Michael C. Hurley, a novelist who was rescued at sea Wednesday by cadets and crew on the Maine Maritime Academy training vessel State of Maine, was not planning to end up in Portland.
When he sailed his 30-foot ketch out of the harbor in Charleston, S.C., on May 25 at the start of a solo journey across the Atlantic Ocean, he was bound for Ireland, where he hoped to drop anchor off the southern coastal village of Castletownsend.
In a journal entry on his website, posted before he set out, Hurley expressed skepticism that he would reach his destination.
“I truly have no idea if I shall ever get there, and I rather have my doubts,” Hurley wrote. “It is such a ponderous distance.”
With his planned voyage, the novelist was looking to start anew, in many respects, and to mark an expected ending.
But Hurley got an unexpected ending: that of his boat. The Prodigal, named after his debut novel, ran into rough weather last week hundreds of miles offshore and started taking on water. According to an online log Hurley was keeping about his journey, prolonged pounding from heavy seas doomed the ocean crossing.
“No letup in gale, ruff seas,” Hurley typed in a brief message that was posted on the log at approximately 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 6. “Can do little but lie down and hold on. No sun 2Day. Turning off 2 save power.”
More than five hours later, he turned his power back on and typed another message:
“Gale still roaring. Prodigal taking hard body blows from big seas. Everything wet and sideways. Damned unpleasant. All is well. “
By 5:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 7, Hurley clearly was getting worn down by the experience.
“Feeling very low,” he typed. “Violent motion of boat threatens injury w/ every task. Ruff seas, rain. Mental fatigue. Demons of failed marriage, estranged children R here.”
According to information posted on his website, Hurley has started over many times in his life.
He grew up in Maryland, where as a younger man he studied English and jazz piano and played lacrosse. At one point, he even led his own jazz trio.
He attended and graduated from law school and had two careers as a practicing attorney, first in Houston and then in coastal North Carolina, where he pursued his love of sailing. He quit practicing law for a while in the early 1990s and started a charter sailing business which, by his own admission, was “a flop.”
He resumed working as a lawyer but also established himself as an award-winning writer, first with a quarterly literary journal and then in 2013 with the publication of his first novel, “The Prodigal.” His second novel, “The Vineyard,” was published last fall. His third and not-yet finished novel – which according to his website is about an aging stockbroker who plans to embark on “a reckless solo passage to Ireland” – is expected to be released this fall.
On his website, Hurley had predicted that his real-life trip across the ocean would help provide material for his new book.
“The voyage will be part of the writing process for my forthcoming novel, ‘The Passage,’ and will also be used to obtain film footage for a docudrama to be based on the book,” he wrote.
In recent years, while pursuing his writing career, Hurley retired a second time from practicing law and continued to sail when he could. In 2012, he was on a solo sailing voyage when he ran into rough weather between Cuba and Haiti, resulting in the loss of that boat, the Gypsy Moon.
Hurley wrote about the experience of sailing that boat, and of losing it, in the memoir “Once Upon a Gypsy Moon,” in which he also recounts meeting and falling in love with the woman who would become his second wife.
But last month, in writing about his plans to sail to Ireland, Hurley publicly acknowledged that his second marriage is coming to an end. Upon his departure, he wrote on his website, he and his wife Susan would become legally separated after being married for nearly five years.
“This is my second failure at the altar,” Hurley wrote. “I suppose there is something wrong with me, after all. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but one thing is undeniably clear: I am not particularly good at marriage.”
Calling his trans-Atlantic voyage “a bid for rebirth,” Hurley said that when he got halfway across the ocean he would throw his wedding ring into water and then “say a prayer that God might grant her the happiness I could not.”
It is not clear if Hurley made it to the point where he had planned to remove his wedding band and toss it into the waves.
After being battered by the storm, Hurley radioed for help on the morning of Wednesday, June 10. The Coast Guard received his call and then contacted the State of Maine, which was about 30 miles away from The Prodigal’s position as it headed back west after having traveled to Cadiz, Spain.
The training vessel turned and churned its engines toward the foundering sailboat. About 1,000 miles due east of Chesapeake Bay, MMA cadets and crew spotted it and pulled up alongside before helping Hurley climb on board.
“Prodigal is lost,” Hurley wrote on his online log at around 12:30 p.m. Wednesday. “Stress 2 hull in recent storms opened hull-deck seam, flooding cabin when boat heeled. Scuttled at sea. Aboard rescue ship bound 4 Portland.”
About five hours later, as the State of Maine steamed northeast toward New England, Hurley posted another message about leaving The Prodigal behind.
“Difficult decision 2 give up on a vessel & a dream, but one man cannot bail 24/7, & inability 2 control flooding in prolonged heavy weather posed undue risk,” he wrote.
On Friday, I tried to contact Hurley and cadets and crew on the State of Maine through the school’s public relations department, but was unsuccessful. The ship was still at sea, out of range of cell phone signals and with only intermittent Internet access.
Hurley is expected to step back on land not long after the State of Maine glides into Portland’s harbor in the late afternoon or early evening of Saturday, June 13.