A year later, Lafayette couple still aches for daughter missing at sea

Ricky and Robin Wright speak of their daughter Danielle in the present tense, as if she’s on a two-day trip to New Orleans with friends and about to return.

Why not? they ask. No one has provided proof that the schooner Nina, which Danielle boarded a year ago, sank off the coast of New Zealand. Absent such proof, they say, it’s always possible the boat could still be afloat somewhere on the vast Tasman Sea, with all seven hands onboard and alive. It could be bobbing in the Coral Sea to the north. Or beached on the shores of New Caledonia, or Vanuatu, or another of the hundreds of tiny islands that dot the South Pacific region.

The couple’s daughter has been lost at sea for almost a year, and the Wrights hold tight to their faith. They lean toward hope, they say, and try to keep the gloom at bay.

“God gave me the word that Danielle’s more concerned about us,” Ricky said. “She doesn’t want us to lose our sanity. It’s all on the spiritual walk we’re going through.”

Danielle was a home-schooled child who grew up on a family farm in Greenwell Springs. She was raised to be independent and to be a sailor.

The Wrights sold everything when Danielle was young and spent almost two years on a sailboat in the Caribbean. In a test of independence, when she was just 14, Ricky and Robin put their headstrong daughter on a commercial jet to Japan without supervision to visit family friends.

In May 2013, Danielle, a junior majoring in psychology, turned 19 and had completed finals at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The owners of the Nina, skipper David Dyche III, his wife, Rosemary, and their son David, had befriended the Wrights on one of the Caribbean sailing jaunts. So the Dyches invited Danielle to join them and three other sailors for a trip aboard the Nina from Opua, New Zealand, to Newcastle, Australia.

“I think she was excited to get away from us,” Robin said Friday. “She was like, ‘See you in three months!’ ”

Just before the boat sailed May 29, Robin talked to Danielle.

“She said, ‘Happy Mother’s Day. I love you. Gotta go. My phone’s dying,’ ” Robin said, recalling their last conversation.

The voyage from Opua to Newcastle, depending on wind and currents, was supposed to take 20 to 40 days. But no one’s heard from the crew in 12 months except for a radio transmission in early June 2013, when the boat was caught in a terrible storm.

There also was a subsequent text message, not discovered for weeks, that told of shredded and useless sails. An emergency beacon that would alert rescuers to the boat’s location was never activated.

New Zealand authorities gave up aerial searches for survivors in early July, ceding the search to private efforts.

The Wrights spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own funds plus money donated and raised from benefits in Lafayette and Baton Rouge.

They enlisted the nonprofit group Texas EquuSearch to help look for their daughter and relocated to Australia at the end of 2013 to search on their own. Ricky earned his aircraft pilot’s license, and the couple and EquuSearch lobbied any government they could get to listen for access to real-time satellite photos covering the hundreds of thousands of square miles of open water.

EquuSearch has since abandoned the search, but volunteers with the organization continue to help the Wrights, including search leader Ralph Baird.

There are myriad obstacles to searching the seas, including the vastness of an open ocean and the problem of looking for a target that constantly moves.

“We flew seven days straight, and we could fly one day and Nina could have moved back into the grid we had already searched. You get that overwhelming feeling ...,” Robin said, letting the sentence tail off.

In their search for something, anything, the Wrights chased any lead they could but returned to Lafayette in January without Danielle and still not knowing what became of her and the others.

“We know the crew can survive. They’re highly experienced and qualified,” Robin said. “As long as they have either Nina under them or they’re on an island at this point, they can survive indefinitely. We have no question in our minds that they can survive with fresh fish and fresh water for a long time.”

The Wrights, who have businesses in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, have remodeled their home off West Bayou Parkway and celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. Ricky takes part in conference calls with search volunteers every Monday and Thursday at 3 p.m., and both continue to rely on the pastor and congregation at Our Savior’s Church on East Broussard Road.

On May 15, Danielle’s 20th birthday, Robin invited Danielle’s friends from Baton Rouge and Lafayette for a party at the Wright home.

“I ask God, ‘What are you doing? What if I don’t get her back?’ ” Robin said. “But it never lasts long.”