Retired Policeman Recounts Ocean Odyssey
Walter Teper planned for much more than a three-hour tour, but like the skipper of the 1960s TV sitcom “Gilligan’s Island,” his boat was caught in a storm and ended up on a tropical island.
Teper, a retired New York police officer sailing solo, abandoned his 33-foot sloop in December after experiencing engine trouble in stormy seas off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.
Savvier than the comedic skipper, Teper, 57, contacted The Northern Divinity, a passing container ship bound for South Korea, and was rescued from his stalled vessel, the Chaton de Foi or “little cat of faith.” The Chaton de Foi was carried by ocean currents until it was spotted last month near Hawaii’s big island Oahu.
More than six months later, he and his ship were reunited in Hawaii.
Teper and his boat might never have been separated if Costa Rican Coast Guard officials – guardacostas – had responded to his requests for help, he told The Tico Times during a phone interview.
Officials from the U.S. Coast Guard in California received Teper’s distress call from The Northern Divinity and relayed it to their Costa Rican counterparts on Dec. 1, 2005.
But Costa Rican guardacostas told The Tico Times they have no record of distress calls from the Chaton de Foi.
Teper’s odyssey began when he left the Pacific Mexican port city of Huatulco for Florida Nov. 25, 2005.
He and his wife Cristina had been living on the Chaton de Foi for six years, and after seven months at the Mexican port, they were ready to move to Florida and cruise the East Coast of the United States.
Teper’s plan, he said, was to take the boat through the Panama Canal and then north to Florida. Cristina decided to wait out the journey in the United States.
Inspired by reports of good weather conditions, Teper ventured out into open waters as he traveled south. He was about 100 nautical miles off the coast of Costa Rica when conditions became stormy.
After losing a sail and experiencing engine trouble, he knew he needed assistance. Too far out at sea to contact the Costa Rican Coast Guard with his own radio, Teper contacted The Northern Destiny for help.
The container ship – a German-owned vessel sailing under a Liberian flag – called the U.S. Coast Guard in California, who called Costa Rica’s guardacostas.
Teper said he abandoned ship Dec. 2, 2005, after receiving a message that the guardacostas could not help him.He accepted a ride with The Northern Destiny, and three weeks later found himself in Buson, South Korea. His wife met him there.
Unable to get a flight back home immediately, the Tepers made the best of their situation by wandering around Buson and traveling to Seoul. Their flight left more than a week later, and they returned to Dayton, Ohio, where Cristina has family. Then they moved on to Florida to see if they could “pick up roots,” Teper said.
On June 6, mariners called the Coast Guard in Hawaii to report a boat floating on its side near the U.S. state’s big island. It was the Chaton de Foi.
The Coast Guard contacted Teper, who arranged for the boat to be towed to shore and flew to Hawaii to start repairs.
Teper said his long detour could have been avoided if the Costa Rican Coast Guard had responded to his call for help.
Sabrina Arrayan, a spokeswoman for U.S. Coast Guard District 11, which includes California, said the district received Teper’s distress call at 3:59 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on Dec. 1 of last year.
U.S. Coast Guard records show the message was relayed to Costa Rica. U.S. Coast Guard officials also maintained contact with The Northern Divinity, which was on its way to pick up Teper, Arrayan said.
The container ship is a member of the Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue System, a worldwide network of volunteer rescue ships.
Rodrigo Perlata, chief of operations for Costa Rica’s Coast Guard, said the guardacostas have no record of a call from the Chaton de Foi.
Perlata, who said he took over the chief operations post in January, told The Tico Times checks of December 2005 registers found no reference to the Chaton de Foi or a distress call relayed from the United States.
The situation baffles him, he said. “The only thing I do understand is that (Teper) was rescued, thank God.”
Teper is now in Hawaii fixing the Chaton de Foi. He said Cristina plans to meet him there in October, when the work is farther along.
The boat was damaged after six months floating at sea. Somewhere along the way it was stripped of its electronic equipment.
Teper estimates it will cost about $40,000 to make his $90,000 vessel seaworthy again. Fixing the boat he calls home is like trying to recover from a hurricane, he said.
“We are trying to piece our lives back together again.”
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