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|Subject: Christopher B. Sheldon, Ship Sank in Freak 1961 Storm|
He was 76
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Date Posted: October 20, 2002 1:49:50 EDT
Christopher B. Sheldon, whose 92-foot twin-masted sailing ship Albatross sank in a freak storm in 1961, a disaster that inspired the 1996 movie "White Squall," died Oct. 5 in Stamford, Conn.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, Anne Ramsey, his companion, said.
Mr. Sheldon was shepherding high-school students on the ship, used as his floating classroom, when a horrific squall welled up and abruptly sank it. Jeff Bridges portrays Mr. Sheldon in the movie about the sinking, in which his wife, Alice, and five others were lost.
About 8:30 a.m. on May 2, 1961, the Albatross was gliding through a slight mist in calm seas 180 miles west of Key West on the way to Nassau. Suddenly, a single bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, and a blast of wind smacked the ship.
"It was as if a giant hand took hold of us," Mr. Sheldon said in a 1996 interview with People magazine. "In 15 seconds the Albatross was on its side. In 60 seconds it filled with water. And then it was gone — the ocean was calm."
Four students, the ship's cook and Mrs. Sheldon had vanished. Mr. Sheldon, 11 students and an English and math teacher scrambled into lifeboats. They were rescued a day later by a passing Dutch freighter.
When the storm hit, Mr. Sheldon did not even have time to begin to take down the sail. It all became such a blur that he could not remember flying home.
"He did the best he could," Dick Langford, the teacher who survived, said after the sinking. "He was just a bad-luck skipper."
Christopher Barrows Sheldon was born in Manhattan on Oct. 12, 1926. He attended private schools and graduated from the University of San Marcos in Lima, Peru. He earned a bachelor of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary but was never ordained.
He next earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Madrid.
He sailed from the age of 15 and was taken on by Irving Johnson, the explorer and captain of the vessel Yankee, as a crew member on around-the-world voyage from 1956 to 1958. After the first mate fell ill, Mr. Sheldon got the job.
Mr. Sheldon took pictures on the trip for National Geographic magazine. During a stop at Pitcairn Island, he happened to find an anchor while diving. It had belonged to the H.M.S. Bounty, and his discovery was featured in the magazine.
In May 1959, he married Alice N. Strahan, a doctor who had served as medical officer on the Yankee. Together they founded the Ocean Academy as a floating prep school in 1959. He held that the sea was "a great molder of character."
Students paid $3,250 for an academic year of study, including Spanish and celestial navigation, taught by Mr. Sheldon.
Mr. Sheldon bought the ship in 1959. He picked up his third group of students on Sept. 20, 1960, in Bermuda. At the beginning of the trip, Mr. Sheldon had been worried about Hurricane Donna, but that turned out to be little more than a rainstorm.
There is no way to predict a squall, a short, sharp storm of wind. Sailors use the term "white squall" because of the whitecaps that sometimes precede such a storm, which meteorologists call a microburst.
When the white squall hit the Albatross, the six people who were below deck could not escape.
After the survivors dispersed, they did not see each other until some gathered to help make the movie, directed by Ridley Scott.
The screenplay was based on a 1963 book about the incident, "The Last Voyage of the Albatross," written by Chuck Gieg, one of the students who survived. Other survivors included William P. Bunting, son of Mary I. Bunting, the president of Radcliffe College.
After the accident, Mrs. Bunting told Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, about Mr. Sheldon, and he offered him a job. He became director of operations for the Peace Corps in Colombia, a distraction he welcomed.
In addition to Ms. Ramsey, he is survived by a brother, John, of South Bristol, Me.
In 1965, he again developed sea fever and bought a 130-foot ship, the Verona, for use as a floating school. On his second voyage in the ship, the ship caught fire near the West Coast of Central Africa. The fire destroyed the vessel, but all aboard escaped.
In 1967, Mr. Sheldon was recruited by the Peace Corps to take charge of its training center in Puerto Rico. In later years, he operated a mail-order business and served on the board and as treasurer of the Institute of General Semantics, which is based on the language theories of the philosopher Alfred Korzybski.
Ms. Ramsey said Mr. Sheldon's greatest pleasure was sailing on his 27-foot Bristol sailboat on the coast of Maine.
Mr. Sheldon said he found the movie therapeutic because it brought him together with both his colleagues and his feelings. But enough quickly became enough.
"I've seen the movie twice," he said in a 1996 interview with The New York Times. "The second time I walked out during the sinking scene."
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