Her friends back home may have settled into marriage and motherhood, but 41-year-old Sarm Heslop preferred the freedom of travel to a life of domesticity.
So when the opportunity to leave Britain and sail across the Atlantic in 2019 arose, she grabbed it.
In the Caribbean, she learned to raft and jump off waterfalls. She embarked on a career as a chef and fell in love with American yachtsman, Captain Ryan Bane.
Surrounded by azure sea and white sand, she had never seemed happier.
But on Sunday, March 7, Sarm vanished from Ryan’s 47ft yacht, the Siren Song, moored off the coast of St John in the U.S. Virgin Islands — and she hasn’t been seen since.
According to Bane, the couple had been for dinner in a restaurant, leaving at 10pm in line with the local Covid curfew and taking their dinghy back to the three-berth, £500,000 vessel, anchored 120ft from secluded Frank Bay.
They went to sleep, Ryan says, and when he woke at 2am after his yacht’s anchor alarm sounded, Sarm had gone.
Free-spirited Sarm Heslop vanished from 47ft yacht, the Siren Song, on March 7, while it was moored off the coast of St John in the U.S. Virgin Islands — and she hasn’t been seen since
A search of land and sea was undertaken by the police and an army of local volunteers. Their efforts have dredged up no discoveries as to Sarm’s whereabouts, however.
Instead, the investigation raises more troubling questions with every day that passes.
How, in the crystal clear, shallow waters in which Ryan’s boat was moored, could an overhead helicopter and countless divers have failed to detect any sign of Sarm?
Who emitted a ‘scream’ heard by a dog walker at 1am on the night Sarm vanished? And why haven’t police searched Siren Song?
The boat could, of course, hold vital clues as to Sarm’s whereabouts. But yesterday — after days of refusing to confirm whether they’d entered the vessel or not — Virgin Islands Police Department (VIPD) had still not searched the boat.
It has been widely reported that Ryan, 44, who is still on board Siren Song, waited almost ten hours to report his girlfriend missing.
His lawyer, David Cattie, has said this is ‘categorically false’ and that, in fact, Ryan called the police at 2.30am after discovering she had disappeared.
But while Sarm’s friends have launched desperate appeals for information, Ryan has yet to speak publicly about her, save for a brief statement that was released through his lawyer.
‘Mr Bane’s only hope is that Sarm is found alive and well,’ it read.
‘His thoughts and prayers are with Sarm and her family… Mr Bane has spent countless hours searching for Sarm, and will continue to do so. Ryan is devastated that Sarm is missing.’
Sarm’s friends insist they are not ‘pointing fingers’ at Ryan but are calling on the American, who moved to the Caribbean in 2015, ‘to provide as many details as possible’.
So why hasn’t the boat been searched? And how on earth has Sarm, 5ft 8in and a strong swimmer with an eye-catching tattoo on her left shoulder, managed to vanish without a trace, reportedly leaving behind all her possessions, including her mobile phone and passport?
Did she fall overboard? Did she deliberately abandon the Siren Song? Or has she been harmed or taken her against her will?
The friends who have known her the longest paint a picture of a sensible woman who would never have left the yacht without letting someone know where she was going.
‘She’s not ditzy or stupid. She wouldn’t just have disappeared,’ says her friend Laura Taylor, 33, originally from Doncaster but who now lives in Malta.
‘She’s smart, and was always in contact.’
She was on board the Siren Song with American yachtsman, Captain Ryan Bane. He has yet to speak publicly about her, save for a brief statement that was released through his lawyer
Certainly, Sarm, whose ‘shocked and distraught’ parents, Peter and Brenda, await news at home in Britain, was a seasoned traveller.
After working as a flight attendant with the now defunct airline Flybe until she was in her mid-30s, Sarm worked in call centres to fund trips to Europe and Australia.
‘She wasn’t a 9-to-5 kind of girl,’ says friend Victoria Mogridge-Percy, 39, a councillor and youth worker from Sarm’s hometown, Southampton. ‘She wanted experiences and sunshine.’
Sarm was working in a restaurant in Southern Spain in her late 30s when one of her friends suggested she sail across the Atlantic with her and her boyfriend.
Although a novice sailor, Sarm jumped at the chance. ‘She didn’t live for getting married, having children and buying a house — all those societal norms,’ says Victoria.
After arriving on the Caribbean island of Grenada in December 2019, a friend introduced Sarm to Flora Pickard, 42, a Brit who works as a chef on a chartered yacht and invited Sarm to stay on her boat.
Flora observed a change in Sarm’s personality as the weeks passed. ‘I think she’d been restricted before,’ she explains.
‘I saw a difference in her — she started doing more adventurous things.’
She met Ryan on the dating App Tinder last July.
‘He was smitten,’ says Flora, adding that the feeling was soon mutual: ‘I think she fell in love with him. They literally did everything together.’
But with Covid-19 grinding much of the Caribbean tourist industry to a halt, Sarm couldn’t find work.
Last October, she moved temporarily to Malta, where she had friends, lockdown restrictions were lighter, and she found a job in a call centre.
Flora says Ryan was ‘in tears’ after dropping Sarm at the airport. ‘He turned reclusive because he missed her so much,’ she adds.
Her other friends seem equally adamant Sarm was serious about Ryan, and expressed no concerns about the relationship. ‘Sarm fell deeply, quickly,’ says Victoria of her friend’s love-life.
As she saved money in Malta, Ryan sailed 400 miles north from Grenada to the island of St John, home to little over 4,000 residents.
The couple agreed that on Sarm’s return, she would work as a chef on Ryan’s yacht.
The plan, Flora says, was for them to ‘live together and have that dream life cruising round the world’.
The yachting lifestyle — with its whirlwind of parties, spur-of-the-moment trips, heavy drinking and late-night yacht hopping — was something the couple embraced when they were reunited last month.
‘They partied hard — just the two of them sometimes,’ says Flora. ‘Ryan would usually pass out but Sarm would carry on because she could handle it better.’
Had Sarm gone off the rails? ‘I wouldn’t call it going off the rails,’ says Flora. ‘I’d say she came alive.’
On the night Sarm disappeared, she and Ryan had finished a day charter together. When they arrived back at the boat after dinner, Ryan says they watched a film before he fell asleep.
‘It wasn’t uncommon for Sarm to be out until 4 in the morning while Ryan was in bed,’ says Flora.
So what happened after Ryan fell asleep? A dog-walker claims to have heard a ‘scream’ from the bay at 1am but police would not confirm or deny this, adding: ‘There are always noises, and it could have been from any one of the vessels in the harbour.’
Sarm, a smoker, may have gone onto the deck for a cigarette as Ryan slept, and fallen overboard.
But there were other boats moored nearby, none of whose inhabitants are believed to have seen Sarm that night.
As a strong swimmer, would she not have been able to make it to their vessels, if not her own?
That Siren Song’s anchor alarm went off at 2am — indicating the boat had moved — suggests that someone could have passed close to the vessel in their own boat and taken Sarm with them.
Victoria says that if she were to have left of her own volition, ‘she would have made sure she had her phone and money with her’.
David Woody was in a group whose boat was moored 100ft from Siren Song, and was surprised Ryan didn’t ask them for help to find Sarm after he woke up alone.
‘I would be trying to find out if (anyone) saw or heard anything,’ Mr Woody said. ‘He could have spoken from his boat to our boat, or motored the dinghy.’
Although it has been widely reported that Ryan didn’t report Sarm missing for ten hours, until 11.45am on Monday, March 8, his lawyer now says he contacted police at 2.30am and took his dinghy to shore to give a statement.
He claims that ‘at the request of Ms Heslop’s family, we turned over personal belongings to the police, including her cell phone, iPad, passport, etc’.
Ryan is devastated by Sarm’s disappearance, says Flora.
‘He has no answers,’ she adds.
‘The truth is, he went to sleep, he wakes up, she’s not there and his only explanation is “I don’t know”. He’s not in the right frame of mind to speak to anyone at the moment — he’s a broken mess.’
She insists Ryan, a graduate from Michigan who worked as an account manager for a technology firm before moving to the Caribbean, ‘has got nothing to hide’ — and says he is still on board Siren Song because ‘that’s his home, his business, his everything’.
Investigations have been hampered by the fact the boat that would normally have been used in the search is out of action, and is being fixed this week by a mechanic.
The police’s apparent failure to conduct a ‘comprehensive fingertip search’ has angered Sarm’s family and friends.
‘If you’re going to do a thorough investigation, you need to search where she last was. It doesn’t make sense,’ says Victoria.
Although the VIPD have insisted ‘detectives are thoroughly investigating’, holidaymaker Angel Starr, from Minnesota, who arrived on St John two days before Sarm went missing, is unconvinced.
A search of land and sea was undertaken by the police and an army of local volunteers. Their efforts have dredged up no discoveries as to Sarm’s whereabouts, however
She saw no ‘missing’ posters in the area until Friday, March 12, and says neither she nor her five friends were questioned by police.
There was, she adds, ‘no one looking for witnesses. We saw a helicopter on Thursday but that was it’.
Meanwhile, David Woody, moored on the boat nearby, says he was called by Ryan on March 8, and advised to give a statement to the police.
He says the detective he spoke to said he was busy and would call back later, but never did.
The editor of a local news site perhaps summed up the authorities’ disinterest, saying Sarm’s disappearance ‘happened offshore, with no sign of local involvement. We have our own crime to deal with’.
Nonetheless, scores of worried locals have conducted their own search, along with tourists such as Angel.
‘The bay is shallow and the water is clear, so you would be able to see if a body washed ashore or got caught in the rocks,’ she says.
‘We were shocked at the lack of police activity. I’m sure they’re anxious about the effect on tourism as this is not good publicity.’
Yet arguably worse is the mounting criticism they’re facing, not least because police recently failed to find another missing tourist.
In September 2019, American Lucy Schuhmann, 48, who bears a haunting resemblance to Sarm was reported missing after failing to return to her holiday let.
Her backpack was found in a remote area of the island’s National Park, but she hasn’t been seen since.
Flora claims it’s not ‘uncommon’ for people to go missing in this area and adds: ‘After a week, the police stop searching.’
When asked about criticism they were not taking Sarm’s disappearance seriously, a police spokesman said Commissioner Trevor Velinor has spoken to Sarm’s family virtually, adding that police ‘were still doing multiple searches, looking at hours of surveillance video to see if we can find anything’.
Sarm’s friends haven’t given up hope she is still alive. Flora believes she could be in another country — that island-hopping among ‘yachties’ without a passport is possible thanks to their contacts and myriad vessels.
After ‘sightings’ of Sarm on neighbouring island St Thomas four miles away, police are believed to have extended their search.
For her friends, not knowing is the worst part. ‘It’s awful because we’re not even beginning to deal with what we’re feeling. We just want the investigation done thoroughly,’ says Victoria.
As they wait in agony, the Siren Song bobs under the Caribbean sun in its picture-perfect bay, revealing nothing.