politely regurgitated, she went sternly in opposition. She proposed antidotes to fickle assumptions. She thoroughly tested and, if needed, twisted the given arguments round and round, as if the human mind were a sticky mass of sculptor’s clay that could be stretched and pulled in any direction to fit the ever-morphing faces of the chaotic reality that lies around us when we dare to look beyond the safe and private chambers of our domesticated reason. Her high-pitched voice danced a melody of teenage seduction holding hands with the most acid peer review of scientific rigor.

Plowing ahead at full speed in spite of a 73rd birthday waiting for her just around the corner, her compass was set sternly towards the future. Evi Nemeth looked back on a long professional career as a stellar mathematician, during which she had authored a good handful of books and many more papers and she was a world-renowned cryptology specialist respected in her field. She is my only friend famous enough to have her own Wikipedia page. However without caring a dime for that fame, or for the matter about any fashion or style, she shunned her many admirers who tried to win her over by opening doors and talking smoothly, and walked around in shabby rags who’s only glitter was utter and permanent comfort in all global climate zones. Above all Evi was one of those exceptional people who in one way or another have treaded on a livelong search for the ultimate adventure. By adventure I mean the physical, real-world kind, not some intellectual circus act done in the dusty safety of a library room. And I’m very sorry to say that at the present time things tend to look as if she might have finally met her match.

By July 4th the Orion search plane of New Zealand’s Rescue Coordination Center was flying the last sorties off the West Coast of Northland, covering possible locations of a life raft that has drifted for weeks on the stormy Tasman Sea, but the hopes were slim and a mighty miracle was needed to find anybody clinging to life. Over five weeks before that the American racing schooner Nina left Opua in the Bay of Islands bound for the port of Newcastle in Australia. She was a slim and fast-looking vessel with a hell of a history. I remember paddling by her when checking up on a friends boat out in the overcrowded mooring field. She stood out with her tight freeboard and her masts shot up to a dizzying height. Built apparently in 1928 for racing she has seen quieter times lately as a cruising home for her present owners. As was their custom they were looking for crew for the upcoming voyage, apparently requesting two able bodied deck hands with a good amount of nautical experience. Evi applied for the positions with the young guy who crewed on her own yacht Wonderland, with which she had roamed the waters of the Pacific for the last four years and before that the Atlantic and Caribbean Seas. Evi’s always-sharp humor had it all worked out. The young chap would supply the able bodied side of the job description, she chuckled, since he was new on her boat and had never been out in the open ocean before. She herself would contribute her vast maritime experience from the thousands of sea miles on her back as master of her own vessel. The two of them, she claimed, made for nothing less than ideal applicants for the position. Evi’s charismatic charm is irresistible pretty much most of the time. The owners of SV Nina did not look any further and accepted the two in their ranks.

Preparations for the just over a thousand miles long trip ran longer than expected, which is a common thing in any maritime venture. A brand new Cummins diesel engine had been brought from the United States and had to be installed. Provisions needed to be brought on board and a slew of other things sat on lists hoping to be those lucky ones that manage to get checked off before departure. Finally, on May 28 SV Nina left with seven people on board. The skipper’s quite aggressive estimate for the arrival at their destination was set for no more than twelve days later.

A week into the journey however apparently barely a third of the distance had been covered, and Bob McDavitt, famed weather guru with the lofty title of New Zealand’s meteorological ambassador, received a call originating from Evi’s satellite phone, asking for advise on how to deal with deteriorating weather. A deep low-pressure system was making fast way towards their position. McDavitt suggested heading south to avoid the brunt of storm-force winds about to bear down on them, and heave to should the sea state make progress impossible. The following day a text from Evi to McDavitt asking for updates to the weather situation turned out to be the last communication received from SV Nina and the basis for an albeit very questionable position that was triangulated from that transmission. This position ended up being the only dubious shred of hard evidence for the calculations of drift patterns when more than three weeks later, after the pleas from relatives and friends of the missing mariners had breached the inertia of officialdom, search and rescue operation were finally initiated. At that time it was assumed that the Nina had sunk and possible survivors were supposed to be clinging to a life raft that had passed through a series of storms that continued to batter the notorious waters of the Tasman Sea.

Absent the always-possible miracle we will most probably never know what exactly took place out there in the loneliness of the sea. My imagination wanders from scenes stolen from Hollywood blockbuster movies that reproduce the monstrosities of maritime adversities with minute attention to details, to mystical projections of human suffering brought to a brutal standstill in the suffocating wretchedness of sinking slowly to the bottom of the sea. The same sea that has so far allowed our own floating home to stroll for the most part quite happily across a good quarter of the planet’s girdle has now claimed a very good friend. That bubbly living portion of our experience, that ice cream licking miracle, which had mastered the fine but very rare art of aging with grace, is now bound to fade away in the fickle flickers of our mind’s memory, destined to wither away in the shadow of time without ever again being given the chance of a refreshing renewal, and condemned to imagined re-encounters in realms of false hopes and strangled dreams.

There is still room for hope and the possibility exists that Evi and her peers in this suspended destiny are bobbing somewhere on the surface of the wild Tasman Sea, nibbling on stale biscuits, sipping rationed liquid, nursing subcutaneous blisters caused by a merciless sun, and making slow but steady progress towards a chunk of solid land that would bring an end to their dreadful existence as castaways. But such a rosy outlook is now very quickly becoming a fruit of our collective imagination. I have therefore to run the prudent risk and stand accused of pertaining to a pessimistic religion, but I pay loyalty to my practical maxim of aligning my actions whenever possible with the worst possible assumptions, when I am not proud at all but deeply sad to sing the first of certainly many eulogies that will emerge and rise to the heavens of agnostics and believers alike in the very near future. Evi, may you and all your able-minded soul mates rest in gentle peace wherever you have gone! And for those of us who stay behind, waving wavering hands and shedding trembling tears, may this be a time to remind our humble selves that life if not lived to the fullest will also sail away from our shores, get lost in stormy seas and leave us stranded on deserted islands of boredom, where those who tread the winding roads of passion and persuasion become distant targets of jealousy and disdain.

As it so turns out, I lost the price of authoring the first eulogy for Evi to the ever-eager insurance agent, who phoned family members just as the rescue efforts where being suspended. He went right down to business and after a polite but short greeting pressed on with: “There are some things we need to talk about, now that Evi has passed…”


For those who want to do a little more detailed study of the development of this tragic event and the timeline of the response to it, here is a collection of links that should give you’re a starting point.


Maritime New Zealands reports of the rescue efforts


The New Zealand Herald kept abreast of the story


Press articles from where the multinational crew’s home areas



Tags: , , , ,

2 Responses to “The Sea Claims a Very Good Friend”

  1. Bob Bois Says:

    Sorry to hear about Evi, Beat. She seems to have been quite an excellent person. I hope the sea is treating you kindly these days..

  2. Vera Goodacre Says:

    Hello Beat,

    I am so sorry about your friend Evi, and all the other people onboard the Nina, a real tragedy, one we now possibly will never exactly know why happened.

    You are not the only one who wonders why the Search and Rescue was not instigated much sooner.

    Hopefully a lesson will be learned and future tragedies can be avoided.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: