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Son tried to save sailor, probers say

Report details tragedy at sea

DOVER, N.H. -- Asher Woods was able to pull his father up to their sailboat by rope after Stephen Woods was swept overboard in a storm, but Asher couldn't get him aboard, even after putting a ladder over the stern, a Coast Guard investigation shows.

As waves tossed Stephen Woods, a 55-year-old lawyer, from side to side, 20-year-old Asher Woods tried unsuccessfully to change course and then to start the 41-foot Naobi's diesel engine, Foster's Daily Democrat reported Friday. When those attempts failed, Asher released the lifeboat in hopes his father could grab onto it, but Stephen disappeared, the newspaper reported based on an all-but-final report it obtained Thursday.

Father and son, who lived in Stratham, were sailing the boat from Rockland, Maine, to Rye last Oct. 15 to have it hauled out for the winter. By nighttime, however, they were in heavy rain, 30 mile-per-hour winds, and seas of nearly 5 feet, Asher Woods told investigators.

He said his father had crawled out onto the bowsprit as the two were securing the sails when the boat swung broadside and his father went overboard. He said neither man was wearing a life jacket.

The paper said it got the report from officials at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Thursday though local Coast Guard officials were supposed to comment on it before it was made public. Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Benson in Boston said no substantive changes would be made before the official release.

According to the report, Stephen Woods had difficulty arranging to get the boat hauled out of the water in Rye, but got an appointment for Oct. 17. Woods and his wife, Deborah, planned to sail the boat south the weekend of Oct. 7. When that plan fell through, he and Asher decided to do the job starting Saturday, Oct. 15.

They had trouble starting the engine on their lifeboat to get out to their mooring, but set sail about midday. A boatyard customer whom the Coast Guard did not identify said he was surprised because the forecast was for bad weather. The man described himself as a ''blue-water sailor" well-equipped for sailing far out at sea.

When it began raining and the wind picked up, Stephen Woods decided to spend the night in Boothbay Harbor rather than sail through the night, Asher Woods said.

But Asher said his father couldn't start the diesel engine. He said his father speculated that rough weather had stirred up sediment and clogged the fuel injectors. He said the engine had begun sputtering in Rockland and once died.

With the engine not working, Stephen Woods decided to sail to sea to avoid the rocky coastline. He began looking ''real stressed out," which Asher Woods said made him anxious, too.

Asher said he tried to sleep below, periodically spelling his father at the helm until Stephen called him about 9:30 p.m. to help get the sails down. He said a sail-furling mechanism jammed, and his father crawled onto the bowsprit to try to fix it. When the sail broke loose, trailing a rope, his father told him to steer the bow into the wind.

As he tried to do so, ''the boat rocked and the boom swung a little and Stephen Woods went overboard backwards," the report said.

Asher Woods said his father, who probably was wearing ''a couple layers of jackets and fleece under the rain jacket," held onto the rope but had trouble staying above the waves.

Asher said he hauled in the rope, deployed the ladder, and took the other steps until his father disappeared after about five minutes.

He tried calling for help on his father's cellphone and the boat's marine radio until its battery died, but to no avail. According to a Global Positioning System device, it was about 10 p.m. When the lobster boat found him, the crew told him he could come aboard immediately or wait 15 or 20 minutes for the Coast Guard to arrive. He responded using a profanity.

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