There are few things sadder in life than seeing any boat washed ashore, let alone a Nordhavn. What makes this event even sadder is that this incident involved loss of life.
I decided that after ten years the story of what really happened to the Charlotte B should be told and rather rely on outdated information and speculation, I was lucky enough to speak directly with a number of people involved, least of all the owner of the Charlotte B, Mr Harold Greenberg.
On a dark and stormy night, off the coast of Mexico the Charlotte B was making its way north on a delivery trip from La Paz, Mexico to Alaska, USA with full time Captain, Brian Saunders. Joining Brian on the trip north was the only other full time crew member Joy (Jonah) Marzan with the additional crew assembled by Brian Saunders being Mark and Sue Saunders (no relation to Brian Saunders) from La Paz and Jim (James) Hartwell a retired USCG Captain from Newport Beach CA.
The owners of the Charlotte B were having their much loved Nordhavn 62 hull #16 (PAI62016C000) repositioned from La Paz, Mexico to Alaska for the summers cruising season that lay ahead. Both Harold and Edith Greenberg, the owners of the Charlotte B, were not aboard when the incident took place.
At 9:30pm on the night of Tuesday April 18th 2006 the Charlotte B was heading north, just south of Magdalena Bay, close to shore to remain in calmer conditions, as by all accounts the run north was proving somewhat uncomfortable given the rough sea conditions. They were not heading into Magdalena Bay which is often incorrectly reported. With Jim Hartwell at the helm, the Charlotte B was approximately one quarter mile off shore when disaster struck.
As the Charlotte B made its way north, all of a sudden the vessel hit an uncharted rock or an object in the water – or did it simply run aground? Whatever the case, this immediately woke those who were off watch and brought everyone into the pilothouse to see what had happened. The situation was clearly overwhelming to all those on board and without being able to restart the Charlotte B’s main engine or its wing engine the vessel started to move dangerously close to the shore.
At 10:00pm on the evening of April 18th the phone rang in Harold Greenberg’s home in Prescott, Arizona. Harold, having spoken with Brian Saunders a few hours earlier to get an update on the passage assumed it was Brian calling to check in, but it wasn’t. This time it was the United States Coast Guard (“USCG”) calling from San Francisco to enquire as to why they were receiving an EPIRB distress signal from the Charlotte B. For Harold and Edith, the owners of the Charlotte B, this was the start of an evening they will never forget.
By this time those on board the Charlotte B knew that the situation they were in, was dire. As time marched on relentlessly, with seconds feeling like hours, so did the Charlotte B’s track towards the jagged rocks. With the sea state pushing the Charlotte B closer and closer towards her peril it was only a matter of time before she was washed ashore and lay grounded, firmly on the unforgiving rocks that would now become her permanent home.
One can only imagine the distress for all those aboard the Charlotte B as she lay on her side, moving back and forth with each wave that pounded her beam. The relentless sounds of her hull being torn apart and the unusual motion of a vessel no longer upright, would have been an event that few could ever prepare for, or ever want to experience first-hand. A nightmare being played out for those aboard from which there would be no waking.
As the hours wore on and the night darkened Mark Saunders decided that as they were hard aground he would take a line to shore to secure the Charlotte B in the hope to reduce the motion and also to provide a way for the crew to disembark safely. This was to prove a costly mistake. Once Mark entered the water he found himself at the mercy of the seas which were not going to be kind. As he swam he soon realised that his efforts were futile against the might of the ocean and returned quickly to the Charlotte B for refuge. The problem now, however, was that with the Charlotte B lying awkwardly on her side and heaving from side to side, Mark Saunders was having real difficulty reboarding her.
As the minutes marched on relentlessly and with Mark continuing to hold onto the swim step of the Charlotte B it was clear that getting him back on board safely was not going to be an easy task. With the wave’s continual pounding and everyone tiring, it was becoming evident that it would be an almost impossible task. Then without notice, a large wave came through and Mark was washed under the boat. With a line tied to Mark, those on board tried desperately to pull him to the surface. When Mark did resurface he had sustained a nasty gash to his head and was unresponsive. Try as they might to get Mr Mark Saunders on board they simply could not.
As exhaustion levels continued to rise it was agreed that the only thing they could do was to tie the line holding Mark to a cleat and go back into the safety of what remained of the Charlotte B. It was clear at this stage to all those aboard that Mark (62 years of age) had died. For Sue Saunders, being aboard and being part of her husband’s futile rescue efforts must have been an unimaginable pain. Her husband’s actions that night were heroic and while the outcome was a tragedy Mr Mark Saunders should be remembered as a man who was prepared to do what most wouldn’t, in a terrible situation that few hopefully will ever experience.
With the Mexican Navy now on scene it was clear that the vessel and its crew could not be reached from the sea and, as such, a land rescue party was sent in overnight arriving at the stricken vessel at daybreak.
As morning broke on April 19th 2006 and the sun rose, rescuers were soon on hand to help those from the stricken boat ashore and to retrieve the body of Mr Saunders. Once all aboard the Charlotte B were safely ashore, a helicopter from the Mexican Navy flew them the short distance to their base close to Magdalena Bay.
From all accounts the authorities in Mexico treated the survivors incredibly well and they were fed and clothed and once ready, were interviewed in relation to the incident. The interview process took a little under twenty-four hours and once completed all were free to leave. As is often reported incorrectly, I have been able to ascertain that nobody regarding this incident was jailed and that they were only held for the a short period to allow them to all be interviewed in relation to the accident and subsequent death of Mr Mark Saunders.
Interestingly enough my research into the Charlotte B uncovered that, in fact, the vessel may have hit marked rocks, and as such, was negligent. Other than speculate I will simply quote from the source document. “Yacht Passenger v. Family Revocable Trust (U.S. District Court, Southern District of California). Settlement: $4 million in a Jones Act case involving the death of yacht crew working aboard the U.S. flag yacht CHARLOTTE B, a 62′ Nordhavn owned by a family trust. This report states clearly that “The yacht struck an outcropping of marked rocks, lost power and was driven into the surf line on the remote South-Western coast of Baja California”.
I have seen and read all of the public court documents relating to this incident and subsequent litigation but could not verify the settlement amount as reported in the preceding paragraph. However, on 13th May 2008 Sue Saunders and Harold Greenberg appeared to have agreed that the matter was now settled with the last of the litigation actions being filed on 14th May 2008, having commenced on 30th August 2006.
After speaking at length with full time crew member Joy Marzan, she is of the opinion that what occurred on that night was Jim Hartwell, who was on watch at the time of the incident, simply fell asleep and, as such, the Charlotte B was driven, at high tide, onto the unforgiving landscape that lay in her path. I guess the only person who truly knows what happened is Jim Hartwell (since deceased December 15, 2015). Given Mr Hartwell’s experience it is very hard to believe he was awake when the incident occurred. Joy’s recollection of the events from that evening, are further supported by Yacht Passenger v. Family Revocable Trust quote earlier in the story.
There are lessons to be learned from this incident and no doubt, due to the legal system, differing versions of events. However, this is not the time, nor the place to set those out but rather remember the heroic efforts (however ill-advised) of Mr Mark Saunders on the evening of April 18th as well as the courage of the crew aboard the ill-fated Charlotte B. For the rest of us who go to sea, we can only hope and pray that a tragic event like this is not something we will ever have to endure.
YouTube video of where the Charlotte B is can be found HERE
I am pleased to report that life goes on and that the owners of the Charlotte B are back on the water once again with their much loved Mikelson Sportfisher 43, Green Bee. I know that after discussions with Harold, this matter was something that proved difficult at the time for him and, in particular, his wife which is totally understandable. Brian Saunders continues to travel the world and Joy Marzan is married and happy.
As the ten year anniversary of the Charlotte B’s tragic end has just passed, I thought it a timely reminder to all, that venture forth on the high seas how quickly things can go wrong and that nothing should be taken for granted.
Many thanks to the folks at the US Southern District Court for their help in navigating my way through their online court system, Joy Marzan for making herself available to me and to Harold Greenberg and his wife Edith who helped shed light on the tragic events of April 18th 2006.