“Boats don’t just sink,” says Chelsea Rice-Morris. “People don’t just disappear.”
On July 25, 2012, the 59-foot Argonaut, a robust $600,000 yacht crewed by owner John Rice and French Canadian crewmember Guillaume Gosselin, was sailing in calm conditions just three miles behind a second boat, 20 miles off Maumere, Indonesia.
Then it wasn’t.
John Rice spent his life on the water, and the Argonaut was a labor of love. He spent 18 years building and perfecting the steel boat in California and Mexico, dreaming of the day when he could sail her around the world. In February 2009 he set off across the South Pacific with an old friend named Bill McCue.
“John liked to sail hard and fast,” McCue says, “but he was a sensible sailor who knew what his boat could do and sailed accordingly.”
After reaching Australia, Rice continued to upgrade his boat. By July 2012 the big grey yacht was moored in Darwin and was in top condition. Over three weeks, Rice overhauled the pumps and engines, and installed a new charger for his VHF radio to ensure he’d have safe and easy communication.
Shortly after arriving in Darwin, Rice also started advertising for crew at the local sailing club. The 60-year-old sailed with friends when he could, but for the Southeast Asia leg he decided to take on novice sailors. Taking on crew is a common practice in the sailing community and on July 4th he signed on Gosselin, a 24-year-old French Canadian backpacker who was on an Australian working holiday visa in the region. A second crewmate, a friend of Gosselin’s, was set to join them on August 3rd in Lombok, Indonesia.
July is the perfect time for sailboats to sail from Australia to Indonesia. The afternoon breezes blow steadily west, the direction most boats are traveling, and the weather tends to be settled and sunny. As Rice readied to sail, his yachting friends Wolfgang and Heidi Hass were also preparing their motor yacht Kanaloa. The two crews shared a pleasant relationship and had crossed the Pacific in company. Both were independent but they enjoyed their low-key friendship.
The two boats set out on July 14th. It took three days to sail the 500 nautical miles across the Timor Sea. Then the two hopped from anchorage to anchorage exploring the island villages on Timor and Flores. Visiting villages is a big part of what makes sailing the world so interesting. In many of these villages people live a basic subsistence life and Rice enjoyed helping out by offering his mechanical skills. In the last village Argonaut visited, they stayed an extra day to repair a generator and a chainsaw. When it was time to leave, Gosselin argued they should be doing even more.
While Argonaut and Kanaloa didn’t always end up in the same spot each night, including the night of the 24th, they were in regular, twice-a-day VHF radio communication. On July 25th they spoke even more than normal. Rice called to say he’d left his anchorage at about 8:15 a.m., so the two crews agreed to go 25 miles along the coast of Flores to another village that the Hasses were familiar with.
Conditions were flat calm until about 10:30 a.m. when a mild 10-knot breeze filled in. When the wind arrived, Rice called Kanaloa to say that he was shutting off his engines and changing direction to make the best of the wind.
“He was grumpy when he called,” remembers Heidi Hass, “and very unhappy with Guillaume.”
The Canadian crewman wasn’t working out. He spent a lot of time in his cabin; he fell asleep at the helm. Rice told them he’d come to the conclusion he’d have to be let go at the next major port, something he promised to fill them in on the details later.
At two p.m. the boats were three to four nautical miles apart. By now the wind was around 20 knots and the seas were a bit choppy with white caps on top. Flores blocks the bigger ocean swell, so it was easy sailing for a large heavy boat like Argonaut and pleasant motoring for Kanaloa. Rice called Hass to double-check their destination, which was still 22 nautical miles away. She realized that because of some adverse current it might be difficult for the boats, which were averaging five or six knots, to reach the anchorage by dusk.
Hass recalls that during this two p.m. call Rice still seemed ornery, so the Hasses opted to steer Kanaloa toward the nearby island of Pomana, to see if the steep-sided volcanic shoreline might offer a protected anchorage for an early night. After running along the coast for a ways, the Hasses gave up on the search. Anchorages can be hard to find in Indonesia; the sea is very deep and often drops off abruptly from the rocky shoreline leaving no shallow patches for an anchor to be set into. Kanaloa turned back out into the Flores Sea and Hass was surprised when they didn’t see Argonaut anywhere.
Rice was a playful sailor and Hass thought perhaps he’d sped on ahead to prove how quickly he could sail.
“We searched the water,” she says. “We called on the radio. We thought he had snuck around the island to race us.”
But once they got around the island Argonaut was still nowhere in sight, and wouldn’t answer to radio calls.
For the Hasses, Argonaut’s disappearance was unexpected, but they could think of a few reasonable explanations. Cruising sailors are an independent bunch and it’s not unusual for one boat to alter their plans as a trip goes on. Rice could have diverted course to nearby Maumere. Or perhaps he’d decided to choose another anchorage and then found his radio signal wouldn’t reach Kanaloa. Or maybe he’d simply decided to push on for Lombok to let off Gosselin early.
The Hasses knew Argonaut was a well-found boat with all the essential safety equipment aboard including lifejackets, flares and a handheld Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), as well as a life raft, separate wall-mounted EPIRB and survival provisions. There was no reason to think the boat and her crew were anywhere but safe in a harbor. But still, after just over a day without hearing from Rice, the Hasses took the extra step of letting Rice’s family know they’d lost contact. Then the Hasses pet dog became gravely ill and they were forced to speed ahead to Singapore for vet treatment.
On August 9th Gosselin arrived in the port of Kupang aboard an Indonesian fishing boat. He reported that the Argonaut had sunk 14 days earlier and John Rice was dead.
All the Rice family received was a stark statement from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: “According to Mr. Guillaume, the boat sank on 25/07/12 due to rough waters around Flores Island. After floating at sea for two days, Mr. Guillaume was rescued by a fishing boat. Mr. Guillaume said after being rescued, he was at sea for another 12 days on board the fishing boat before docking at Kupang Harbour. Mr. Guillaume believes that Mr. Rice is deceased as he saw him floating in the water and had no pulse when he checked.”
None of this made sense to Chelsea Rice-Morris. The petite, young, California-based, Aussie mum of two was more accustomed to wrangling kids and navigating healthcare and school systems than to being the point person in an international investigation. The information provided by the authorities was so limited she couldn’t make sense of it. And Gosselin was avoiding communication with them. When they finally read his statement and arranged for a brief phone call they were even more confused
“We were sailing four nautical miles north of Pomana Island when we realised that the boat was taking water from a window on starboard side,” Gosselin wrote in his statement. “There was four feet of water in the aft of the vessel and John Rice couldn’t close the porthole due to the pressure of the water coming in.”
Gosselin grabbed a snorkel and Rice went to the wheelhouse to call for help on the VHF radio, but after only 90 seconds, “water had already submerged the back deck.”
He pleaded with Rice to deploy the life raft and leave the sinking boat. But when Rice refused, Gosselin said he leapt off the stricken yacht into a “stormy” ocean and watched the boat go down. Soon after, he found Rice floating. He said checked for signs of life, but didn’t find a pulse. He then tied the dingy fuel tank to Rice’s belt loop.
Gosselin says he spotted Kanaloa steering directly at him and tried to catch the attention of the crew. But those on the Kanaloa were looking for a large grey boat – not a man – in a sea that’s infamous for the amount of plastic garbage found floating in it. He tried to swim to a nearby island – but the strong currents in the area made it impossible. In all, he says, he spent 50 hours in the sea.
“All that time,” he says, “I was wondering if somehow the current could drag me close enough to the land so I could survive.”
It didn’t. But before he drowned, a passing fishing boat spotted him, and picked him up – the lone survivor of Argonaut.
Gosselin’s explanation confused everyone who heard it. Rice-Morris approached friends who knew Argonaut inside out, as well as a naval architect and yacht surveyor. Their consensus was that part of the story was missing. The window Gosselin described was very small, and located six feet above the waterline. It seemed impossible that a flood of water could enter through that hole, especially in calm weather. Between that and the 14-day gap between the boat’s disappearance and Gosselin showing up in Kupang, Rice-Morris was unsure what to believe.
“We didn’t know if the sinking was accidental,” she says, “or if something more sinister happened.”
Every year some 10,000 cruising boats can be found sailing in remote places around the world, but when something terrible happens, the victims frequently discover they are in a no-man’s land. Often no one investigates, no one seems to have jurisdiction and witnesses literally sail away without being asked a single question. Rice-Morris found herself in the same position that other unfortunate families have in the past – it was up to her to find answers.
Working her way through Australian Foreign Affairs, Interpol Indonesia, the Indonesian National Police, the Australian Federal Police and more, Rice-Morris discovered her father fell into a grey area. Indonesia felt that, as Rice’s homeland, his disappearance fell under Australian jurisdiction. Australia believed that Indonesia must take the lead. The official investigation, which began with a search for the wrong boat in the wrong part of Indonesia, was so insufficient that the family wasn’t even able to obtain a death certificate.
As a child, Rice-Morris read Nancy Drew and dreamed of becoming a detective. Now she had her first case, and it meant everything to her to get it right.
Friends set up a website and she followed up on every story of a wrecked yacht found as far south as Australia. She made dozens of middle of the night calls to reach people during daytime hours halfway around the globe, and sent out email after email. People searched harbors around the world on her behalf. Readers suggested a range of theories. Perhaps the boat was attacked by pirates and Gosselin was somehow afraid of retribution. Maybe a drug deal had gone bad. Perhaps, rather than being the affable young backpacker he seemed to be, Gosselin was actually a killer, a smuggler, or a yacht thief.
Trying to prove or disprove each theory was almost impossible. When a yacht called Argonaut showed up at auction thousands of miles away in Malta, Rice-Morris arranged to have someone view it for her, and found it wasn’t her father’s. In April 2013, when a Caucasian male washed up on a remote Indonesian island she studied the gruesome pictures, and found she couldn’t be sure, one way or another, if the bloated corpse she was looking at belonged to the man who raised her. To be certain, she hired a forensic scientist to visit the island, exhume the body, and check the dental records against those of John Rice.
The body wasn’t her father’s.
In March 2013, she heard from Gosselin. He’d seen her website and offered to answer her questions. He told her about floating next to her father’s body and not finding a pulse, about his confusion and anger when he watched the Kanaloa drive away, and he told her about how the boat sank.
The boat had been sailing fine in 20-23 knots, Gosselin says, “The wind was pushing from behind, but when we turned around the island we got all those winds on the side. The boat was quite uneven and the high side was quite high. We let the sails out and that usually stabilized the boat, but it didn’t.”
The two tried to adjust the sails – but when nothing helped, Rice told Gosselin they were sinking.
After that things became chaotic. Gosselin wasn’t a sailor, and Rice had become impatient with him. Down below there was three to four feet of water in the aft cabin and more water was coming from a small window.
Rice asked Gosselin to find a mask and snorkel and asked for help to close the back window. “I thought it was too late,” Gosselin says. “I didn’t let him finish his sentence. Water was coming in the back hatch so we run to the wheelhouse.
“I jumped on the chair,” Gosselin continues. “On my way through the hatch I tried to catch a life jacket, but they were stuck. I said forget it, but John was still trying. My t-shirt got stuck when I went through the hatch and the boat was going underwater.”
The last time Gosselin saw Rice alive, he was trying to get into a life jacket. After freeing himself from the hatch, Gosselin surfaced. He started gathering what he could find: an oar, a child’s life jacket, a gas can and then, the lifeless Rice.
After eight months of dead ends, Rice-Morris booked a flight to Kupang. She didn’t have a plan, beyond securing a death certificate – she just knew she had to see it all for herself.
“We drove out 45 minutes by country roads,” she wrote her family back home, “and there was the sea that holds my Dad. I had to bite my lip as hard as I could and try to put every emotion aside.”
She back-tracked through Gosselin’s story, trying to confirm each step he took in reverse – talking to the police, port officials, immigration and even finding a reporter who took his picture and wrote his story when he arrived. The wilder theories – drug running and piracy – she never ruled out completely, but she learned that Gosselin, according to the immigration captain, “was definitely not mentally stable when he arrived and they feared he would commit suicide.”
She trusted the immigration official when he said that Gosselin’s fragile state didn’t seem like guilt over something, but the shock that comes from 50 hours at sea. Next, she spoke to the fishing crew that brought Gosselin in.
“Gosselin was picked up near-dead,” she says they told her. “He only had his clothes on and bites from fish. They kept on fishing with him in the boat. Then they brought him to the harbor.”
She showed them pictures of her dad, of his ship. They looked at her, sadly, and told her that they didn’t believe such a fine boat could have sunk.
“But if the boat hadn’t been used for drug running,” she says, “there had been no bad weather and no pirates, then what the F happened to Argonaut and my dad?”
The detail that stands out for most sailors who hear this story is that just a week or so before he sank, Rice did extensive work on his engine. When things go wrong on boats, you always track back to the last thing you changed. On Argonaut two things changed: there was a new crew and the engine had been overhauled.
Had the work knocked a hose loose, broken a seacock or affected the bilge pumps? If they had started taking on water when Rice was at anchor, perhaps he would have noticed it immediately, but instead it happened on a day when he was upset and distracted. Perhaps that frustration caused him to miss the subtle change in his boat’s performance as she first took on water.
People are human and accidents on boats are rarely caused by one factor – instead they are usually caused by a cascade of errors. Rice-Morris left Indonesia without a crystal clear explanation as to why her father was gone, but with enough information to accept that the boat had sunk and taken him with it.
In the end there were probably no bad guys. Just the loss of a well-loved man and the need for the heartbroken people he left behind to find peace in not knowing.