Husband haunted by memory of wife washed overboard and lost at sea

"My last memory of her, that I go to bed with every night and wake up with every morning, is her floating face down in the water behind the boat."

Charles Truax tells dramatic story of frantic fight to save his wife Barbara after she was swept off sailboat

Charles and Barbara Truax had been married for 33 years and had big plans for their retirement. (Submitted)

Charles and Barbara Truax of Toronto were avid sailors who planned to see the world from their boat. They sold their house, their cars, stored their belongings and sailed out the St. Lawrence Seaway.

"Our plan was really to spend the next 20 or 30 years sailing around the world," said Charles Truax.

But their retirement dream was swept away by a devastating accident off the south coast of Newfoundland.

Now, Charles Truax is haunted by a vivid image of his wife out on the ocean.

"My last memory of her, that I go to bed with every night and wake up with every morning, is her floating face down in the water behind the boat."

Charles Truax and his wife Barbara were trying to fix one of the shrouds holding the mast on their sailboat when a massive wave washed her overboard. (Submitted)

It happened in July 2017, as the couple struck out across the Atlantic Ocean, headed to the Azores, an archipelago off the coast of Portugal.

'We got hit by a mammoth wave'

Three days out of Sydney, N.S., things started to go terribly wrong. A weather forecast calling for light rain turned out to be a much more intense system. 

"We ran into 45-knot winds and it basically rained all day and it was torrential kind of rain and driven by the wind we were seeing 20-to-30-foot waves … we got smacked by quite the storm," Truax told CBC Radio's The Broadcast.

I didn't have enough strength to pull her back in the boat.- Charles Truax

They lost their jib sail and struggled to get it back. Then Truax noticed a major part of the rigging had come loose, which meant the mast could fail.

He headed up on deck to try and fix it. Despite his insistence that Barbara stay below, she came too.  

"We got hit by a mammoth wave … I didn't see it coming. We just got slammed, I got thrown about in the cockpit, I hit my head and the lights went out momentarily and when I sort of woke back up again, I looked around and Barb was gone."

Barbara Truax was swept over the side. Her PFD had inflated and she was being pulled along by her lifeline.

"I was able to pull on it enough to get her up to the toe rail of the boat … but I didn't have enough strength to pull her back in the boat and so I couldn't hold her there and I told her I was going to try and winch her in, so I had to let go."

Barbara Truax was the heart of her family, her husband told CBC News. (Submitted)

Truax got her lifeline to one of the winches and was able to get her head and shoulders over the toe rail when she began sliding out of her PFD harness. 

"She was just barely conscious at that point … and the water was 10 degrees." 

Truax got another rope, put it around her waist and tried again. Barbara's hands were so cold, she couldn't help him.

"She lost consciousness and she just slid out of the harness and the rope and disappeared behind the boat."

Mayday brings help from Burin Peninsula

A frantic Charles Truax put out a mayday call. Fisherman Brent Adams was on the Serge M.D. nearby and relayed the call to the coast guard.

It was about 7:30 p.m. when he and his crew steamed over to the sailboat in distress. Adams and the others spent the night scanning the water while a coast guard helicopter and plane searched from the air. 

"It was a poor ol' night, the wind going one way, the swell going the other so you bend around a lot on a boat," said Adams. 

Charles Truax can't shake the terrible memory of his wife's body floating in the water behind their boat. (Submitted)

By lunchtime the next day, they were all exhausted. Charles Truax was cold and wet and there was little hope of finding his wife. Adams suggested Truax make his way into land. Another fishing boat offered to escort him into the Burin Peninsula.

To leave her there was … oh, my heart broke at that point … it was like losing my heart.- Charles Truax

So, Truax put his sailboat on auto pilot and headed for shore, reluctant to leave the ocean where he last saw his wife. 

"To leave her there was … oh, my heart broke at that point … it was like losing my heart," he sobbed.

Looking back, Truax says their personal floatation devices may not have been adequate. "It went around the back and under your arms and buckled in the front," he explained.

"When a person who goes unconscious that's in them, and you're trying to haul them back in, they just slide right out ... you need to have some sort of crotch straps to keep them from falling off."

A dramatic untold story of loss at sea. A sailing accident took the life of an Ontario woman off the coast of Newfoundland this past July. 24:59

Truax spent a few days on the Burin Peninsula, grateful for the generosity and compassion he experienced there.

St. Lawrence Harbour Master Sam Tobin offered rides and a sympathetic ear.

Sam Tobin, harbour master in St. Lawrence, lent a sympathetic ear and drove Truax around while he was in Newfoundland. (Submitted)

"You could see it was hurting almost every word he was talking, you know, I guess the memory of his good wife, you know? I mean goodness gracious, how do you deal with it?" Tobin said.

"I mean somebody you've been married to for so many years all of a sudden is not there anymore and there's no possibility of her returning." 

Not prepared for the journey

Tobin suggested that Truax hire someone to take his sailboat back home instead of making the trip himself. 

The job fell to retired coast guard employee Stephen Decker, who now works as a delivery captain. 

"When we got to Halifax I said to him, 'You know, we've talked a lot about your wife, Barbara, and I would like to see a picture of her,' and he showed us a picture because I wanted to see that person that we talked so much about … I can't imagine that happening to one of my friends or myself."

Decker said he learned an important safety lesson from the tragedy.

"I myself had one of those inflatable life jackets like Charles had. I didn't really think that you would come out of it. So certainly in the future, for myself, I'll have the three-piece harness or I'll buy the one that has the leg straps." 

Stephen Decker took Truax's boat to Halifax, and says it didn't have all the safety gear it needed to cross the Atlantic. (Submitted)

Decker said the story is also a cautionary tale for anyone who ventures out on the ocean. 

"I don't know really sometimes if people have an appreciation of the conditions that they can encounter, you know. Charles sort of thought that his boat was adequately prepared. He had no [satellite] radio, no life raft, no radar."

Decker said the boat itself was a 41-foot C&C (Cuthbertson & Cassian) and was more than capable of a cross-Atlantic voyage but the ocean can be unforgiving.

"When we took the boat from St. Lawrence to Halifax, we had to take our own survival suits, he didn't have survival suits. I wouldn't be crossing the Atlantic without survival suits," he said.

"If you've grown up around the water and you've seen lots of different things that happen … the tragedies. When you are on the lakes, the fresh water, I don't think you have as much of an appreciation as when you grow up in our environment here in Newfoundland and Labrador."

Charles and Barbara Truax were used to sailing on the Great Lakes but dreamed of taking their boat around the world. (Submitted)

Charles Truax also wishes they had been better prepared. He has since sold his sailboat — the memories of Barbara were just too painful.

"She was just an incredible mother of our two sons … she was really the heart of our family … she and I had been together almost 40 years … married 33 of them," he said.

"Barb really, really, really wanted to spend her retirement sailing around the world and I did too, and that was our shared dream. That's how we wanted to spend the rest of our days together."

Barbara Truax onboard the XS. Memories of her made the boat too painful to keep, so her husband has sold it. (Submitted)

Truax hopes people learn from his story — lessons not just about safety, but about just how fragile life can be.

"Life is just far too short and don't wait to do those things that you want to do … because you never know … when your chance to do them will be snatched away from you."

Barbara Truax was 65 years old when she was lost at sea. Her body has not been found. 

About the Author

Jane Adey

CBC News

Jane Adey hosts CBC Radio's The Broadcast, and has worked for many other CBC programs, including Here & Now, Land & Sea and On The Go.