Miami-Dade County

Relatives and friends cling to hope that Keys family lost at sea survived

The wooden house that David Dyche built in Plantation Key has been standing undamaged for three decades.

His lifelong friend, John Gray, who lives across the street, helped him with construction of this two-story cabin in the lush neighborhood of Key Heights, in Tavernier.

But Gray and other friends fear a storm thousands of miles away could have claimed Dyche’s second home, his beloved schooner Niña, and the lives of Dyche, 58, his wife Rosemary, 60, and their son David Jr., who recently turned 18.

New Zealand authorities called off the search of Niña, a 70-foot schooner carrying seven crew members, last month after 12 days of aerial searches. They believe the 85-year-old classic wooden boat likely sank on June 4 in a storm, while en route from New Zealand to Australia.

“Sails shredded last night,” along with the promise of a course update later, was the last text message sent out via a satellite phone from the Niña.

Chances of finding the 70-foot schooner and its crew members alive are reduced now to a sighting by a bigger vessel or the ability of Dyche, its captain, to bring the boat to shore.

Dyche, 58, who grew up in Tavernier, is an experienced seaman who’s been in rough waters many times before, according to longtime friends. The father of one of the people on board, Danielle Wright, said he plans to start his own search for the schooner. Ricky Wright, a businessman from Lafayette, has hired the services of Texas Equusearch, a firm that specializes in searches for missing people.

While some of the friends and relatives of the Dyches believe a “miracle” is still possible, some are beginning to use the past tense when speaking of them.

A group held a vigil on July 3 at the Caribbean Club in Key Largo, one of David’s favorite spots.

The Dyche family visited their Keys home often but they have not had permanent residency since five years ago, when they set off on their dream to circumnavigate the world.

Dyche’s work as a sea captain in Brazil allowed him to take extended leaves. His plan was to take his trip around the world in stages. When he was off, he gathered up his wife and son for a new leg of their adventure.

They usually traveled with other people in the sailboating world and sometimes with longtime friends. A close friend of the family, Pat Dunn, sailed with them last year for two and a half weeks in Tahiti, in the southern Pacific Ocean.

Dunn, 59, a carpenter in Tavernier, said that David was “all about the boat.”

“He worked just enough to keep that boat sailing,” he said.

Rosemary Dyche shared her husband’s love for the sea and left her job at a marina in Panama City to embark on the adventure.

“You have to be very passionate to live in that boat for weeks,” Dunn said. Niña had no air conditioning, no refrigeration and no amenities, he recalled.

David Jr. has been homeschooled by his mother since he was 13. “He’s a bright kid, an expert yachtsman and he has been to many more places and seen more things than other kids his age,” Dunn said.

The elder Dyche also learned to sail when he was a boy.

His family moved to Key Largo from Cleveland in the early 1960s. Relatives said that Dyche fell in love with sailing when he worked as a dock boy at Gilbert’s Resort in Key Largo. Dyche held only sea-related jobs after that. For about 20 years, he was a tug boat captain in PortMiami. He also competed in races throughout South Florida.

When he was just a teen, he sailed on his own to the Bahamas on the family’s small boat without telling anyone. He was away for five days with just the help of a compass, his twin sister Cherie Martinez said.

“He had learned celestial navigation and he wanted to see he if he could do it,” Martinez said.

One of his best friends, Harlan Richardson, 56, said that even though Dyche was adventurous from a young age, he was also cautious. “He took calculated risks,” he said.

Dyche and his wife moved to Panama City two years after their son was born, David has kept his friendship with many of his classmates from Coral Shores High School.

John Gray calls him “his brother” and Gray’s children see him as their “other dad.”

“He didn’t have his own child until late in his life. So he took us under his wings,” Gray’s daughter, Brandy Shaknaitis, 38, said. “David taught me to drive a stick shift, he gave me my first credit card, taught us how to sail and surf.”

Her brother is named John Harlan David Gray, after Richardson and Dyche’s two first names.

Gray helped David build the wooden house across the street from his, in the Key Heights neighborhood. His daughter said Gray is having a hard time dealing with the ordeal.

Shaknaitis said she is still hopeful she will see Dyche again. She has done research on the longest survival stories from those adrift at sea. Among them, she says, is one of four men who survived on the wreckage of a ship off the coast of New Zealand for 119 days.

Some who know Dyche believe he is one of those experienced sea dogs capable of braving the worst storms.

“If there is anybody that can keep that boat up, it’s him,” said Sheryl Rose, a former classmate.

In addition to the Dyche family, others aboard the boat include: Evi Nemeth, 72, a mathematician; Matthew Wootton, 35, an environmentalist; Danielle Wright, 19, a psychology student at the University of Louisiana; and Kyle Jackson, 27, a University of Nebraska graduate.

The fate of the schooner also is being closely followed by the sailboating community because the Niña has an illustrious history as the first “small” Transatlantic racing yacht. In 1928, the Niña won a 3,900-mile regatta from New York to Santander, Spain, for which she was expressly built. Her arrival was greeted by Spanish King Alfonso XIII.

Dyche bought the vessel in 1988 and renovated it. His friend, Dunn, said that people usually recognized the boat and Dyche rejected multiple offers to buy it. “Sometimes he even met people who said, ‘Hey, I have a picture of your boat on my wall,’” Dunn said.

The trip between New Zealand and Australia was going to be the family’s last trip with young David before he flew back to Florida to start college, Hernandez said.

Dyche’s 82-year-old mother Carol said that she last saw her son in West Palm Beach before he flew to New Zealand.

He visited her at a rehabilitation center where she is recovering from cancer treatment. Dyche told her that he wanted to settle down at his house in the Keys.

She said she has given up hope of seeing him again.

“He took me out on my wheelchair and it was wonderful talking about the old times,’’ she said in a phone interview. “David has traveled all around the world but he said there was no place nicer than West Palm Beach because I’m here.”