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 this fall at the University of Guelph, 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 six years ago, 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.