Montreal woman returns home

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Fifty-year-old vanished off coast of South America more than month ago

In Josee Chabot's three months adrift on the South Pacific, the storm surges were terrifying, but the doldrums were even more troubling.

With tears rolling down her cheeks Thursday after arriving at Trudeau Airport, the Montrealer squeezed loved ones, who feared for more than a month she had been lost forever at sea.

Josee Chabot hugs her husband, Martin Neufeld, as she arrives at Montreal's Trudeau Airport, in Montreal Thursday. She resurfaced last week after the boat she was on disappeared in the South Pacific more than a month ago. - Photo by The Canadian Press

Montreal -

In Josee Chabot's three months adrift on the South Pacific, the storm surges were terrifying, but the doldrums were even more troubling.

With tears rolling down her cheeks Thursday after arriving at Trudeau Airport, the Montrealer squeezed loved ones, who feared for more than a month she had been lost forever at sea.

Her family's nightmare began after a powerful earthquake struck Chile Feb. 27, setting off a tsunami in the region.

At the time, the sailboat carrying Chabot, known as Jade to her friends, was already three days overdue.

For more than 40 days, there was no sign of the SS Columbia and no contact with it. Then, last Saturday, the boat finally drifted in to its original destination in Coquimbo, Chile.

"We did have big storms, it was very scary, but the hardest part was probably when (it was) calm in the sea," said Chabot, who knew nothing of the earthquake while at sea.

"You're just there waiting for the wind. That's the hardest part - when you know that your family is probably worried about you."

On Jan. 16, Chabot, Lisa Hanlon of Nelson, B.C., and Mitchell Westlake of Australia pushed off from Salinas, Ecuador, to earn their skipper's licences.

But right from the start, the sailors' relationship with their instructor, Capt. Boguslaw (Bob) Norwid, was a rough one, said Chabot's husband, Martin Neufeld.

"It was hell for her from the very beginning," he said.

Visibly exhausted from the journey, Chabot, 50, declined to discuss details of the voyage.

Neufeld says the students tried to persuade Norwid to let them call home when the persistently weak winds made them realize they would arrive behind schedule.

But Norwid, whose wife was also aboard the Columbia, refused to let them use the radio, Neufeld said.

"He basically said, 'You keep this up and it's mutiny. I see it as mutiny and I'll throw you overboard,' " he said.

"Joke or not, who knows? But that's the atmosphere that she lived in."

After the Columbia was declared overdue, South American authorities searched the Pacific Ocean and the coastline for the missing 13-metre boat.

Chabot, already an experienced sailor, hoped to one day buy her own boat, so she could operate holistic sailing vacations off Ecuador.

Right now, she's just grateful to be home.

"Go and embrace your loved ones and tell them you love them because you don't know what tomorrow has," said Chabot, who celebrated her birthday aboard the Columbia March 28.

Her father, Laurent Chabot, tried to fight back tears when he recalled how difficult the last month has been.

"I still feel the same anxiety, which has lasted since (she disappeared)," he said at the airport.

Neufeld said the families of the three students are considering legal action against Norwid for not allowing the sailors to contact the mainland.

"It was a horrible month," said Neufeld, pointing out he knew the boat's 90 days worth of food rations were about to run out.

"Especially in the last week because the days were ticking by and there was no news."

Chabot, who says she, Hanlon and Westlake supported each other during the voyage, hopes the experience will change her for the better.

"On my 50th birthday I was in the middle of the ocean, calm seas, and I decided that when I came back my life would be different," she said.

Organizations: Trudeau Airport

Geographic location: Montreal, Chile, South America South Pacific Columbia Ecuador Coquimbo Nelson Australia Salinas Pacific Ocean

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