Updated Feb. 2, 2018
Sometimes, when you want something badly enough, you suspend disbelief, hearing only what you wish to hear. Boguslaw “Rob” Norwind knew this instinctively, as misanthropic as he was by all accounts. And so the shadowy owner and skipper of the Discovery Sailing Academy, who also uses the surnames Norwid and Norwid-Niepoko, painted beautiful word pictures in the brochures he distributed to South American hostels and in sales pitches emailed to would-be sailors.
For free spirits like Lisa Hanlon of Nelson B.C., and Josée “Jade” Chabot of Montreal, the lure was irresistible: a sailing adventure in the South Pacific. Norwind promised a ticket to freedom: the chance to earn a Yachtmaster Offshore certificate, qualifying them to skipper commercial, ocean-going yachts. “Our goals are to help you learn how to manage a ship, healthy living, respect for others and self-discipline on the high seas,” Norwind wrote in an email this January to Hanlon, already a seasoned traveller at 22. He promised “a relaxed atmosphere of watching and filming whales, dolphins, turtles and oceanic birds. Sundowners and music will soothe the soul and sore muscles at the end of each sailing day. The camaraderie of the sea!”
But life aboard his SS Columbia, a 13-m British-flagged cutter, was not as advertised. Rob the friendly adventurer was a work of fiction. The real Norwind, a short, slight Polish-born French citizen in his early 60s, ran his ship like a modern-day Captain Bligh. His 40-day voyage stretched into 84 days, much of it spent becalmed, adrift some 1,600 km off the South American coast. The captain refused to use his engine to find the winds or his radio to notify authorities and families of the delay. A massive international search of the South Pacific was launched, amid fears the Columbia was caught in the tsunami generated by the devastating Feb. 27 Chilean earthquake. By the time an unapologetic Norwind finally pulled into port on April 11, the atmosphere aboard was toxic, some family feared the ship had gone down with all hands, and maritime authorities were furious.
The trip began with high hopes. Sailing has long held a fascination for Hanlon, who was travelling in South America when she spotted brochures for the sailing school. She wanted a last adventure before taking up studies at the University of Guelph in the fall of 2010, and the Yachtmaster certification was a step toward a dream of crewing on a tall ship. She loves the idea of sail—the purity of being carried by the wind at “real speed,” the history and romance of it. “That’s how our country was formed, really. All these Europeans coming over on these massive ships,” she told Maclean’s. “It seemed so fascinating to me.”
Perhaps by the very nature of his school, Norwind drew those searching for adventure, growth, and respite from the buzz and clutter of an ever-connected world. Norwind didn’t respond to an emailed request for an interview, but in his writing and his comments to students he fashions himself a purist, a throwback to the age of exploration Hanlon romanticized. “Only the seasons rule my departure dates,” he wrote. He spoke often of living at the whim of the winds, and that, too, had its appeal for those on voyages of discovery.
That adventurous spirit drew Carole Gagne of Nanaimo, B.C., to sign on to the Columbia in 1994, only to experience a similar voyage from hell. She’d hoped to work as a physiotherapist for half the year, then escape Canadian winters to sail warmer climes. “It all sounded like quite the deal,” even though a previous student warned her Norwind was tough on women, she told Maclean’s.
Within days of leaving port, “my red flags were up,” says Gagne, 47, who was already an experienced sailor. Everything she did was berated and called wrong. Minor events, like a broken halyard used to hoist a sail, Norwind judged a disaster that might imperil the ship, frightening her student shipmates, a couple from California. By the time they reached the Galapagos, a week out of port, Gagne told Norwind she was leaving the ship. Norwind promised to reform and the Californians begged her not to abandon them. She stayed. “Sometimes I’m almost embarrassed by how many signs I got and didn’t listen to,” says Gagne. During a violent argument near the end of her voyage, she says he even zapped her with an electric prod.
Events followed a similarly ugly path for Hanlon. She, too, had been warned. Her parents, Barb and Larry Hanlon, had discovered a Facebook group—Survivors of Rob’s Discovery Sailing Academy—with a disgruntled membership of 42 who had sailed under “this psychotic military-head and notorious lying skipper.” They pleaded with Lisa not to go, says Barb. “We said, lookit, this is not a good thing,” says Barb. Lisa assured her family she’d be “totally fine,” says her mother.
Lisa met the captain and her shipmates, Chabot, 50, and Mitchell Westlake, a 23-year-old Australian who’d served in the navy, a few days before departing Manta, Ecuador, on Jan. 16. They paid US$3,500 each for what they were told would be “hands-on” instruction. The ship was small but seaworthy, and Norwind seemed knowledgable and agreeable enough. She liked her fellow students instantly. Mitchell had sailed before, as had Chabot, who was a reiki master, yoga instructor and practitioner of shamanic energy medicine. Chabot wanted a Yachtmaster’s certification to start running holistic sailing vacations. She hoped to create, as described by her husband, Martin Neufeld, after she went missing, “a floating oasis of well-being and healing where people can experience the beauty and serenity of the seas and heal their body, mind and soul.” In short, everything the Columbia wasn’t.
Life aboard was cramped. Hanlon and Chabot shared a tiny cabin, with their goods, and what would prove to be an essential store of cookies and snacks, jammed in a tiny locker. Norwind and his fortysomething Chilean wife, Marisol, had a more spacious rear cabin. They were moving from Ecuador to Chile, so the front cabin was filled with their belongings, leaving Westlake to bunk in an open area of the ship. “You could never be completely away from everyone,” says Hanlon.
Norwind laid down the rules early on. There would be rotating watches throughout the day and night. Afternoons were for assigned readings on navigation, meteorology, instruments, and lessons in sail handling and helmsmanship. Norwind would cook.
But his veneer of civility disappeared as swiftly as the coast of Ecuador. “I realized pretty quickly this guy is kind of nuts,” says Hanlon. It became clear his rules had less to do with safety and everything to do with control. In the galley, that meant strict limits on food. His supply of potatoes and onions quickly ran out, and gourmet meant adding a can of tuna to pasta to feed five people. “You’re constantly hungry because you eat half a cup of white rice or a bowl of broth with a couple of pieces of cabbage in it,” she says. “He expects you to be full the next 12 hours—until you get a meagre bowl of oatmeal.”
Norwind dished out a hefty diet of verbal abuse with his meagre rations. Happy hour consisted of him and Marisol sipping rum. He offered drinks for sale but Hanlon was determined not to give him another cent. Dinners together were chilly affairs. “He was constantly berating us,” she says. “He was a chauvinist as well. ‘Aw, you stupid women, you f–king females,’ things like that.” She says he joked that if it wasn’t for the paperwork, he’d chuck her overboard. Marisol was treated no better. “It made me wonder why she was even with him.”
Dealings with Norwind grew worse when the ship was becalmed. Suggestions that the engine might be used to search out the wind were deemed stupid. He was so adamant that the radio not be used that Hanlon suspected it didn’t exist. He was fiercely protective of the boat, lecturing them about the risks of ripping a sail, or turning the wheel too hard. The GPS could only be turned on by the captain. “He was always telling us we were steering badly but he never corrected us,” says Hanlon. “Then he tried to blame us for putting an extra 1,000 miles on the voyage.” He banned talking at the helm. After 8 p.m., even quiet conversations among the three students earned angry rebukes.
Mitchell, having met the military mind in the navy, tuned out the worst of the ranting. Chabot and Hanlon wrote messages about the misery of the trip and their determination to stay positive, sealed them in a bottle, and set it adrift. Once, Hanlon and Mitchell talked of mutiny. “We could probably take him on,” she said. “He’s just this puny little Frenchman.” Wishful thinking, they knew.
As tough as it was, by the time the ship was overdue, she was most worried about her family.
“Obviously, they’d think the worst of it,” she says. Still, Barb says she had faith her daughter was not in danger. “There were enough thinking otherwise,” Barb says. Friends and family of Westlake and Chabot went to the media and created Internet pages, pleading for any sightings of the Columbia. Neufeld, a practitioner of New Age spirituality, urged those with paranormal powers to “use your gift to help save lives.”
By day 65, Hanlon had enough. She was on watch about 4 a.m. when she spotted an approaching ship, the first in two months. She woke up Norwind, who made no attempt to contact it. He asked her to calculate its course, something she had no practice doing. He mocked her and she stormed off below. The Columbia silently passed, like the proverbial ship in the night, the first vessel that could have reported it was still afloat.
Hanlon quit her studies, and stopped standing watch or interacting with Norwind. She mostly limited her participation to galley duty. A few days later they passed Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile. Again, Norwind made no attempt at contact, laughing off the students’ suggestions. “After 70 days at that point, and seeing land and knowing that we couldn’t get there,” says Hanlon. “Brutal.”
Their eventual arrival in Chile was anti-climactic. They awoke April 11 to the unfamiliar throb of the engine as Norwind approached the coast. They finally set foot in Coquimbo at about 9 p.m. By then governments had notified anxious family members. The three rushed, or rather stumbled, to the phones and then to find food. “We’d been at sea for three months,” says Hanlon. “We couldn’t walk in a straight line for three days.” The next days were a blur of phone calls, emails and travel arrangements. They met Norwind a last time that Monday. He handed back their passports, which he’d held for customs inspection, and signed their logbooks, adding gratuitous insults to Hanlon’s. She and Chabot took the night bus to Santiago, and flights home. Westlake went to Australia, then resumed his travels.
The voyage was debated on websites linking sailors around the world: what are the limits of command? “One of the most alluring dreams about sailing away into the sunset is the freedom of it all—to cruise where and when you want, away from the rules and regulations that enclose life on land,” wrote Nancy Knudsen, editor of sail-world.com. “But the inexplicably outrageous behaviour of one Polish-born Frenchman this week takes us one step closer to having all that in jeopardy.” Kim Hampton of yachtpals.com asked readers what they would have done. “The age-old question of when mutiny is the reasonable course of action is still very pertinent,” she wrote. “Considering you are NOT on a military vessel, at what point do you say, ‘enough is enough,’ and relieve someone of command—even just command over the radio?”
A subsequent investigation by Britain’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency stripped Norwid-Niepoko, as he was registered there, of his right to operate under the U.K. flag. It found the Columbia was registered as a pleasure yacht, not a commercial or teaching vessel, and that he held no U.K. mariner’s qualifications. The Yachtmaster certificates many earned at great cost are likely worthless. Chilean officials, who wasted scarce resources on a search in the midst of an earthquake, detained the Columbia until it complies with maritime regulations. “It now looks,” the sailing website latitude38.com reported, “as if his operation may finally be shut down.”
After a tearful reunion in Montreal with her husband, Chabot told the Canadian Press that her lonely birthday, a month after she should have been home, was life-altering. “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.”
And Hanlon—still keeping watch, working spotting forest fires from an isolated tower in northwestern Alberta—is curiously grateful for having endured something so “ridiculous,” she says. “As hard as it was, I look back at it now as a learning experience more than anything else.” She’s forgiven Norwind, she says. There will always be some pain associated with the trip, but her isolation and uncertainty, she reflects, was a small dose of what those early explorers endured.
Letting go of her anger and frustration, in fact, may be the greatest lesson learned. “I’m just moving on,” she says. “No hard feelings.” In that, Norwind delivered on one promise in his seductive emails—perhaps the only one. “You will learn much more about yourself than you thought possible,” he’d written, “and you will never be the same again.”