Twenty five years after his catamaran ran up on a reef near Tahiti — a wreck that cost him his left leg and could have killed his family — a Rancho Santa Fe property agent set sail out of San Diego Saturday on another extended adventure adventure.
John Silverwood is directed at Hawaii by himself on what he’s calling a voyage of redemption.
“It is something I need to do, to prove to myself that I could,” he said. “I want to find that shipwreck off my back.”
Silverwood, 65, departed from Harbor Island West Marina shortly after 11 a.m. on his 37-foot cutter, Espiritu Santo (“Holy Spirit”). A small crowd of well-wishers, including his wife, Jean, and two of their four kids, was there to see him off. He expects it’s going to take about three weeks to sail 2,300 miles to Oahu.
It is a trip full of potential hazards — storms, other ships, equipment failures — and Silverwood said he has taken precautions to minimize them. He installed jack lines running from bow to stern that he can attach a safety harness to because he moves round the ship. He has a “go bag” stashed next to the life raft. There are backup batteries to the backup batteries.
He said it is hard to imagine much worse befalling him than that which happened in June 2005.
Sailing at night in the darkened at the western end of French Polynesia, the family’s 55-foot catamaran smashed to a partially submerged coral atoll called Manuae. What had been a grand, 18-month experience — scuba diving in Aruba, horseback riding in the Galapagos, hiking in the Andes — quickly turned into a desperate fight for survival.
The Silverwoods — John, Jean and the kids, Ben, then 16; Amelia, 14; Jack, 9; and Camille, 5 — scrambled to get off the Emerald Jane because it was battered from the world by waves. While John was up front, wrestling with the life raft, the 79-foot-tall mast dropped and its spreaders sliced through his leg at the shin, nearly severing it.
The family spent 14 hours huddled on the reef, adjusting the tourniquets on John’s leg, trying to maintain his pain and shock at bay and their own hopes up, till they had been seen by a French Navy plane. It had been summoned to the area with a signal from an emergency beacon on the ship.
Silverwood spent two weeks in a Tahitian hospital. Eventually his leg has been amputated above the knee. He walks now using a prosthesis.
The family’s saga has been the subject of newspaper and magazine articles, television docudramas along with a book John and Jean Silverwood wrote called “Black Wave,” printed in 2008. Now there’s talk of a feature film.
In recent years since the accident, Silverwood has continued to sail, but it’s been largely short excursions around San Diego and up the California coast. Five decades ago, he tried to sail to Hawaii along with his son Jack in the Pacific Cup race but had to turn around after about 800 miles due to illness.
He is going this time by himself since he sees it as the only method to create a point. “I had been the captain of a shipwreck that nearly killed my wife, my kids, and mepersonally,” he said. “If I don’t go solo, everybody thinks the handicapped guy just sat there while somebody else did all the work.”
As someone who has sailed most of his life — “It is in my blood,” he said — he’s excited about the peace and tranquility he sees in long days and nights on the water. And to the challenge. “If you strip off all of the distractions of modern life,” he stated, “it is only you and the ship and the wind, and it is your obligation to make it work.”
If he’s successful, he’d like to be an inspiration to other amputees. “Maybe they’ll say, ‘If that 65-year-old guy can do it, I need to wake up and do something myself,”’ he said.
He is also hoping to raise money through the trip for GodSwell Sailing, a Christian-oriented nonprofit company he started that takes individuals with disabilities and life threatening illnesses outside at sea as a form of therapy. The funds would be used to buy a bigger boat, a catamaran.
As he and buddies from his Bible-study group readied the ship Saturday morning, Silverwood stated he understands bad things could happen again. “It’s a ship, right? Murphy’s Law. Murphy was probably a sailor.” Mechanical problems had already pushed his death back two or three days.
But he said he was prepared, and he seemed excited to proceed.
His wife said he’s her blessing. “It is something he wants to do,” she said. “I’m OK with it.”
She climbed on board to get last-minute pictures and hugs along with him. So did son Jack and daughter Camille.
“He is finally going to get it from his machine,” Jack stated.
The Rev. Willie Briscoe headed a farewell prayer. Then the traces were untied and Silverwood was away. The strategy was for him to sail up the coast to Oceanside and pull in the harbor there to get a last check of everything on the ship. Then on to Hawaii.
“A shipwreck like the one we’d leaves a mark on everybody,” Silverwood said. “Why it is that I still love to sail, I don’t know. But I do.”