Without a Trace
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Outside magazine, August 1995
Without a Trace
Jeff Wandich learned a hard lesson from his tragedy at sea: Human nature doesn’t allow people to vanish without a trace
Late on a windy night, in a hundred feet of water far out in the Gulf of Mexico, I walked to the stern of a boat on which everyone lay sleeping, and I slipped over the transom into the sea. I held on to a line as breakers freighted me outward, lifting, suctioning, then tumbling me under. I couldn’t see the waves, but I could hear their keening, and I could feel their approach
Miles to the east was a flashing light. From the crests of waves, the light was an explosion of white; from the troughs, a milky concussion. Every four seconds, the light flared, a hypnotic effect that penetrated to the brain, oscillating the pupils, eroding equilibrium.
Slightly more than a month earlier, four Canadian divers had swum toward that light, at night, in heavy seas, seeking refuge on the light tower. One made it; three disappeared. I went into the water to get a sense of what they had seen and felt–a reasonable idea if considered from a warm bunk, half-witted when one’s legs are dangling in the abyss. If the dive platform knocked
Human nature won’t allow an individual–or three–to vanish without explanation. Blame and reason are contrivances to which we cling for comfort. But when one is dealing with wilderness, at sea or on land, all acts are expeditionary, and even the most mundane untethering–such as pointing a small boat offshore–carries risk. At night, alone, waves are as indifferent as the wind
On the morning of Sunday, November 6, 1994, a coast guard Jayhawk H-60 helicopter was operating 52 nautical miles off the west coast of Florida when a crewman spotted a naked man on the highest platform of a 160-foot light tower. The man was waving what appeared to be a wetsuit.
The helicopter flew east past the tower, banked south, and hovered beside the platform. The man signaled a thumbs-up–he was OK. He pulled his wetsuit on, climbed down to a lower platform, and dived into the water. The crew of the Jayhawk dropped a basket seat and winched him aboard.
The man was a 27-year-old Canadian named Jeff Wandich, owner of a 25-foot pleasure boat, the Sea Esta, that had been reported overdue. The Sea Esta had left Marco Island the previous Friday morning with Wandich and a party of three other Canadian men: David Madott, Omar Shearer, and Kent Munro, each 25 years old, each
The Coast Guard crew asked Wandich what had happened. He said his boat had sunk. When they asked where, Wandich replied, “You mean you haven’t found the other guys yet?”
A crewman shook his head. “We haven’t seen anything.”
Wandich said that he had been on the tower since 11 P.M. Friday–35 hours–and that he was very thirsty. He was sunburned, he had cuts on his hands and legs, and he appeared to be suffering from exposure.
When he was offered the option of being flown to a hospital, Wandich said that he wanted to continue the search. He told the crewmen that his three friends were all wearing wetsuits and inflated BCs–buoyancy compensators. “We should be able to find them,” he said. Yet the helicopter crew, with Wandich aboard, would find nothing.
Only Wandich would return to describe the events of November 4, and his story would arouse both criticism and suspicion. In the weeks and months that followed, public gossip around south Florida and Toronto, often fueled by inaccurate media accounts, would accuse Wandich and the three missing men of crimes that ranged from fraud to smuggling to murder.
It was an archetypal wilderness tale: the sole survivor story. Why did one return while the others did not? The sinking of the Sea Esta raised that classic question, along with many others: Had the Canadians really gone to the Baja Californiato fish and dive? Had the sinking been deliberate? Had the Coast Guard
“People can say what they want about me,” Wandich would later tell me, “but the other three aren’t here to defend themselves. They don’t deserve that kind of talk. They were great guys–the best.”
David Madott and Omar Shearer had been close friends since grade school. Both of them were short, muscular extroverts. Both of them loved to play hockey–as did their mutual friends Jeff Wandich and Kent Munro–and they spent their free time together coaching youth teams. Madott worked for a Toronto auto-parts manufacturer. Shearer was a podiatrist. Some affectionately
Kent Munro was a much bigger man–six-foot-two, 220 pounds–and he was a close friend of Shearer’s from high school. The soft-spoken Munro was a mechanical engineer and the only one of the four who was married.
Jeff Wandich, who worked in property management in Toronto, had been coming down to Florida since his youth. His parents owned a house on Marco, off the state’s southwestern coast. Marco is a Florida phenomenon, a combination of Steubenville-by-the-Sea and Little Canada, an affluent “planned” community of sodded lawns, block-and-stucco houses, golf courses, and high-rise
For Madott, Shearer, and Munro, flying to Florida to rendezvous with Wandich was a spur-of-the-moment decision, a chance to escape the bad Canadian weather. Wandich invited them to stay at his folks’ place and agreed to take them out in the Sea Esta to fish and dive. All four were certified divers, although Munro and Madott were relatively new to
On Friday, Wandich and his friends left the Marco River Marina around 8 A.M., fully fueled, but returned a short time later. Wandich told mechanic Lonnie Kienow that one of his twin 225-horsepower outboards behaved as if it were overheating. After purchasing two thermostats to carry along as emergency replacements, Wandich and the others once again headed out into the Gulf of
A little after eight that night, Wandich’s cousin Ron Nayduk telephoned the Coast Guard and reported that the Sea Esta was overdue. Nayduk said that the men had gone out to dive a wreck he identified as the “California,” and he gave loran navigation coordinates.
The Baja California is a popular wreck among experienced divers. Wandich had dived it many times. On July 18, 1942, the 962-ton freighter was torpedoed by a German submarine and sank in 120 feet of water. It is located 56 nautical miles southwest of Marco Island in what is now a Naval Operations Training Area. Oddly, some popular nautical charts
At 9:52 P.M., the Coast Guard scrambled an H-60 helicopter out of its Clearwater air base. It arrived in the area before midnight. The loran numbers that Nayduk says he gave the Coast Guard are the exact coordinates for the Baja California. But whether the helicopter crew searched the “Baja” coordinates or the “California” coordinates, or
By the next day, Saturday, the search group had expanded to include two H-60 helicopters, a C-130 fixed-wing aircraft, the Coast Guard’s 82-foot cutter Point Swift, and a 41-foot utility cruiser. The wind was now blowing 20 knots out of the east-southeast.
The next morning, the Jayhawk rescued Wandich, and the search for the three missing men intensified.
The families of Madott, Shearer, and Munro flew in from Canada to augment the Coast Guard’s efforts by organizing private search vessels and aircraft. They also offered a reward of $75,000 for the rescue or recovery of the missing men. They and the Coast Guard remained optimistic. “We have rescued people who have been in the water for four days in wetsuits,” one Coast Guard
But by the fourth day, Tuesday, November 8, the Coast Guard had hunted more than 21,000 square miles of water. All it found were Wandich’s dive bag and video camera, both floating about 21 nautical miles southwest of the wreck site. Later they would find two empty air tanks and a section of rope tied to an orange life jacket in roughly the same area.
On Thursday afternoon, marine salvage operator David Satterfield towed in the Sea Esta. Satterfield’s divers had found it in 110 feet of water, lying upside down atop the Baja California, and had used air bags to refloat and right it. That same day, Kent Munro’s father, Peter–sleepless and distraught since his son’s
That night, the Coast Guard suspended what had been one of the most massive sea searches in the region’s history. It had, in six days, covered 23,000 square miles of water with boats, planes, and helicopters using advanced infrared technology.
It was as if David Madott, Omar Shearer, and Kent Munro had ventured out onto a gray mountain, only to vanish without a trace.
Jeff Wandich is a short, fit man with dark hair and a choirboy face. People who dive deep water from small boats are prone to cockiness, but there is not a hint of that in Wandich. He is cordial, a little shy. There is a fabric of weariness in his voice as he tells the story of what happened after he, Madott, Shearer, and Munro left Marco River Marina.
“We stopped at a wreck called Ben’s Barge, about three or four miles out in the Gulf, to catch some bait because the guys wanted to fish and dive both,” he says. “While we caught bait, we discussed where they wanted to go. Omar had fished the California, but he’d never dove it, so that’s what they decided. We were listening to the weather channel
The forecast issued that morning via VHF radio was, “From Cape Sable to Tarpon Springs, and 50 miles offshore, small craft should exercise caution. Winds will be out of the east 15 to 20 knots, seas four to six feet.”
On Florida’s west coast, because of the plethora of islands and shoal water, small boats are the conveyance of choice. It is not uncommon for owners of those boats to use them offshore as well. I know several people with Sea Esta-size boats who regularly operate far from land despite the obvious hazards. On the water, all calculations of risk are
“Once we got out there to the Baja California,” Wandich says, “the seas were maybe three and a half foot. Sloppy, but not too bad. I anchored in the sand and drifted back over the wreck. We fished for maybe an hour. But it was getting a little rougher out, and Kent started to feel sick, so we decided to gear up and get into the water, because he
The four men got into the water and started for the bottom. “I know that one of the laws of diving is that you never leave your boat unattended,” Wandich says now. “I’ve seen other divers do it lots of times, and the sad thing is, it was the first time I’d ever done it. We were 50 miles offshore, there weren’t any other boats around, and I knew, because of the depth, our bottom
When the group got to a depth of about 30 feet, Munro signaled that he was having trouble equalizing the pressure in his ears. “Dave and I watched them go to the surface,” Wandich says. “Then we continued our dive.”
Wandich and Madott spent approximately 13 minutes on the wreck before starting back up. When they were 15 feet from the surface–but still not close enough to clearly see the boat–they made a safety decompression stop of about three minutes. Then they surfaced. Wandich says he was shocked by what he saw: “Only about three feet of the boat’s bow was sticking out of the water. I
“Dave swam straight to the boat while I swam toward Omar’s voice. When I got closer, I could see him and Kent in the water, drifting away. They both had their BCs inflated with the tanks still attached, but they weren’t wearing them. They couldn’t get back to the boat because they weren’t wearing flippers, and the waves were pushing them farther and farther away.” Wandich says
“When things settled down,” Wandich says, “our first question, of course, was, What happened? Omar said that he and Kent climbed up the dive ladder at the back of the boat and took off their BCs and fins. Then he went to the front to take off the rest of his stuff. But he looked back and noticed water coming in over the transom, so he said he tried to start the motors. But the
“Omar said water was flooding over the transom and that then the boat started to tip sideways. He said it happened so fast, just like that, and that he and Kent jumped overboard. Dave asked Omar if he’d tried the radio, but Omar got a little defensive, so we dropped the whole subject. I remember thinking to myself that when we’re back on land, we’ll find out exactly what
“The four of us just floated there, hanging on to the rope. The wind had picked up even more, and waves seem a lot bigger when you’re in the water. But that was our plan: hang on to the rope, stay close to the boat, and wait for the Coast Guard to come and get us. Back on Marco, my girlfriend knew when we were due back, and she knew there were only a couple of places we could
For the next four hours, Wandich says, he and the three other men floated on their backs alongside the boat, staying close to one another to keep warm. They tied an orange life jacket and a white bumper to the end of the rope. Madott also looped the rope into his flotation vest. The sun set at 5:38. It was a black night, with stars hazed by scudding clouds.
“I know I was scared,” says Wandich, “and I’m sure the guys were scared, too. But we kept the conversation light and tried to keep a cool head about everything. We talked about how this would be a story to tell our grandchildren. Someone said that we’d be best friends all our lives after this. We talked about girlfriends, things like that.”
Then, at 7 P.M., Omar Shearer yelled, “Where’d the boat go?” and the anchor line they were holding was ripped from their hands, pulling Madott, who was tied to the rope, under. Wandich says he was pulled under, too, and used his knife to cut the rope.
“The boat just disappeared,” says Wandich. “It went completely down. We were in shock again. That’s when I told them that we would have to swim to the light tower.”
Equipped with strobe lights and antennas, the tower is run by the Department of Defense and lies 3.56 nautical miles east of the Baja California. One of eight such towers in the area, it is part of the military’s Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation system, used by both the air force and the navy. The towers are not shown on all nautical
Shearer was a more experienced diver than Munro and Madott, but he was not a strong swimmer. When he told the others that he didn’t think he could swim to the tower, it was Madott, his childhood friend, who tried to reassure him, saying, “Omar, we don’t have a choice. We’ll make it. We’ll all make it.”
The four men set off swimming toward the powerful strobe on the tower. They were swimming almost directly into the teeth of a 20-knot wind and seas that had built to six feet. They were all wearing wetsuits and inflated BCs, but everything else had dumped out of the boat when it capsized.
“Dave and I still had our fins, but we all swam together,” Wandich says. “We just plugged along, side by side, with me on one end and Dave on the other, Omar and Kent between us.”
At this point in the story, Wandich’s voice becomes even softer and seems less certain; his silences seem to resonate. “Time-wise now, what seemed like a long time probably was a short time,” he says. “I’d say, roughly, about five minutes into the swim…we were just swimming, you know, and I…I remember being overcome with fear. I had tears in my eyes, because I knew we were
“I guess he thought I was going toward the boat or something. But I wasn’t. There was no place else to go but the tower. I wasn’t far away from them, maybe ten feet, two waves away, and then I took a look to my left and…I didn’t see them anymore. They were gone.”
Wandich called out and started swimming toward where the men had been. “I’m almost positive I heard them yell back,” he says, “but it was windy and loud, a lot of whitecaps. I treaded water for a little bit, but I never heard anything again. That’s when I thought I was lost for sure.”
After a short time, he says, he set off for the ACMI tower alone. Because he felt he wasn’t making any headway against the waves, he finally jettisoned the BC that kept him afloat. “I was desperate,” he says. “The waves kept catching the BC, pushing me back. I knew in my mind that I couldn’t make it to the tower with the BC on, and I didn’t think there was much chance of one
The tower’s strobe flashes every four seconds. On a black night, the dazzling white light quickly distorts all sense of direction or depth of field. At 11 P.M., after four hours of swimming fixedly toward the strobe, Wandich climbed up the ladder onto the tower’s lowest deck. “I lay down on the platform just to sort of reassure myself that I’d really made it,” he says. “But
Around midnight, Wandich saw what he correctly thought was a Coast Guard helicopter, off in the distance, with its searchlight fanning the water. He could also see the running lights of what turned out to be a private boat far to the west, near the Baja California. “My eyes just kept following the helicopter,” he says. “It went east, then south a
Wandich, who hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since Friday morning, spent 35 hours on the tower, hearing noises, waving to boats, planes, and helicopters that never saw him until Sunday morning.
The Wandiches, the Munros, the Shearers, and the Madotts are prominent families in their communities, and the Toronto news media gave the disappearance lengthy coverage, as did the media in Florida. But a full account of Jeff Wandich’s story was never communicated to the public, and details that were reported often were erroneous. A consistent element in most of the reports was
Some media also indirectly quoted Wandich as saying that “they,” meaning he and his crew, had “forgotten” to use the Sea Esta‘s VHF radio to report that the boat was sinking. To experienced boaters, this claim was not only unbelievable–it was outrageous.
In Toronto and Florida, sinister gossip soon began to circulate.
One widespread rumor had it that the vessel’s main plug had been pulled, a detail that, if true, would certainly suggest foul play. But it wasn’t true. As salvage operator Satterfield told me, “The plug was definitely in. I didn’t see anything to suggest that Wandich had intentionally sunk the boat.”
Another rumor suggested that no one had actually seen the missing men leave port with Wandich–it was never reported that mechanic Lonnie Kienow had watched them leave–which implied that Madott, Shearer, and Munro had either disappeared by choice or had been killed. Either way, the gossip went, the sunken boat was a ruse.
Yet another scenario relied upon the prevalent belief that the function of the ACMI towers was “classified” (it isn’t) and that the military may have “eliminated” the men because they had seen something they shouldn’t have seen.
The most common theory, however, was that the men had really gone offshore to make a drug buy, that the deal had gone bad, and that Wandich, the only survivor, was now afraid to tell the truth. This rumor was popular around Toronto. After all, Omar Shearer had been born in Jamaica, and his uncle, Hugh Shearer, had been that country’s prime minister from 1968 to 1972. Weren’t
On Tuesday, November 22, a local Florida newspaper, the Fort Myers News-Press, added grist to the rumor mill with a headline that read, “Major Crime on High Seas Suspected.” The accompanying story reported that the FBI was now investigating the disappearances. Despite the headline, the article did not quote any FBI or Coast Guard spokesperson as
To their credit, the missing men’s families did not react publicly to the rumors, other than to say that they had no reason to doubt Wandich’s story. As Bill Madott, David’s father, told me, “I had to take a very hard look at how well I knew my son–as did the others. Our inquiries all came back the same: The guys were not involved with drug running, and they had absolutely no
Yet the rumors were now so widely believed that they had taken on the patina of established fact. And pet theories continued to be promoted even as the families continued to search. By the end of the month, they had invested a half-million dollars in the effort. They had chartered planes, boats, and helicopters. They had consulted a French paramilitary intelligence expert and
More than anything else, it was the determination of the three families to find their children that fired my interest in the sinking of the Sea Esta. I am the father of two young sons, and to lose something so dear, without explanation or closure, was unthinkable. I would spend the next month researching the incident, interviewing key people. I
On December 7, 1994, I accompanied four professional divers and a private investigator to the wreck of the Baja California. They had been hired by Bill Madott to bring up equipment and personal effects that had been lost when the Sea Esta sank. Coincidentally, the weather was very similar to the weather of November 4,
It was now 32 days after the Canadians had disappeared. Around the docks and marinas of west Florida, more people seemed to doubt Wandich’s story than believed it–and if he was telling the truth, they said, he had at the very least exercised horrible judgment. The Coast Guard was getting its share of criticism, too. Watermen tend to be territorial. No outsider, they believe,
It is eerie to dive through 110 feet of murky water and then to come upon the detritus of an event that led, most likely, to the loss of three lives. The old freighter was a fissure of rubble, whose stillness implied a furious animation halted long ago.
After spending the better part of two days on the wreck, our divers would bring up 24 items that proved to be from the Sea Esta, including Wandich’s black weight belt, Shearer’s chartreuse weight belt, and Munro’s orange weight belt. (Madott’s weight belt had already been retrieved by the salvage divers who refloated the Sea Esta.) Wandich, unaware that his belt had been found, would later tell me how he had dropped it after returning to the swamped boat. We found it near the other belts–exactly where it should have been.
We also recovered an assortment of fishing rods and three tackle boxes that contained several hundred dollars’ worth of tackle and lures, including some new lures still wrapped in cellophane. Would a man who planned to sink his own boat invest money in new lures? Two of the rods were light-tackle spinning rods, and one was still rigged with a number-three hook, commonly used
In the end, our divers were convinced that the Canadians had come to the wreck to fish and dive–as was I. If they had wanted to buy drugs, why rendezvous at a wreck as popular as the Baja California? With loran or GPS electronics, any agreed-upon spot in the Gulf could become a precise meeting place, without risk of interruption. Why go to the
It made absolutely no sense. So why had the print media run headlines alluding to a major crime on the high seas? Why had the FBI “investigated” the case?
It wasn’t until much later that I would find out that the FBI never had mounted anything beyond a preliminary inquiry. As Brian Kensel, a special agent in Tampa, told me recently, “We found no reason to open a full-fledged investigation. There was no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing.”
A preliminary inquiry is not a matter of public record, so the FBI cannot confirm whether Jeff Wandich was offered a polygraph test. “I wanted to take it,” Wandich says now. “The guys’ families never said anything to me, but I knew they had to have questions about what happened out there.” Wandich says he spent more than four hours with a polygraph specialist. Upon completion,
So why did the Sea Esta sink? The boat, which was built and rigged in 1989 by the SeaVee Corporation, a now defunct Miami manufacturer, had a transom that was cut very low to the water. Twin 225-horsepower Johnson engines, weighing 455 pounds each, were mounted on the transom. The stern was also weighted down with two 37-pound marine batteries and
Most offshore boats could handle this. But because the Sea Esta‘s scuppers were not covered by flanged flaps, water could flow in freely once the scuppers were pushed below sea level. If a dead fish had plugged the bait well, or if Munro and Shearer had climbed onto the stern at the same time, the additional weight could have swamped the hatches
Clearly the boat–and the decision to ignore the weather report–was Wandich’s responsibility. But Wandich is not the only one who made mistakes that day. The Coast Guard began its search in the wrong area. On its Search and Rescue Incident Phone Log, the position of the “California,” as provided by Ron Nayduk, is given. At the bottom corner of the log, someone has noted,
But there was a wreck at that position. It was the Baja California. The Coast Guard’s recalculated position corresponds roughly with what has been mistakenly called the “Baja,” nearly nine nautical miles to the north.
Was this a critical error? Perhaps. If the rescue helicopter had flown directly to the wreck site, it would have arrived just a little more than four hours after the Sea Esta went down. Wandich was already at the light tower by then. If the crew had searched the tower and heard Wandich’s story, there is a better chance that Munro, Shearer, and
One reason the men were hard to spot was that their inflated BCs were not colorful, as most people assumed, nor did they have reflective tape or battery-operated strobe lights. Of the three, only Madott wore a brightly colored wetsuit–it was fluorescent pink and blue with lime-green panels.
For me, the most telling–and most chilling–experience while revisiting the Baja California occurred above the surface. When we were within 20 miles of the site, I took a pair of binoculars and spent the next two hours scanning from the roof of the wheelhouse. It was a personal gesture of empathy with the fathers of the lost. Were the terrible
For an hour, I saw nothing but rolling gray waves and whitecaps on a shifting horizon. And then, for the briefest instant, I saw a flicker of green. Lime green. It flashed, flashed again, and disappeared. I recalled that David Madott’s wetsuit had had lime-green panels.
I banged on the roof of the wheelhouse. We brought the boat around and retraced our wake. I had not moved my eyes from the place where I had seen the flicker of green, but we could not seem to find it. Finally, we did: It was a crab-trap buoy, about the size of a man’s head. We had passed within 30 yards of it, but if I had not been looking in precisely the right place at
Why weren’t the three men found? If you are ever in a boat in heavy seas, the reason will be all around you.
A popular theory is that the men were taken by sharks, but every fisherman and diver I know agrees that this is unlikely. The Gulf’s shark population has been decimated by Asia’s commercial fin market, and species commonly found in the area feed on fish, not mammals.
It is possible that some kind of outlaw commercial vessel rescued the men and refused to return them to port. As Bill Madott says, “This thing is still a mystery. The guys could be hostages somewhere, forced to work. Something unusual happened that night, and until I find out what it is, I hold out hope.”
As do the other families. The search continues. Handbills and photographs of the missing men are being circulated in Central America and Colombia even as the families and Jeff Wandich struggle to come to terms with what occurred.
“It’s gotten a little better,” Wandich says now, “but I’ll never be able to get it out of my mind. No matter how it happened, I feel guilty about it. It was awful; a terrible thing. I still dream about it. I dream about it every night.”
When you are the sole survivor, nightmares seldom vanish with first light.
Randy Wayne White is Outside‘s Out There columnist. His most recent novel is The Man Who Invented Florida (St. Martin’s Press).