On the upside, Little Rock's Mike O'Bryant will have a great yarn to tell his grandkids someday.
A caddie at West Pulaski County's private Alotian golf course, O'Bryant was one of three men aboard an 80-year-old wooden sailboat in February when it began to take on water 90 miles off the coast of Nicaragua. How it got there, and how he lived to tell the tale, is a bro-story for the ages.
See, O'Bryant has this friend named Zach Morrison. Morrison, a Mississippi native who O'Bryant met while they were both working as golf pros at a course in the Magnolia State, is sort of a free spirit. So it was par for the course, pun intended, when Morrison called up O'Bryant one day to tell him he'd bought a double-masted mahogany schooner built around the time Prohibition ended. There was only one problem: the boat was currently anchored in Los Angeles. Morrison eventually hit on the idea that he wanted to sail it from there to the Mississippi Gulf coast.
"He has a lot of crazy friends, and I think I was one of his first calls," O'Bryant said. "I was like, 'Where is this sailboat? He said, 'It's in Los Angeles. I'm going to sail it home through the Panama Canal.' I said, 'Man, I'm in.' "
Morrison and O'Bryant left Los Angeles aboard the schooner — rechristened Rebel Yell — on Dec. 15. By then, Morrison had been funded by a publisher to write a memoir about the adventure.
For a month, they cruised south down the west coast of Mexico, fishing, stopping in beautiful ports and soaking up the sun. Everywhere they went, the Rebel Yell drew a crowd.
"It was beautiful boat," O'Bryant said. "The fun thing was, anywhere we stopped, the boat itself was a celebrity ... anywhere we stopped and dropped anchor in a marina, everyone had to come look at the boat."
O'Bryant's father, Robert O'Bryant, joined them in Cabo San Lucas, and the three pressed on, soon leaving the coast of Mexico behind. They were 100 miles off the coast of Nicaragua when they spotted the black wall of a storm ahead, between them and their next port in Costa Rica. They had no choice but to sail into it.
Within hours, they were in a giant washing machine, tossed by 15- to 20-foot swells that rocked the boat every few seconds. Though they never saw much rain, O'Bryant said, the huge waves off the storm kept coming for days. "We were so tired," he said. "I slept for about two hours one night, because I was so exhausted after two days. I woke up, and I had rugburns on my elbows and knees because I'd slid around in my bunk so much."
Exhausted, the days blurred together. The relentless seas began to take their toll on the schooner as well. First, the jib sail at the front of the boat slipped out of the canvas cradle that held it and fell into the water, then the cables that held the mast began to snap. O'Bryant began to have a sense of impending doom. "Things kept going wrong, and I thought, 'We're never going to get to Costa Rica. The boat's going to sink.' "
That thought surely felt like a premonition when O'Bryant went below deck and noticed water standing in the bottom of the hold. At first, he didn't really believe they were taking on water. The Rebel Yell was triple hulled and built on a solid oak frame, he said, a "tank" that could have sailed through a brick wall. Soon, however, he found the Achilles Heel by which the ship was eventually lost.
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