The Lone Survivor Of The Willis Noland Tragedy Tells Lagniappe What Happened That Fateful Night
By Jerry Roy as told to Nola Mae Ross
This is the first full factual account of the death of Willis Wade Noland, a 46-year-old Lake Charles native who was lost at sea off of St. Martin Island in the French West Indies nearly 22 years ago. It is a straightforward account told by Jerry Roy, also a native of Lake Charles, who formerly operated the Royal Bike Shop, and was the only survivor of the tragic sinking of the Pas Terre.
Beginning Of The Fatal Sea Adventure
It was Friday, Dec. 14, 1990. “I hopped on an airplane to St. Martin Island with my friend Tom Pucci, commandant of the Coast Guard Auxiliary,” recalled Roy. “We met Willis Noland, who had his boat the Pas Terre moored in Marigot Bay.
“He greeted us at the airport and was pleasantly surprised to see Tom Pucci. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘another set of lookout eyes for our trip to St. John.’ Prior to getting on the boat, Willis invited us to dinner in the Marigot Bay area. A holiday mood was the setting, and we had good camaraderie.
“After dinner, we walked to where Willis had tied his tender, a long wooden skiff made in Belize. In it, we set out for the Pas Terre. It took all three of us to lift the tender to the second deck.”
“Next, Willis suggested we should conduct a safety walk. He pointed out the canister life raft next to the tender, telling us that if we needed this raft, someone would have to manually release the extra strap securing it in its cradle. Then it would automatically inflate. It was never released during the later emergency because of the rapid capsizing of the Pas Terre.
“Next on the safety briefing was the bridge. Willis showed us the radar, operated the autopilot, and said to be careful when disengaging it because it could kick the hell out of your hands.
“There was a day bed for the extra person on the bridge. Under the day bed was storage for life vests. An EPIRB — Emergency Positioning Indicator Radio Beacon — was in plain sight, and a Pas Terre throw ring was mounted outside the bridge.
“The walk continued to the area of the paravanes, which were stowed on board. The rigging was [more than] sufficient to hold these big rockets.
“Next came a tour of the engine room, with its two huge diesel engines and generator. There was still room for fuel tanks, and Willis remarked that some of the tanks had to be filled with concrete to counter-balance the weight of the new bedroom he had installed.
“We primed the generator to life, starting the engines, which were massive diesels. One was a tractor engine Willis had gotten.”
Description Of Pas Terre
Noland designed his boat, Pas Terre, himself. “Acquiring a 50-foot-long and 16-foot-wide hull, he added three stories, making it 27 feet taller. In the bottom of the hull, he added concrete for ballast. He also added another stateroom in front of the cabin on the bottom deck,” said Roy.
Several expert boat builders had warned Noland about the instability of the Pas Terre, saying it was top heavy and shouldn’t be taken out on the waters unless it was completely full of fuel.
Still, on Friday, Dec.14, 1990, the boat was in the Caribbean. “Tom Pucci and I both owned boats and had anchoring experience,” said Roy, “so when we were ready to get underway, we had no trouble lifting the anchors. Later, the three of us — Willis, Tom and I — huddled on the bridge, talking about the night and the scheduled watches.
“Then I went below to read a book, sitting in Willis’ recliner by the back hatch. The hatch had been dogged open. But very soon the Pas Terre started to roll!
“The sea was hitting our starboard quarter. On the bridge, Willis decided to adjust the course more to St. Croix to ease the rolling, but that didn’t help.
“So he brought the vessel to idle to deploy the paravanes. We pulled up the paravanes and the booms stretched out, looking like a shrimp boat pulling nets off the Cameron coast. Then Willis resumed course and brought the speed back to normal: about 8-10 knots.
“I went back down to read my book. But my sea sense told me something was awfully wrong!”
Back In Lake Charles
Willis Wade Noland was born September 14, 1944 to A.W. “Dub” and Helen “Heidi” R. Noland. He was the grandson of W.P. Weber of Kelly Weber, who owned many downtown buildings and other properties. Willis Noland, whose family lived on 11th Street during his school years, attended Hamilton Elementary School, then Central, then went on to Lake Charles High, and finally graduated from McNeese. He then went to LSU, where he earned his degree in agribusiness in 1967.
During his teenage years, Noland was given a scooter by his father A.W. Noland, who was president and CEO of Powell Lumber Co. Willis was being groomed to become the next CEO of the family-owned company. In his spare time, he had the job of riding this scooter around the area to other companies owned by Powell Lumber Co., collecting rent and transferring business information.
Noland wasn’t athletically inclined, but always exhibited management skills. While in high school, he was the manager of the football team each year. His close friends during those years were Ed Watson, later mayor of Lake Charles; Bill Shearman; and Charles Ware. They all spent a lot of time on the water and in water sports. Noland loved anything connected with water. He had a houseboat parked at the Country Club, and he and his friends often gathered there. He later acquired a beautiful sailboat, which they all enjoyed.
After he was out of school, he bought a home on Watkins Street.
Back To The Caribbean
At midnight, Roy recalled, “We had just deployed the paravanes, also called “flopper stoppers.” The theory is that as the boat begins to roll from side to side, the paravanes will resist, being pulled upward on one side while the other will drop down, offering resistance. Then the roll is reversed. My opinion in this case is that the port side paravane failed to give resistance, causing the starboard rocket to continue downward, pulling the vessel even farther over.
“My position in the recliner on the first deck was getting more and more rocky. The compartment under the stove where pots and pans were stored began to open and close. I closed my book and decided to go to the bridge to see why we were rolling so badly.
“It was very dark — no moon. [We] seemed to have resumed normal cruising speed: 8 to 10 knots; probably too fast in these conditions. The waves were 5 to 6 feet high, with wind from the east at more than 15 miles an hour, normal for the Amagada Passage.”
Heavy Roll Hit
“I walked toward the interior stair when I felt a heavy roll. Looking up to the bridge, I saw Willis’ right leg in his blue jeans, bracing across the floor to starboard. Terror gripped me. I turned around and went back down the step in the galley.
“Then the window was slammed in by a big wave and the boat continued to roll. Everything was going upside down. I struggled toward the back door just as water rushed in. I made it through the door and over the edge of the boat and began grasping barnacles on the overturned hull. One corner of the hull was lower in the water, [which] made sliding on [it] easier. I made it up to the bottom. Since I was barefoot, I found a foothold. The generator was still running, and it gave a halo of light running all around the boat.”
Talking To Dead Men
“Then I saw Willis come up very close to me. I pulled him onto the lowest point of the hull, near the water. He offered no resistance and also no help. Under normal circumstances, I would have realized that Willis was dead.
“But nothing was normal then. So I kept talking to him. Then I turned my head and spotted Tom in the water. Turning back to Willis I said, ‘You will have to move over when I grab Tom, so we will have room to get him on the hull.’ I didn’t think I was talking to a dead man.
“After relocating Willis nearer the rudder, I jumped back into the sea and swam to Tom, even though I still had no life vest. Grabbing the front of Tom’s shirt, I began to stroke back toward the hull. No matter what I said to Tom or what I did, there was no response. He was not flailing or trying to grab me, which should have clued me in. But I continued swimming and pulling Tom’s dead weight. I asked him to help me, but again got no response. That’s when I should have realized that I was once more talking to a dead man.
“As I neared the Pas Terre, holding Tom with my left hand, which had been badly cut by the sharp barnacles, I made several attempts to lift him onto the hull. But I couldn’t do it. So I was forced to make a tough decision. I had to let him go.
“Sadly I watched as Tom floated out of range and out of the halo of light from the generator, which was still running. Then I turned back to Willis, who had not moved. Crawling to the center of the keel, I told Willis, ‘It’s OK. The boat is floating and someone will spot us.’ Still [there was] no response.
“I looked around and could see the NW corner of St. Martin, where the red radio tower glowed. I could feel the boat was not rising with the waves, and somehow knew she was going down. The anchor came loose, uncoiled and was dropping several hundred feet of one-half inch chain. The bitter end of the anchor is always tied to the boat, and when the chain reached the bitter end, it began pulling us down. With each wave, the bow [failed to] rise for the next one.
“I said to Willis, ‘We need to jump off before the suction action happens when she goes down.’ But I decided not to pull Willis off the boat. By now, I was beginning to realize he was dead. I still had no life preserver, so I had to dog paddle to stay up as the Pas Terre disappeared. Willis was washed overboard and was floating next to me.
“Then it began to grow dark, and I saw debris from the boat begin to surface. I saw two small life preservers, a small life ring, plus an ice chest. I told Willis, ‘I’ll swim to get those items, and then I’ll be back.’ Still [there was] no response. That was the last time I saw Willis, in the dark frothy sea of the Amagada Passage.”
33 Hours Of Watery Hell
“I stuffed the two small life vests into the center of the life ring off the Pas Terre. Then I found the EPIRB and tied it to the ice chest, then around my waist. My thinking was to save the ice chest to put my feet in. I was barefoot and bleeding and knew the tiger sharks, known to be in this area, would love to grab them.
“I began swimming for St. Martin. It was very difficult because the SE waves and wind were coming directly toward me. I was paddling with my arms because it was difficult to kick because of a large barnacle cut behind my knee. The EPIRB was blinking, so I knew it was sending a mayday signal.
“I must have dozed off, because I soon lost track of time. Then suddenly, I jerked awake. A glow was approaching, and soon I could see it was a cruise ship, heading directly toward me. Suddenly, the ship stopped short and I didn’t know if they were being directed by the EPIRB signal or they were in a holding pattern before getting to St. Martin at first light. As the ship came broadside to me, I could see the emblem on the stack: a Christopher Columbus painting of a ship. A man came out on the bridge, and I screamed and waved! But to no avail. The ship went forward and away. I could see the aft clearance lights.
“I would gladly have been rescued by that cruise ship and gone to any port. But that was not to be.”
Swimming And Praying
Saturday, 2 am:
“I was praying — Hail Marys, Act of Contrition and the Lord’s Prayer — as I continued to swim and kick, resting when my leg hurt too badly. Progress was very slow. No other ship approached. The waves picked me up as they crested, then threw me down again. Up and down. Up and down. It was almost hypnotic.
“My fear of tiger sharks made me want to pull my wedding ring off my finger and tie it to the life vest because I wanted my family to know that I had survived the capsizing. But it took too much time and effort, and I couldn’t do it. Luckily, I never saw any sharks.
“At dawn, I thought I was closer to St. Martin, but still the weather continued to be from the southeast. I passed through several trash lines, hoping for something to eat or drink. The trash lines are a haven for small fish and furnish food for bigger fish, but they had nothing for me.”
Saturday, about noon:
“I continued to swim and kick, but the ice chest was slowing me down, so I let it go and tied the EPIRB around my waist. Later the EPIRB came loose and floated away. By this time I was getting very depressed. I decided not to go back for it. I thought about the sharks again, and knew they fed at dusk. But what choice did I have?”
Saturday, after sunset:
“St. Martin became a purple blur as darkness approached. The light faded, as did my hope. Strength was going, and I was hurting badly, especially under my arms, which were raw from paddling on the rough life vests. I knew I could not make St. Martin. But suddenly I didn’t care. I gave up, turned my back to the waves, and floated and rested.”
Second Terrifying Night At Sea
“Unable to swim,” Roy recalled, “or maybe not wanting to, I floated wherever the seas pointed me. I was exhausted because I’d been swimming and kicking for 24 hours. I laid my head down on my makeshift life [raft] and tried to rest. A wave would break over me, dousing me with cold spray, even though the water was actually warm.
“My mind began to wander, and I had hallucinations. I saw large white faces similar to ones on Easter Island in the Pacific; I saw large white ships next to a large docking facility; there were large white porpoises jumping around me. Somebody said to me, ‘If you want to get out of the water, swim over to that ladder and you’ll be dry.’ I felt my deceased father’s presence, but I didn’t move off my life raft sanctuary.
“Later that night, my fear became real again. It was at that time I decided to cheat the waiting sharks and be in control of my own destiny.”
‘I Decided To Take My Life’
“There seemed only one way to end all this — suicide. I knew to slit one’s wrist long ways — not across the ligaments. But I had nothing sharp for the job. I tried to use the zipper pull to puncture my wrist, but to no avail.
“Next, I thought to choke and cut off air. But my reflexes would not allow me to do this.
“Then I decided to let go of the raft and succumb to the sea. I let go, but took in so much water that I began choking, coughing and throwing up. I was defeated in my attempt of suicide. Mentally and physically defeated, I retreated to my watery perch to await my fate.”
Then Came The Sea Wasps
“Suddenly, I felt a stinging sensation all over. I saw I had floated into a mat of sea wasps, which are similar to jelly fish. The sea wasps had dangling arms that lighted and glowed upon touch. I was stung all over, and the salt water made it worse. The mat of sea wasps was large, and it smothered out the sea. I tried not to aggravate them, thus preventing any more stings, They finally just floated away.
“Sometime Saturday night, I suddenly awoke to red and green lights nearby, but I could not decipher a ship. I was hallucinating again. I thought I had floated 80 miles to Virgin Gorda and the lights were from the lighthouse marking the reef — except there is no lighthouse in Virgin Gorda. I dreamed that my wife, Susan, was there and that she had rented a cabin on the beach. All I wanted to do was touch bottom and get out of the water. When the lights went away, I knew it was just a dream.”
The Day To Remember
“Sunday morning, I could make out a ship going away from me. It was a large black ship with Coast Guard markings, moving left to right. I screamed and waved. They just continued off to my right and faded into the morning horizon.
“Next, I heard two airplanes: C130s. As they got closer, I saw they were making grid runs. One was right above me and I could see the pilot. But he didn’t see me.
“Meanwhile, the big black ship was close to shore and was towing a dirigible off the stern. It was from Puerto Rico and had been called by the St. Thomas Coast Guard Auxiliary to look for us. I watched the ship alter coarse and head back north, and I thought if I swam very hard I could cross their course line and maybe they would see me. I used my last bit of strength, and started kicking and paddling again.”
“The ship looked closer, and there was a lieutenant on the bridge. She saw me! [When I heard] one long horn signal, I knew I was found, and I stopped swimming. Watching as the ship came toward me, I saw mahi mahi fish starting a feeding frenzy. Probably I looked like flotsam and attracted small fry.
“The big black boat assumed recovery position. As they got closer, they went broadside to the waves and coasted toward me. A Jacob’s ladder was deployed, but I made [a] signal by patting my arms, letting them know I was too tired to climb the ladder.
“Several people reached down, grabbed me under both arms, and lifted me on board. They pulled me to a bulkhead and leaned me down against it. Then they retrieved my life-saving raft. I sat there a while until I thought I could walk to the first aid station.
“After removing my wet clothes and dressing me in a shirt and shorts the crew had donated, they wrapped me in a blanket. I remained in sickbay for two hours while they de-briefed me. At last, I was transferred to a helicopter and taken to St. Thomas Island.
“There they put me in an ambulance and sent me on to the hospital. I was put in ICU because, at first, they thought I had a heart attack. Days later, I was still in ICU. I couldn’t shave because of the sea wasp stings. My left leg had to be debrided – scraped out — several times. My life-functioning organs were carefully observed to see that they had not been affected.
“Sometime during those days in ICU, Robert Noland, Willis’ brother, came from Lake Charles to get the story of the capsizing. He demanded the search for his brother be continued. Tom Pucci’s wife and her friends chartered a plane to continue the search. Finally, the search was called off on Dec. 18, 1990.
“I stayed in ICU for two weeks, and then was discharged in a wheelchair. Susan and I checked into the Ramada Inn for a week before we moved back on The Islander, my boat, at Sapphire Beach. My barnacle cuts became infected; I got pneumonia; had bronchitis; and was treated as a near drowning victim — given breathing exercises with oxygen.
“Healing physically was slow, but my mental recovery was even slower — horribly slow. [I was] diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I sought to understand the why of things. Why me, instead of the others who died? I learned I had no control over my life or the others.
“The reason I’m telling this story now is because I knew it needed to be told, but had put it off for years because it was too traumatic to talk about. Then, in May 2012, as I sat in a hospital clinic in Lake Charles, I happened to talk to a retired school principal named Odell Dyer. He remembered the tragedy and said he’s always wondered what really happened to Will Noland. There were so many wild rumors about it. It was still a mystery.
“His statement made [a great] impact on me. He suggested I call his friend Nola Mae Ross, who has written 26 books. I didn’t put it off any longer. I’m just sorry it took me so long before I was able to set aside the Pas Terre and the tragedy.
“After the tragedy, I stayed in St. Thomas, but withdrew from the sea, which is hard to do on an island. I rented an apartment and put my boat up for sale. I worked for Western Auto for a while. After Hurricane Marilyn blew into St. Thomas, I worked construction for several years.
“Today finds me between Lake Charles and St. Thomas. I carry dual citizenship — Cajun and Caribbean — since I have family in Lake Charles and good friends on the island, and enjoy visits to both places several months at a time.
“Not a day goes by that I do not think about the Pas Terre, and Willis and Tom. The sea is unforgiving, and she can give you hell, but my respect for the sea is boundless — from its beauty to its power. I am now a retired 100 Ton Coast Guard Captain and PADI Dive Master.
“My reflections on that time of terror, [when I was] adrift for 33 long, terror-filled hours, brings the following riddle to mind:
“What is born every morning,
“But dies every night
“To be re-born every morning?”
I lived this riddle Dec. 14-16, 1990. In my case, the answer was: hope.”
It would take a book to tell all about Willis Noland’s achievements and successes. Although he was only 46 at the time of his death, he was the president and CEO of the Powell Group, and had been the recipient of a number of awards and honors, including the Civic Service Award presented by the Chamber/Southwest LA; the VFW Humanitarian of the Year Award; the YMBC Citizen of the Year Award; the Outstanding Young Men of America Award (twice); and the Outstanding U.S. Army Reservist Award.
Noland was a philanthropist who served on numerous boards and foundations. He was president of the Lake Charles Dock Board, the Chamber of Commerce and American Bank. He was on the committee to entice a Navy homeport to Lake Charles; he worked on the project of implementing fluoridation; he was on the school board’s financial help panel; and in 1981, he was a candidate for mayor, losing to Paul Savoie.
Noland was chairman of the St. Patrick Hospital Counselors; chairman of the 1971 Cancer Crusade; vice president of the Boy’s Club of Greater Lake Charles; president of the Pioneer Club; and director of the McNeese University Foundation, the Ballet Society and the Lake Charles Symphony. He was chairman of the Calcasieu Council of Boy Scouts, and president of the LSU Alumni Association for Calcasieu Parish.
His memorial service was held in the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd on Dec. 28, 1990. He was survived by his parents; his brother Robert Noland; and sister, Nanette Noland Kelley.
His mother died less than 30 days after he was lost at sea.
This article originally appeared in the June 21, 2012 edition of Lagniappe Magazine.