WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH – It was a quiet Monday evening, about one hour after sunset, when a fireball erupted from the cabin of a sailboat moored in Banks Channel. The blast heavily damaged the boat and badly injured its sole occupant, Timothy Wilkinson.
The explosion, caused by a propane leak, was “devastating, it was total devastation,” Wilkinson said.
The 33-foot boat, dubbed the Islita, was no pleasure craft. The aged and occasionally jury-rigged boat was essentially Wilkinson’s only worldly possession. He had sold or given away nearly everything he owned, fixed the old boat up, and was in the process of sailing the intracoastal south to Florida. There he planned to meet up with his son; the two were preparing to circumnavigate the globe.
After the blast, with his boat splintered and barely floating, Wilkinson was not just stranded but homeless. And yet, when he sat recently to talk about his experience, he seemed jovial and unperturbed.
“I’m a stranger here,” Wilkinson said. “And I’ve lost everything I own. I was nearly killed. I have no idea what I’m going to do – I can’t even contemplate what the repairs to the boat are going to entail, or if that’s even an option. We’re talking serious devastation here.
“But, at the same time, I’ve experienced such amazing kindness here. People have offered me everything, a place to stay, food to eat. The barista at Tower Seven, right after it happened, she overheard me talking. I didn’t have any clean clothes and she and her boyfriend invited me over to use their washing machine.”
Wilkinson said the response of Wrightsville Beach locals to his story has astonished him.
“The last two weeks I’ve been on the beautiful side of humanity,” he said. “People have put me up on their boats, helped me find my bearings, but it’s more than that. The people here… it’s been amazing. Something awful happened, one of the worst things that could have happened, but I found myself kind of surfing on this beautiful wave of humanity.”
Many of his friends and family, scattered across the country, have been able to check in with Wilkinson. They tell him he’s in shock, that the magnitude of the disaster has not set in yet. Wilkinson isn’t so sure.
“’You can’t surf a wave forever,’ they tell me,” Wilkinson said. “They say I’m experiencing some kind of post-traumatic shock, that I’ll come down eventually. But I’m not ignoring the bad things. I’m just holding these two ideas in my head at the same time: on the one hand, I’m kind of [expletive], but on the other hand I’m in the middle of this really great story.”
This particular perspective is not the result of the accident, Wilkinson said, but an epiphany that came to him years ago.
“For years, I wanted to fix up an old sailboat and sail around the world. But I was kind of stuck in my life, scared of risking this illusion of a future I felt embedded in. But safe, secure, 401k, big house, I could do that, I’m not dumb. I’m sure if I put my mind to it, I could accomplish that,” he said. “But that’s not a good story. That’s a boring story, you’d never read a story like that.”
So, Wilkinson decided to leave his successful construction and renovation business behind and, as he said, “do something different. Maybe stupid. But, like I said, a better story.”
Wilkinson started looking for a sailboat.
“I knew I shouldn’t, because I had basically nothing, but I had some pretty specific aesthetics for the boat,” he said. “It I wanted it to look like a classic sailboat. So, I started out looking for ‘free boat,’ on the Internet. And that didn’t go that well.”
Wilkinson kept up his search, eventually finding a boat on eBay. The boat wasn’t expensive but it also did not list its location or say much about its condition. So, Wilkinson went into sleuth mode. Enhancing one of the photos, he was able to figure out the boat’s registration, narrowing its location down to a small town on the Virginia coast. Then he turned to Google Earth.
“It sounds crazy, I know. But there was this house in the photo. After years of working on houses you just recognize things about certain houses. And I just scanned the coastline until I found it. I just put my mind to it, and I found it,” he said.
Wilkinson made the seven-and-a-half-hour drive and investigated the boat. It was moldy, dirty and in serious need of repair. For Wilkinson, it was perfect. He drove home and, armed with some inside intel, made a bid and won the Islita.
For the next seven months, Wilkinson lived “on the hard,” slowly repairing the boat while living on it. He became part of the small fishing village, working odd jobs and helping to pump gas at a local marina in exchange for tools and space to work on his boat. Then the time came to set sail.
“It was probably the most thrilling thing, besides the birth of my children — setting out on the water that day,” he said.
Wilkinson has a small amount of money saved up, and a gig repairing a large boat down in Florida, which would help fund him and his son as they set out across the Atlantic. Then, during his stay in Wrightsville Beach, tragedy struck. The Islita’s propane system, which Wilkinson had been using for months, developed a leak. The cabin’s doors and windows were closed and began to fill from the bottom with propane.
Hanging in the back of the cabin, there was a lit oil lamp.
“I was standing over my charts and I sat down, and I sat down into the gas, like sitting down in a pool,” Wilkinson said. “It was a fraction of a second, then I realized what had happened. I took one or two breaths and I almost passed out from the gas. I managed to get to the cabin door and threw it open and that was enough, it perturbed the air, the propane got stirred up, and it touched the lamp. I heard this noise, there was a blinding light, and I thought, ‘this is it. This is the end.’”
The ensuing blast was extreme, splintering the boat to its foundation, blowing a heavy generator clear off the deck, and destroying many of Wilkinson’s logs and effects. The force of the explosion blew much of the flame out. Badly burned on his feet, hands and face, Wilkinson managed to put the remaining fire out.
“It was sheer adrenaline,” he said. “Even though my hands were torched, I pulled the extinguisher off the the wall so hard it came away with the mount and I was panicking trying to get it to work.”
Wilkinson was saved by a heavy Mexican parka, he believes. Though singed, it did not ignite – several synthetic-blend jackets hanging up in the cabin were melted by the blast.
In general, it seemed luck was on Wilkinson’s side. Moored nearby was a retired police officer and his wife, a former 911 dispatch operator. They managed to get Wilkinson to the dock and from there he was taken to New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
But before getting his wounds treated, Wilkinson insisted his rescuers take a picture of the damage – both to him and his boat.
“It’s part of the story,” Wilkinson said. “It’s not the happiest part, you know. But it’s part of it.”
Wilkinson’s love of stories was indefatigable. Homeless, running out of funds and unable to make his boat seaworthy, he remained optimistic, committed to going “wherever this story takes me.” Wilkinson started a Go-Fund Me account, but said “I don’t really want to milk that ‘woe-is-me,’ thing. It sounds like whining.
“I’ll do what I always do, I’ll find a way. I’ll find work, maybe get a place for a bit, who knows. I’ll figure it out. But I don’t want to rush it,” he said. “I’m in the middle of something special now, the good and the bad, and I want to experience it. I think a lot of people would push this away, either ignore it or wallow in it. But between the two, there’s something electric. It’s like a spark gap, and in between those two points, that’s where the magic happens. I almost hate using that word, but, that’s what it is. Magic. And I want to keep experiencing it. That may not sound like a happy ending to everyone, but it is to me.”
Recently, Wilkinson was contacted by the Islita’s original owners – a couple who built the vessel and sailed it around the world – who have offered to help stabilize the boat. But that was, as Wilkinson said, “another great story. For another time.”