Travis Wright had another half hour before going on night watch, but the choppy sea below the cabin kept him from sleeping. At 11:30, he swung off his bunk and stepped into a puddle. He expected puddles on a sailboat. But this one seemed to be growing.
Wright, 20, and his buddies on the Texas A&M-Galveston sailing team were 60 miles into the Regata de Amigos, a 600-mile race from Galveston to Veracruz, Mexico. The waves were rough, but the Cynthia Woods, a 38-foot Cape Fear yacht, was built to handle far worse.
He lifted a floorboard, and a geyser shot up. “We’ve got water coming in!” he shouted. Roger Stone, 53, one of two safety officers on board with the four-student crew, sprang from his berth and crouched by him. This was no ordinary leak. Stone popped his head out of the hatch. “We’re taking on water!” he yelled to Steve Conway, the other safety officer, at the tiller. “Start the engine! Douse the sails!”
Conway, 55, turned the key and scrambled to drop the mainsail, but the craft was already rolling onto its starboard side. Ross Busby, 21, and Joseph Savana, 18, slid across the deck and into the sea. Conway lunged for a lifeline, caught it, and held on as the boat twisted. Seconds later, the Cynthia Woods capsized.
In the upside-down cabin, water spouted through the hatch. Steven Guy, 20, grabbed for his life vest, but it inflated before he could put it on. “How do we get out of here?” he cried.
“Through there!” Stone pointed toward the opening below. Guy held his breath and dived into the blackness but was driven back by surging water. Stone pushed him forward. This time, Guy made it.
Wright, too, dived and was thrown back. The seawater had reached chest level. “It’s coming too fast,” he gasped.
“You’ve got to try!” yelled Stone. He grabbed Wright, pointed him downward, and shoved. Wright frog-kicked out of the cabin, free.
Roger Stone carried a practical talisman with him on land and at sea—a small, yellow marine GPS unit. “Before cars had GPS systems, he’d use it so he wouldn’t have to ask for directions,” says his wife, Linda, a teacher. Aside from its function, the device symbolized something about Stone: Whatever else he did, he was a sailor.
As a teenager in the suburbs of New York City, he spent his free time piloting a dinghy up and down the Hudson River. After college in Oregon, he crewed on yachts before moving to Houston for a job at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he became a warehouse manager. He sailed his own 14-footer around the local waterways, eventually with his kids, Eric, 15, and Elizabeth, 12. On Sundays, he assistant-coached the sailing team for Texas A&M University at Galveston.
A quiet, square-built man with a captain’s beard, Stone was known for rescuing stray dogs and stranded motorists and, on occasion, sailors in trouble. During one race, a rival boat lost its mast and drifted toward a jetty; after plucking the crew from the endangered craft and towing it back to port, Stone was declared the winner in honor of his selflessness.
He was also a stickler for safety. Shortly before the start of last June’s regatta, Stone and Conway had inspected the Cynthia Woods from stem to stern. The two-year-old boat seemed structurally sound and was loaded with new emergency equipment: a life raft, a flare kit, two radios, flashing beacons, and a satellite phone.
Now all of that had been swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico. And the race’s two dozen other competitors were miles away.