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Cruising Tragedy: Wrong Place, Wrong Time

Virginia husband and wife couple were wintering aboard their 46-foot boat on the peaceful Caribbean island nation of Grenada. Then their boat was invaded.

Adult male with white beard wearing a white polo posting for a picture with a blonde adult female in a kitchen.

RalphHendry and Kathy Brandel embraced the long-distance cruising life.

Dreaming about that hypothetical right time to cast off and head out for long-distance cruising is easy. Making it happen is what separates the dreamers from the doers. Ralph Hendry and Kathy Brandel had put in the work to become capable sailors. The Virginia couple once spent a summer living aboard Simplicity, their sailing catamaran, off Newport, Rhode Island, where they’d even hired a professional captain to teach them offshore seamanship skills.

In 2014 they joined the Salty Dawg Sailing Association (SDSA), a nonprofit group dedicated to educating sailors, building camaraderie, and facilitating offshore passages. “Sailors helping sailors” is the group’s motto, and Ralph and Kathy dove right in, sailing Simplicity in company with Salty Dawg’s annual Caribbean Rally to the British Virgin Islands.

Adult female wearing a white tank top and black sunglasses next to bearded adult male wearing a plaid shirt and black sunglasses.

Ralphand Kathy preparing to clear in at BVI customs, November 2015

“That’s when I met them and we’ve been close friends ever since,” says Hank George, former SDSA president. Every year, the cruising couple, who he describes as “warm-hearted and capable,” would tie up and spend several weeks at the George home near the cruising boater hub of Deltaville, Virginia.

“They told us to expect them in June this coming summer.”

On February 21, 2024, SDSA was alerted by a cruising skipper that a member’s yacht, the 46-foot catamaran Simplicity, was anchored and abandoned off a beach on the west coast of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, 84 nautical miles from where Hendry and Brandel had been anchored the night they and their boat disappeared. The good Samaritan had boarded Simplicity, found no one aboard, but evidence of violence … and blood. With dispatch, St. Vincent and Grenadines (SVG) police tracked down three suspects, detained them, and with investigators from the neighboring country of Grenada, began extensive interrogation. SVG Police charged them with customs and immigration violations on entering SVG improperly, and based on evidence from their investigation, transferred the suspects to the custody of Grenada officials where the primary crimes allegedly occurred. Grenada has now charged the suspects with multiple crimes, including Hendry and Brandel’s murders.

The AIS signals transmitted from Simplicity revealed the journey made by the stolen vessel from Grenada up to St. Vincent. Authorities suspect the trio had escaped a Grenada jail, swam out to Simplicity at anchor, overpowered the couple, and headed for St. Vincent, which has an illegal marijuana growing market – a good place to sell what they could from the boat for fast cash. Simplicity’s dinghy on davits with a 50-hp outboard would be a valuable haul.

Ralph Hendry and Kathy Brandel have not been found. This horrific story made national headlines and TV network news and has left the Caribbean cruising community in a state of shock.

“In all my years of cruising the Caribbean, I’ve never heard of anything like this,” says Bob Osborn, current SDSA president. St. Vincent, outside of putting in at Kingstown on the south end of the island, is generally known to be avoided by cruisers looking to play it safe.

“Parts of Dominica are another,” added George, “along with the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Haiti. Cruisers know to stay away from these areas. When Kathy and Ralph sat in our living room last fall, we discussed it. They already knew the ones to stay away from, and Grenada wasn’t one of them.”

Grenada is known as a safe and welcoming island that hosts hundreds of cruising boats every year. Kathy and Ralph had sailed Simplicity in the 2023 Caribbean Rally from Hampton, Virginia, to Antigua and were spending the winter cruising the Eastern Caribbean before returning north, planning to stop along the Eastern Seaboard to visit friends.

Despite their shared desire for long-distance cruising, the 2023 Caribbean rally was their first since that earlier 2014 Salty Dawg baptism. Both had elderly parents whom they wanted to support and visit, so they kept to shorter coastal cruises while attending to family matters.

“They’d waited a lot of years before they felt they had the time and freedom to cruise the Caribbean again,” George says.

Three adult males and an adult female posing for a picture around a table at a restaurant.

Kathy, Ralph, and crew let loose at the 2015 Salty Dawg arrival party at The Bitter End Yacht Club in the BVI.

The cruising community hopes the police investigation in Grenada will provide more facts about how this tragedy unfolded. All signs point to a clear case of being in the wrong place at the wrong moment. And for those wondering, George says, “Most people are not going to have guns aboard.” Island visitors are required by Customs & Immigration to declare and turn in their weapons upon arrival. Most cruisers avoid high-risk areas, travel in groups when ashore, and rely on pepper or bear spray and locking hatches and cabin doors at night.

A GoFundMe page was set up by family to help pay for recovering the vessel and belongings, and covering funeral and other costs as the grieving families try to cope with this tragedy. “We would like to say a few words about Kathy and Ralph that we wish all to know,” reads a statement from the couple’s sons, Bryan Hendry and Nick Buro. “We live in world that at times can be cruel, but it’s also a world of profound beauty, wonder, adventure, love, compassion, caring, and faith. Our parents encompassed all those values and so much more. If we have learned anything from this tragic event, it’s that we know they left this world in a better place than it was before they were born.”

Shortly, SDSA will be hosting a Homeward Bound Rally from the BVI back to the U.S. East Coast, with some summer rallies to develop ocean sailing experience and visit interesting locations. The next SDSA Caribbean Rally is set to depart October 30, 2024, from Newport, Rhode Island (weather permitting), and Hampton, Virginia, on November 1, 2024, and. A third of every fleet consists of newcomers paired with seasoned sailors, George says. “The cruising community is a very open and welcoming group to all newcomers.” For those curious about Caribbean crime, the Caribbean Safety and Security Net provides basic precautions and collects and shares accurate information about crimes against cruising boats in the Caribbean based on firsthand cruiser experiences.

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Rich Armstrong

Senior Editor, BoatUS Magazine

A journalist by training, BoatUS Magazine Senior Editor Rich Armstrong has worked in TV news, and at several newspapers, then spent 18 years as a top editor at other boating publications. He’s built a stellar reputation in the marine industry as one of the most thorough reporters in our business. At BoatUS Magazine, Rich handles everything from boat and product innovation and late-breaking news, to compelling feature stories, boat reviews, and features on people and places. The New Jersey shore and lakes of lower New York defined Rich's childhood. But when he bought a 21-foot Four Winns deck boat and introduced his young family to the Connecticut River, his love for the world of boats flourished from there.