SPOKANE — The Bermuda Triangle’s mysteries have a deeply personal grip on Spokane author Sarah Conover.
It was there, during a freak storm in 1958, that her parents and grandparents were lost at sea while sailing. The tragedy left Conover and a sister as orphans.
The Conovers and family friend Bill Fluegelman were on a yacht called Revonoc — Conover spelled backwards. National news covered the yacht’s disappearance for months, largely because her grandfather, Harvey Conover Sr., was a well-known businessman and a top ocean-sailing yachtsman.
Only 18 months old at the time, Sarah Conover and her sister Aileen, almost 3, were raised mainly by a paternal aunt and uncle. During a custody battle, they also spent time with their maternal grandmother.
Families often didn’t discuss grief, and with custody conflicts, that churned no information or misinformation. Sarah Conover often heard that she never knew her parents, Larry and Lori, so it didn’t matter.
Sarah Conover, a longtime Spokane writing coach and former Spokane Valley high school English teacher, spent a decade recently on that puzzle, finding new facts about the Revonoc and her family. She wrote the 2023 book, “Set Adrift: A Mystery and a Memoir — My Family’s Disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle.” It weaves her story with period articles and some official search documents.
Now, the History Channel in its series, “The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters,” is looking into the disappearance of the Revonoc in an hourlong episode on the Conover loss. The show is expected to run between Thanksgiving and year’s end. It will include interviews with Conover and newly restored family film footage.
“I wrote the first paragraph of this book, and it felt like this is a story that needs to be told,” Conover said. “It was an engine. It set the whole pace and tone of the book, just like I tell my students.”
It reads: “This I have come to believe: when a boat goes down, it’s only the shell of things — the hull and the bodies — that vanish. When there are no survivors and no meaningful recovery of wreckage, there’s only speculation, the barest possibility of ever knowing what happened, and the legacies of unresolved grief. The absence of the dead shapes the story of the living.”
Her mother was 29 when the boat went down, and her father 26. Her grandmother, Dorothy, also died.
The yacht they were on was Harvey Conover’s 43-foot shoal draft yawl boat. Researching what might have happened, Sarah Conover said there’s a strong indication the boat’s centerboard had a mechanical failure and the craft couldn’t right itself in 40-foot waves.
“A shoal draft boat means when it’s in the shallows, they can pull the centerboard up to some degree and then they can drop it down when they’re in the ocean. Very likely, there was a mechanical failure of the centerboard in the storm.”
A shrimping boat, caught in the same storm, was likely the last one to spot the Renovoc. Crew members on that boat later reported they passed what appeared to be the Renovoc and saw the yacht’s five members in distress but couldn’t reach them because their craft had a failed motor.
“The (Revonoc) boat was almost capsized; it couldn’t right itself, and all five crew members were hanging from ropes behind,” Sarah Conover said. “When there’s a big storm, you drag your lines behind. The other boat, they saw five people waving frantically on the ropes. It was 19 hours after the storm began.”
But that sighting flashed by quickly, she said, because of the steep waves and winds at 70 mph.
The storm was unexpected. At 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 2, a mild squall warning went out for the Miami area, she wrote in the book. “Six hours later, a northeast wind blew out storefront windows and pummeled boats …”
By Jan. 8, six days after the storm, dozens of commercial boats and ocean yachts missing initially were accounted for. But not the Revonoc.
Bill Fluegelman’s wife, Sherry, had left the Revonoc in the Florida Keys as the yacht sailed on and later encountered the storm. She took with her the last rolls of film taken on the boat, including a photo that Sarah Conover included in the book that shows her parents. Her dad’s head is cradled in her mom’s lap.
The Revonoc’s dinghy was the only piece that ever washed ashore, about 80 miles north of Miami, Sarah Conover said.
Although not officially recognized, the Bermuda Triangle is located off the southeastern Atlantic coast of the U.S., generally within the triangular area that has Bermuda, Miami and Puerto Rico at the points. Known for a high incidence of lost ships, small boats and aircraft, the region in part gains mystery as one of two spots in the world, along with the Devil’s Sea near Japan, where sailors and pilots often failed to account for the agonic line — a spot where there is no need to compensate for magnetic compass variation, which can result navigational error.
“The other part is that the Gulf Stream is, like, 6 knots per hour, so this storm was coming from the northeast and the Gulf Stream is going in the other direction,” Sarah Conover said. “With that, you get these steep, sharp waves. The Gulf Stream, which is warm, is going in one direction — north — and this storm was sudden from the northeast.”
But the potential mechanical failure holds greater weight, after research with the yacht’s boat design company.
She hopes that if the History Channel does find the boat, which she said it did in three other cases during last year’s season, it might bring some closure. Its Bermuda Triangle show has turned into a hit, and one of its researchers contacted her about the new episode after finding an article she’d written for a Buddhist publication.
Sarah Conover did interviews for the History Channel this past spring. Her sister wasn’t interviewed, but she was filmed with Sarah Conover watching some archival footage. The History Channel digitized those family films, she added.
“We have it on 8 mm and 16 mm. They were family home films, so I got to see some footage I’ve never seen before, and a lot of my father sailing that dinghy.
“The one footage that really excited the History Channel was with my grandfather. It was a winter scene in the New York Harbor and has the New York skyline and the Revonoc.”
It shows a diver putting a strap under the boat, then it being lifted onto an ocean liner to take it to the Caribbean to sail.
“My grandfather looks like Spencer Tracy’s evil twin. There is no talking, but you know he’s bellowing at people. He was a really forceful character. For the History Channel, they got to see the exact shape of the hull, what they were looking for, and that never happens.”
Sarah Conover suspects searches at the time were looking in the wrong areas.
“It was one of the larger rescue operations at that time. There were Coast Guard cutters, planes, blimps, and even the Cuban Navy was looking.”
Sarah Conover said she and her sister finally held a family memorial in 2016 at Golden Gardens on Puget Sound. They had a bench installed that reads, “Lori, Larry, Gan and Pops Conover/Sail On.”
The book brought some healing, she said.
“When tragedy happens, people tend to run away from each other. It’s so intense. They don’t know what to do. It doesn’t have to blow families apart. Be careful. You can’t ignore it.”
Sarah Conover’s grandparents, parents and a family friend disappeared in a storm within the Bermuda Triangle on the yacht called Renovoc in January 1958, leaving 18-month-old Conover and a sister, Aileen, as orphans. She’s written the 2023 book “Set Adrift: A Mystery and a Memoir — My Family’s Disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle.”