July 17, 2001 – Efforts have been successful to salvage the St. John-built ketch Breath — physically and financially — from a Bahamian reef and tow it safely to Great Exuma Island, according to owner, builder and captain Peter Muilenburg.
Speaking by telephone from his parents' Jacksonville, Fla., home Sunday, Muilenburg said he is hastily buying "tools, materials and clothing" to repair and reprovision Breath.
He described as an "emotional roller coaster" his experiences after the sailboat ran aground in the early hours of July 4 on a remote reef just off the Bahamian island of Great Inagua and his learning later of the fund-raising efforts launched by St. John friends to insure its salvage and repair.
"Another 200 yards and we would have cleared the island," he said. "My GPS [global positioning system for navigation] showed me clearing the shore. I still think the current put me on the rocks."
Muilenburg said he was thankful that all five aboard — his wife, Dorothy; his father, John; and crew members Miska Fuchs and Steve Baranowski — were able to struggle ashore "without the slightest injury" after Breath ran hard aground. On the reef, the vessel eventually suffered "multiple holes in a 4- by 20-foot section of the starboard hull," he said.
Muilenburg said his repeated radio calls for help went unanswered even after the sun came up revealing that they were shipwrecked on a "deserted, God-forsaken bit of rock" infested with hungry "kamikaze mosquitoes."
Radio contact leads to rescue
He knew he would have to establish radio contact soon to "hire an old tramp steamer" to pull Breath off the reef. That proved to be easier said than done.
According to Muilenburg, Fuchs volunteered to "walk out" along the shoreline in a desperate attempt to get help. All day and some 20 miles later, Fuchs waved down a passing local fisherman, who picked him up and notified the Bahamian authorities. Meanwhile, Muilenburg spent the day salvaging his radio gear. By mounting his antenna on a bamboo pole, he managed to hail the Royal Bahamian Defense Force ship HMBS Bahamas, which promptly came and collected the shipwreck victims.
"They were very professional, courteous and kind to us," he said of the Bahamian authorities who came to their rescue and reunited everyone in Matthew Town on the populated end of Great Inagua.
Muilenburg said that several times during the ordeal he thought he might ultimately lose Breath, his "home, income, recreation, our whole life" since he and Dorothy built the vessel at Round Bay on the east end of St. John in 1982. At 49 feet long overall with a 6 ½ foot draft, Breath is "the biggest boat built on St. John, to my knowledge," he said with evident pride.
Contemplating their desperate situation, the Muilenburgs, both former St. John school teachers, began phoning family and friends from Great Inagua to alert them to their predicament and attempt to come up with a salvage plan. One call Muilenburg made was to his longtime friend, St. John businessman Terry McKoy.
"He never asked me for help," McKoy said later. "He was asking about calling on the Coast Guard to help. It was after he hung up that I realized that he really needed some help."
Friends formulate plans
McKoy instigated a fund-raising effort to "Refloat Breath" with the help of close friend George "Jug" Courlas, ham radio operator George Cline, and Connections owner Cid Hamling. Within hours of Muilenburg's call to McKoy, the four comrades formulated plans, came up with an anonymous lender to fund the commercial salvage operation, established the tax-deductible "Refloat Breath Fund" and spread the news of Breath's plight internationally.
According to McKoy, the "Refloat Breath" contributions from the Coral Bay community alone exceeded $5,000 in the first week. He estimates that $30,000 will be needed to complete the vessel's rehabilitation. "Peter says that the interior of the boat was destroyed during the salvage operation," McKoy said. "I asked Peter about writing a check, and he said that his checkbook was now just shreds of paper and that everything in the boat was soaked in a mixture of diesel and salt water."
Fuchs caught a flight home when Muilenburg and his father flew to Jacksonville. Baranowski remained on Great Exuma to help Dorothy Muilenburg clean up Breath's trashed interior and await her husband's return with supplies.
"Peter felt very humbled by the response," McKoy said after he told Muilenburg about the "Refloat Breath" fund-raising taking place on St. John. "It's lifted his spirits."
The Muilenburg family, including two sons, Rafael and Diego, have sailed extensively in the Caribbean, across the Atlantic repeatedly and throughout Mediterranean from their home base on St. John. Hamling recalled the two times they returned to St. John with "carved calabash gourds as big as beach balls from Breath's voyages up the Gambia River" in Africa.
In recent years, the Muilenburgs have used Breath to contribute to the well-being of their neighbors. Twice, McKoy said, they have led local flotillas to nearby Norman Island to raise funds on behalf of the Coral Bay Moravian Church.
Muilenburg himself recalled that during the 1994 embargo of Haiti, Virgin Islands Rotarians collected medical supplies for a Haitian children's hospital but were unable to find any commercial carriers to deliver the goods.
"Dorothy and I volunteered to take those medical supplies through the embargo to Cape Haitian on the northern coast," he said. "We sailed all the way there with a couple of Rotarians … As soon as we got there and delivered the medical supplies, we were warned that we should get out of there, because it was a dangerous place. So, we turned around and sailed all the way back." It was, he said, "a chance to use Breath in a good way."
Muilenburg's goal now is to sail Breath back to St. John in time to take part in the annual Coral Bay Thanksgiving Day Regatta. "It's gonna work out," he said from Florida. "My friends are making it happen."
Recalling the thrill of racing Breath last Thanksgiving Day, he added, "Tell Fletcher [Pitts] on Liberty to watch out. I'll have a clean bottom and a new starboard side."


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