A day before setting sail on a 1,000-mile voyage, Kyle Jackson dashed off an email to his family.
In the note he told his parents and sisters he loved them, and quoted American poet Mary Oliver: “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
Kyle, an adventurer who grew up in the Nebraska Sand Hills, has been missing since June in a vast sea, along with the rest of the crew of the schooner Nina, after it sailed into an intense storm.
His latest trip had landed him in New Zealand, where the 27-year-old signed on as a deckhand on the 70-foot ship, a classic wooden sailboat.
The schooner departed New Zealand's North Island on May 29, bound for Australia, then hit the storm roughly halfway into the voyage. The last known word from the vessel was a text message sent by a crew member June 4.
The New Zealand government suspended its search nearly four months ago, but members of Kyle's family and those of other crew members have not given up hope. Some are working with a nonprofit rescue group to find all seven of the Nina's crew.
More than 150 days have passed since the ship went missing, but the search group knows of other missing people who survived months drifting at sea.
Kyle's family is encouraged knowing that he embraced life and welcomed a challenge, whether it was deer hunting with a black-powder rifle, embarking on a 1,000-mile bike trip or exploring Thailand.
“He always wanted something exotic,” said his mother, Amy Jackson. “He didn't want the normal.”
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Kyle loved adventure, even as a little boy growing up on a ranch near Bassett, in the rolling Sand Hills of north-central Nebraska.
He and his two older sisters explored: climbing trees, wading in ponds and venturing into canyons. They weren't interested in gazing at a TV screen when they could create fun that Disney couldn't match.
They called themselves “the Boxcar Children,” a name borrowed from a series of children's books about four orphaned brothers and sisters who find an abandoned boxcar and make a home in it. The three Jackson siblings even dragged an old table and chairs into a grove of cedar trees and pretended to eat the wild berries they picked from nearby bushes.
Kyle's mom and dad had a rule: Don't stray past the mailbox, a half-mile from their home.
But sometimes Kyle and his sisters, Kacie and Megan, hiked beyond, heading to ponds to hunt for turtles and frogs.
Even though he was the youngest, Kyle was sometimes the most adventurous, coaxing his sisters to try something new, like creeping down a canyon.
“He was gung-ho,” Kacie said.
His maternal grandfather was a Nebraska game warden, and Kyle, who called him “Pappy,” adored him. As a young boy, Kyle peppered “Pappy” with questions about nature.
“Why do some trees have pine cones and some don't?”
“How were the Sand Hills made?”
Kyle became an outdoorsman, learning from his father, Duane Jackson.
Father and son strung catfish lines in the Niobrara River, set traps for raccoons and hunted. Kyle bagged his first deer from 218 yards firing a black-powder, muzzle-loading rifle with no scope.
In 2004, Kyle graduated from Rock County High School and enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His family wasn't surprised when he majored in environmental studies.
While at UNL, he took his first overseas trip, traveling with other students to Argentina to learn about the country's farming. After graduating, he explored Thailand.
During and after college, his jobs showed his passion for the outdoors: leading canoe trips on the Niobrara, working as a river guide on the Colorado River, and helping lead a crew that maintained trails in Oregon's Mount Hood National Forest.
This spring he had a chance to visit a friend in New Zealand, so in March he packed his bags for a new adventure.
On the trip he learned an American family was planning to sail its schooner from New Zealand to Australia. Kyle signed on as a deckhand.
He had no experience on a sailboat, but his family wasn't worried. He had set out on so many adventures.
And every time he returned.
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On the afternoon of May 29, in Opua in northern New Zealand, Kyle boarded the Nina, setting sail for what should have been a 10- to 14-day, 1,000-mile voyage to Newcastle, Australia.
At the helm was David Dyche, 58, the ship's captain and owner. A commercial captain from Florida, he's known as an experienced seaman. Also on board: Dyche's wife, Rosemary, 60; their son David, 18; Evi Nemeth, 73, of Boulder, Colo.; college student Danielle Wright, 19, of Lafayette, La.; and Matthew Wootton, 35, of suburban London, England.
A family member said the Dyches often picked up others along the way for their sailing adventures.
A few days into the trip, the sea churned and winds kicked up.
On June 3, back in New Zealand, a retired meteorologist named Bob McDavitt received a satellite phone call from the Nina, from Nemeth. McDavitt provides forecasts to yachts cruising the ocean, and she asked for assistance.
Nemeth, a retired computer engineering professor and veteran sailor, told him the weather had turned nasty, gave the schooner's position and asked for a way out. She was calm and made no mention of any danger to the ship.
Head south and then stay put, McDavitt told her. But brace for winds as high as 60 mph and swells higher than 25 feet.
The next day, June 4, McDavitt received a text message: “ANY UPDATE 4 NINA…EVI.”
McDavitt sent a message back, advising the ship to hold steady for 36 hours. He told the crew that winds had peaked, but the biggest waves were still to come.
A crew member fired off one more text that day, and that has been the last word from the ship to date.
The message went undelivered but was recovered a month later. It read in part: “Storm sails shredded last night, now bare poles.”
At the time, the Nina was about 400 miles west of New Zealand in the Tasman Sea, a section of the southern Pacific Ocean.
McDavitt twice called the ship's satellite phone, once on June 6 and again on June 7.
Family members of some crew members had been receiving daily email updates on the boat's status and position. Those messages suddenly ended.
As concerns grew, family members alerted New Zealand's maritime rescue center, which launched a search after the ship was overdue in Australia.
Back in Nebraska, Duane Jackson didn't panic. He hadn't expected to hear from his son until the ship reached port in Australia. The storms probably just delayed the arrival and knocked out the ship's communications equipment, he figured.
But then more days passed, and still there was no word from Kyle or the schooner.
A Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3 Orion covered more than 730,000 nautical square miles searching for the boat. Shoreline searches by other aircraft and helicopters also were conducted, the New Zealand rescue center said in a press release.
On July 6, the center announced that it had suspended the search, calling its effort “extremely thorough,” and saying it had “comprehensively covered all areas where the vessel or its crew could reasonably have been expected to be found.”
Some relatives of the crew weren't satisfied and contacted Texas EquuSearch, a nonprofit rescue group based near Houston. The group started coordinating the search in early July.
Ralph Baird, senior adviser for the group, said the aerial search by New Zealand authorities covered plenty of square miles, but the aircraft didn't zero in on all of the most likely places the vessel might be found.
Baird's group asked the U.S. State Department to help by providing government satellite images and experts to examine them. So far the group says it has received no assistance.
In a written statement, the State Department said: “We have no evidence to suggest that additional data modeling on U.S. government equipment would produce results leading to the recovery of the Nina or her crew.”
Baird said there is a chance the vessel is still afloat, because no debris has been found.
The search group's theory is that storms knocked out the ship's sails, engine and communication gear, leaving the Nina drifting. Crew members could survive by tapping the ship's stored food and collecting rainwater to drink and catching fish to eat.
But Baird said the possibility of locating the boat is slim.
That's because the ship is a moving target, constantly shifted by currents and winds. The ship wouldn't drift in a straight line. It could drift 20 miles east, then 40 miles west, and so on. It could even be moving in a circle.
Baird said so far more than $500,000 has been spent on the private rescue effort, with the crews' families, friends and supporters raising all the money, including proceeds from a barbecue dinner in Kyle's hometown.
Air crews brought in by Baird's group searched for the ship but were unsuccessful.
Now the search is focusing on satellite images provided at no charge by Colorado's DigitalGlobe Inc.
A satellite picture taken in September showed an object that was the size and shape of the Nina, Baird said.
The New Zealand rescue center had an outside expert examine the image and determined there was not enough evidence to resume its search, a spokesman said. The search would resume if warranted by any new information, the official said.
The search effort has drawn help from thousands of volunteers from the United States, New Zealand and other countries. They go to a website to scour other satellite images, looking for any signs of the Nina and those aboard.
* * *
In the Sand Hills that Kyle loves, the leaves of the oak trees have turned golden and the sumac is a flash of bright red.
He talked of someday building a cabin near Long Pine Creek, which carries trout in clear water and runs just beyond a hill from the ranch where he grew up.
Amy Jackson knows her son is a traveler, a hiker through life, but would love for him to live in Nebraska again someday.
In her mind, she hears Kyle telling her he's OK.
She will never give up hope, and she draws comfort knowing “he had a great, crazy life.”
Kyle's father sometimes dreams about his son.
In the dream, the phone rings and it's Kyle, delivering a familiar, happy greeting, one that tumbled from his mouth many times over the years: “Hey, Daddy-o.”
Duane Jackson is still waiting for that call.