Rancho Santa Fe sailor who survived horrific wreck sets off on solo trek to Hawaii
Twelve 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 real estate investor set sail from San Diego Saturday, Aug. 19, on another long-distance adventure.
John Silverwood is headed to Hawaii by himself on what he’s calling a voyage of redemption.
“It’s something I need to do, to prove to myself that I can,” he said. “I want to get 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 children, was there to see him off. He expects it will take about three weeks to sail 2,300 miles to Oahu.
It’s a trip filled with potential dangers — storms, other ships, equipment failures — and Silverwood said he’s taken precautions to minimize them. He installed jack lines running from bow to stern that he can attach a safety harness to as he moves around the boat. He has a “go bag” stashed next to the life raft. There are backup batteries for the backup batteries.
He said it’s hard to imagine much worse befalling him than what happened in June 2005.
Sailing at night in the dark at the western end of French Polynesia, the family’s 55-foot catamaran smashed into a partially submerged coral atoll called Manuae. What had been a grand, 18-month adventure — scuba diving in Aruba, horseback riding in the Galapagos, hiking in the Andes — quickly became a desperate fight for survival.
The Silverwoods — John, Jean and the children, Ben, then 16; Amelia, 14; Jack, 9; and Camille, 5 — scrambled to get off the Emerald Jane as it was battered against the reef by waves. While John was up front, wrestling with the life raft, the 79-foot-tall mast fell 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 keep his shock and pain at bay and their own hopes up, until they were spotted by a French Navy plane. It had been summoned to the area by a signal from an emergency beacon on the boat.
Silverwood spent two weeks in a Tahitian hospital. Eventually his leg was amputated above the knee. He walks now with a prosthesis.
The family’s saga has been the subject of newspaper and magazine articles, television docudramas and a book John and Jean Silverwood wrote called “Black Wave,” published in 2008. Now there’s talk of a feature film.
In the years since the accident, Silverwood has continued to sail, but it’s been mostly short trips around San Diego and up the California coast. Five years ago, he tried to sail to Hawaii with his son Jack in the Pacific Cup race but had to turn around after about 800 miles because of illness.
He’s going this time by himself because he sees it as the only way to make a point. “I was the captain of a shipwreck that almost killed my wife, my children, and me,” he said. “If I don’t go solo, everyone thinks the handicapped guy just sat there while somebody else did all the work.”
As someone who has sailed most of his life — “It’s in my blood,” he said — he’s looking forward to the peace and tranquility he finds in long days and nights on the water. And to the challenge. “When you strip away all the distractions of modern life,” he said, “it’s just you and the boat and the wind, and it’s your responsibility 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 get up and do something myself,’” he said.
He’s also hoping to raise money through the trip for GodSwell Sailing, a Christian-oriented nonprofit organization he started that takes people with disabilities and life-threatening illnesses out at sea as a form of therapy. The funds would be used to buy a larger boat, a catamaran.
As he and friends from his Bible-study group readied the boat Saturday morning, Silverwood said he knows bad things could happen again. “It’s a boat, right? Murphy’s Law. Murphy was probably a sailor.” Mechanical problems had already pushed his departure back two days.
But he said he was ready, and he seemed eager to go.
His wife said he has her blessing. “It’s something he needs to do,” she said. “I’m OK with it.”
She climbed on board for last-minute photos and hugs with him. So did son Jack and daughter Camille.
“He’s finally going to get it out of his system,” Jack said.
The Rev. Willie Briscoe led a farewell prayer. Then the lines were untied and Silverwood was off. The plan was for him to sail up the coast to Oceanside and pull into the harbor there for a final check of everything on the boat. Then on to Hawaii.
“A shipwreck like the one we had leaves a mark on everyone,” Silverwood said. “Why it is that I still love to sail, I don’t know. But I do.”
– John Wilkens is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune
Get the RSF Review weekly in your inbox
Latest news from Rancho Santa Fe every Thursday for free
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Rancho Santa Fe Review.