Geoff Pope, skipper of the Sheila Yeates, a 50' topsail Ketch that eventually sank in the North Atlantic. ©2015 Mike Zerby.

Photo by Mike Zerby

“I always felt there were four miracles involved in the saving of the Sheila Yeates.”



Crew of the 1989 Kiviuq I
Kiviuq I, in Denmark after rescuing the Sheila Yeates. ©2015 Nat Wilson.

KIVIUQ Crew (Left to Right),  Hjaltur Poulsen, Jens Joensen, Cecil Bannister, Óli Lindenskov, Capt David Fancy, Flemming Ipsen, Norman Papinean, Hans Petersen, Mrs. Hans Petersen and child.


“The experience of the Sheila Yeates has given many people a chunk of personal horizon they didn’t know existed. If there is a purposeful role for the Sheila Yeates, that is it.”

  • The purposeful role of the Sheila Yeates

Everyone felt Geoff’s loss. Spirits on board the Kiviuq were low. After a few days Geoff emerged from his room and told Nat that the mood had to change. There was nothing left to do but plan another vessel. Understanding Geoff’s need to move on, Nat agreed.  Shortly after, Geoff came topsides and surprised everyone. “I think the next boat should be 65-feet, steel hulled and a brigantine,” he declared. Everyone was stunned. Perhaps as a survival mechanism, a way to deal with grief, or the universal need to dream, Geoff was starting to plan Sheila Yeates II.


He got on the satellite phone and called Bob Jackson in Minnesota to ask him to draw up plans. “Geoff,” Jackson said, “I already have the plans in progress and they are for a brigantine, 65-feet and steel hulled. I know you so well!” Ever the salesman, it did not take long for everyone to buy into Geoff’s new plan. “By the time the Kiviuq reached Denmark,” remembers Mike,” it was just a matter of raising the money and we were all going sailing again!”


The good news was that the crew was safe and each would remember this singular experience in their own way for the rest of their lives. “What I remember through the years isn’t the sinking, but the fact that my life had been saved through an act of compassion and courage,” remembered Rick in a recent conversation.  “Captain Fancy was a hero.”


Destiny? Fate? How does the Kiviuq, a steel-hulled vessel named for a legendary Inuit hero with superhuman powers, just happen to be in radio range of a ship stranded in ice in the middle of the Labrador Sea? For years to come, many of the crew would ponder such an amazing convergence of circumstances.


“I always felt there were four miracles involved in the saving of the Sheila Yeates,” said Geoff one summer day at his home in suburban Minneapolis.


“First, the Kiviuq was the only vessel within a thousand miles equipped to get through sea ice.  Second, if the Kiviuq had gone to Newfoundland, as originally planned, it would have never been in radio range. Third, if Mike had waited 30 minutes to send his message, the Kiviuq would have been out of radio range. And lastly, it was a miracle that the Kiviuq actually made it into the sea ice to rescue the Sheila Yeates. I always felt like we had won the $40 million Canadian lottery.”


Once the Kiviuq landed in Hirtshals, Denmark, the captain and crew of the Sheila Yeates went their separate ways. While the rescue at sea would always bond them in a special way, it was time to go home. “It was extremely personal for everybody there in a way you wouldn’t be able to really describe,” said Nat in a recent conversation about the experience. “I have read about other accounts where there has been a real fear of loss and death and then people survive and they never talk to each other again. Here they were in this really intimate situation of survival and then after that’s over they all separate and go their way. And that’s what happened here.” While some Sheila Yeates’ crewmembers stayed in touch with Geoff over the years, most moved on with their busy lives. But when they were contacted recently to talk about the trip for this story, the impact of that journey still evoked powerful memories and emotions.


The irony for the Kiviuq was that in 1999, ten years to the week after rescuing the Sheila Yeates crew, the ship sank 8,000 miles away off Cape St. Francis in South Africa. By then it had changed owners and crew several more times and had been renamed – Palli Hja Mariannu. Renaming a boat has long been a maritime superstition for bad luck. The sinking of the Palli Hja Mariannu was one of the worst maritime disasters in South African history with the loss of 29 of the 38 crewmembers. One decade the ship saved seven lives in the North Atlantic and a decade later the ship lost 29 lives an ocean away.


 The rescue and subsequent loss of the Sheila Yeates was a drama that played out in different ways for each crewmember. It would take years to sort out the long-term impact that the voyage would have on these seven men whose lives had hung precariously on a Mayday call at sea.


For some, it’s harder to accept the reality of loss, and that loss becomes the basis of a new dream. For several years after his return home, Geoff tried to find investors for Sheila Yeates II. But the price tag for building a 65-foot, steel-hulled brigantine had soared far beyond the original price tag of $150,000 for the Sheila Yeates. Estimates were around $800,000 for Sheila Yeates II. There would never be another Sheila Yeates. One dream realized would have to serve for a lifetime.


While the loss of the Sheila Yeates would always be a tender issue for him, the sea still beckoned and Geoff ‘s love of sailing was undiminished. Still the explorer, at 81 he set out with his friend Roger Swanson on Cloud Nine once again. This time they attempted to sail the Northwest Passage, the vast Arctic waterway that joins the North Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Cloud Nine made it to Beechey Island where several men from the failed 19th century Franklin Expedition were buried. But once again ice would be Geoff’s nemesis, blocking the ship’s progress westward through the Passage as it had done to so many previous sailors and explorers.  Cloud Nine had to turn back. It would be Geoff’s final sailing adventure.


But the story of the Sheila Yeates endures, in tribute to Geoff for bringing so many people together and as a testimony to the power of a sailing vessel to touch people in special ways by bringing adventure to their lives. Geoff had once said, “The experience of the Sheila Yeates has given many people a chunk of personal horizon they didn’t know existed. If there is a purposeful role for the Sheila Yeates, that is it.”


Geoff wanted to make passages to places few people go and in the process offered many people the chance to experience a world of beauty, excitement and adventure beyond their land-locked lives. There are so many who have their own stories of the Sheila Yeates.


But this one is ours and it will be our final story of the Sheila Yeates. It took over 20 years to heal the sense of loss and offer context for understanding the impact a voyage, a man and a sailing vessel can have on your life. It took time to distance ourselves from the loss of the ship and then the passing of Geoff in 2003, to be able to piece together, with the help of friends and former crew members, a broader perspective of the impact both ship and captain had on so many others and us.


There are few experiences that remain with you over a lifetime, but sailing the Sheila Yeates is one of them.


Captiain Geoff Pope of the Sheila Yeates on Lake Superior. ©2015 Richard Olsenius.

Photo by Richard Olsenius

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