This would be funny, if it weren’t sad. Last week the German container ship, Houston Express, picked up Louis Jordan, who had been drifting off Cape Hatteras for a reported 66 days in his dis-masted Alberg 35 sailboat, Angel. The media managed to completely garble the story, to the extent that anyone who took the reporting at face value might not believe what they were reading. Some have suggested that Jordan lied about the whole affair. Last Friday we attempted the untangle the various accounts. See our post: Louis Jordan, Sixty Six Days Adrift — What Really Happened?
Here is where it gets at least slightly funny. This morning the Washington Post published an article with the headline: Why skeptics think a South Carolina sailor lied about being lost at sea for 66 days. The short answer about why anyone might think such a thing could be that they read nonsense in the Washington Post. (To be fair, many, many other news sources didn’t do any better.)
Even three days after the initial reports came in, the Washington Post is still reporting the same false information. In this morning’s article they reported:
Jordan’s saga began Jan. 23, when he set sail from the marina in Conway, S.C., on a short fishing trip. He was reported missing six days later. A German tanker spotted him sitting atop his 35-foot-boat’s overturned hull 200 miles off the North Carolina coast on Thursday, a full 66 days after his disappearance.
There are several things wrong with these statements. First, even though some reporters think all ships are “tankers,” Jordan was picked up by a container ship. This is not an important point, but it does suggest that the writer is either uninformed or sloppy.
The larger point is the claim that Jordan was “spotted … sitting atop his 35-foot-boat’s overturned hull.” The statement is simply wrong. Both the ship’s captain and representatives of the Coast Guard say that the boat was floating upright when found. Beyond that, the claim itself is also impossible.
Jordan’s boat, Angel, was an Alberg 35, a fiberglass cruising sailboat built in the 1960s. It has 5300 lbs. of ballast, a heavy weight in the keel to help keep the boat upright. In fact, over 40% of the entire weight of the boat is ballast. If an Alberg 35 is rolled over, one of two things can happen. If the hatches are open, it can fill with water and sink. If the hatches are closed and the boat doesn’t fill with water, it will right itself. It will roll back up. The boat cannot float upside down. The 5,300 lbs. of ballast in the very bottom of the boat prevents that from happening. So, it was absolutely impossible that Jordan was found “sitting atop his 35-foot-boat’s overturned hull,” as reported by many sources, including the Washington Post. The New York Times version was even more dramatic. They report that Jordan was “clinging to the hull of his overturned sailboat, surviving on raw fish and rainwater.”
Where did this story come from? It appears that a Coast Guard rescue technician, Petty Officer Kyle McCollum, who helped retrieve Jordan the container ship may have misunderstood what he was told by the Germans on the ship. The Coast Guard did not rescue Jordan from his boat. They only picked him off the deck of container ship. It is unclear whether or not the Coast Guard ever saw Jordan’s boat.
Jordan never said that he was “clinging to the hull of his overturned sailboat.” He says that when the boat capsized, he was sleeping below deck. When the boat righted itself, he had to bail out water that had made its way below.
Likewise the captain of the container ship Houston Express, Thomas Grenz, reports that the boat was floating upright when found. The same was said by Coast Guard spokesperson Lt. Krystyn Pecora.
The Washington Post goes on to write:
Even stranger, doubters pointed out, was his skin, which looked pale and unblemished, with only the slightest hint of sunburn, according to the Daily Mail.
“We were expecting worse with blisters and severe sunburn and dehydration,” Petty Officer 3rd Class Kyle McCollum, who had the first contact with the sailor, told the AP.
Once again, it appears that the petty officer’s misunderstanding of the situation was taken at face value. If he believed that Jordan had been “clinging to the hull of his overturned sailboat, surviving on raw fish and rainwater,” then his expectations made sense. As his assumptions were wrong, so were his expectations.
It is also worth noting that Jordan lived on the sailboat before making his ill-advised advised winter fishing trip. The boat was literally his home. As such, it is likely to have had a certain amount of food and water aboard, as well as clothes, tools and other equipment. Jordan was not sitting exposed to the sun and wind for 66 days. He had the shelter of the cabin and at least some some supplies. When his food and water ran low he caught fish and rain water to sustain him. This is not to say that Jordan had it easy. Depending on which news source you read, Jordan lost between 50 and 90 pounds during the 66 day ordeal.
That Jordan had some supplies and shelter was confirmed by the Coast Guard’s Lt. Pecora, who said that he survived eating the food he had on his boat, by collecting rain water and using a net to catch fish. She said Jordan managed to stay hydrated by going inside his boat’s cabin a lot. A report by the LA Times mentions Jordan cooking pancakes on a propane stove.
The Washington Post also questioned Jordan’s injuries. They quoted Erik Kulik of the True North Wilderness Survival School : “He says he broke his right shoulder, and yet he didn’t even seem to be guarding that shoulder in the pictures I saw after the rescue. There is a lot that doesn’t add up.”
Jordan said that he broke his right shoulder, then later corrected himself and said he broke his collar bone. (In an online video, he shows the mark from the break which is on his collarbone near his right shoulder.) A collarbone fracture typically takes two to four weeks to heal. Jordan was missing for 9 weeks so it is not surprising that he had regained mobility in his right arm and shoulder.
There are many questions to be answered about what happened to Louis Jordan. His decision to go fishing in the Gulf Stream in the winter despite hearing the prediction on oncoming storms, suggests that he is “an inexperienced sailor,” as even he describes himself. Reckless and foolhardy are other adjectives which also come to mind. Nevertheless, so far we have seen no evidence that he is a liar.
On the other hand, the reporting on Louis Jordan by the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Daily Mail and seemingly countless others has been a bad joke.