Monday, December 26, 2011

A Christmas Day Rescue

The following is a tale of Alexia Fischer and Ken Inoue's rescue of a windsurfer on Lake Washington:

Hello Sailors,

Ken and I have a story to tell all of you. I was at home hanging out with my family and watching the wind pick up. I was debating whether or not to take a Laser out today but talked myself out of it. Ken called me and said he was interested in going sailing to get some practice for his Cat Skipper. I talked with my family, then decided, "Let's go for it." We both rushed to the WAC and I changed while Ken rigged a Hobie 16. The sails we picked were torn at the battens, so we tried different sails, which were also torn. All the cat sails ended up having tears at the battens. We decided that it was not a good idea to take a cat out with bad sails in winds around 30 knots.

But we were at the WAC, all dressed in our wetsuits... we were going to go sailing! We decided to take an FJ out, we knew we could find a decent one and it would still be a lot of fun with this much wind. We also knew that *when* we capsized it would be easier to handle. I turned my radio on, turned the volume up, and stuffed it in my life-jacket. There was a Pon Pon for a paddle boarder lost at Point Fauntleroy. We stopped to listen but it was no where near us so we continued to rig. Another Pon Pon came on the radio. At first we thought it was the same one, but then we hear "Lake Washington," "lost windsurfer," followed by the GPS coordinates. Ken doused the sails of the FJ as I sprinted up to the sail locker to grab a whaler key. Ken jumped into the whaler, turned the radio on, checked the gas, and the systems. I ran down with the key, Ken started the whaler as I contacted the Coast Guard and let them know we're on our way. At first the Coast Guard gave us GPS coordinates, but we quickly told them we didn't have a GPS. They then told us the windsurfer is lost between "Magnusun Park and Kirkland..."

We race to the scene, coordinating with the Coast Guard about who we were, where we we coming from, and more of a description. The windsurfer description was "Male, white sail, black wetsuit." That is basically no help since the lake was covered in white caps. Ken has watched the windsurfers sail around the lake so he knew a bit about their preferred sailing pattern. With such a big search area we decide to start at Magnusun Park, cross the lake towards Juanita (since they sail out of a park North of Kirkland usually), head further North downwind (because he's been drifting a while and will be further downwind than the usual sailing pattern), then cut back across toward Sand Point.

We were the first on the scene and finally saw Harbor Patrol arrive when we were almost to Kirkland on out first leg of our search pattern. We turn back early to Sand Point, realizing that two boats in the same location wasn't particularly helpful. Ken heads further North and downwind as we quickly discovered it was easier to see things upwind than down. It was so hard to see anything. The wind sprayed the waves in your face. Ken looked starboard and ahead, while I looked port and aft.

We were over half way across the lake when I saw a black object crest a wave about 50 yards off to port (to the South and upwind). I informed Ken (whose been driving the whaler) and a figure crests a wave again. It's the windsurfer!!! He waves to us. He's alive!!! We quickly alter course and come along side. He's hugging his board, the sail is gone and he looks cold. He immediately starts to grab at the whaler (he was clearly scared and relived we were there). We grab him and pull him aboard, and then his board. We ask him if he is OK, and if he is cold. He says "I'm OK, a little cold." We call the coastguard. We tell them we have him, he is on-board, he's OK, and we are going to head to Magnusun Park (where we were closest and the armada of rescue vehicles was awaiting). The Coast Guard informs us that we need to transfer him to the other rescue boat, Harbor Patrol. Harbor Patrol and the Coast Guard were not communicating well. We had to visually flag down the other boat. All this time, the windsurfer was laying on his side along the binnacle. He was pretty motionless and kept closing his eyes. I saw him doing this and shaking and kept checking on him every minute or so. I would ask him if he was OK and he would open his eyes and respond. I was worried he was very hypothermic and was trying to sleep. I wasn't going to let him go to sleep. He was wearing a dry suit with a neoprene head piece, no life-jacket, and he was probably out there for over an hour.

We pull along side Harbor Patrol. They take him and we take his board. The Coast Guard still has not communicated with Harbor Patrol as they ask me for their phone number and that I should tell them to monitor 22 A. Harbor Patrol is long gone as they took the guy and drove off. They can go upwind much faster than us. In the high seas and high winds we barley made 1.5 knots to Magnusun Park.

When we arrive at Magnusun Park the windsurfer's friends greet us. The man was transported to an ambulance and away before we arrived. His friends thank us for the help and said "He really needed it." They said they were windsurfing back and forth from Kirkland when they lost sight of him and he didn't come back. They called 911 and the Coast Guard sent the radio call. They say he is a very good windsurfer, and he must have gotten into trouble or the rig broke. He must have then jettisoned the rig because we only returned with the board.. We give them the board, but the bowline comes undone from the boat sending us adrift and we decide to head back to the WAC.

It's a cold and long beat back (1.5 knots at almost full throttle). I was telling Ken, "Can't we go ANY faster?" (but looking back saw that the throttle was down). We were both so tired and cold (thankful to have been in full winter dinghy sailing gear though) that we decided not to sail. We were met by Goran and Evan. Goran was puzzled by why an FJ was left at the dock partially rigged, with the sails strewn across the dock and a whaler missing. He told us that he heard the rescue operation over the radio, then checked the canoe house for any missing boards, but there were none. Looking back we realized that we were out there and found the man within 45mins of hearing the call. The man was in the water for over an hour. We were glad we were able to help and that he made it back to shore alive. We were also a bit irritated that the Coast Guard and Harbor Patrol didn't communicate better. We really shouldn't have been the first on the scene and where was the helicopter?

In the end though, we were happy to to have found him and gotten him back to his friends and family alive. If it weren't for Ken, motivating me to sail, the cat sails in disrepair hindering us for a good 20 mins and me turning on my radio at the dock just cause, it may have turned our differently. I do want to say THANK YOU because the whaler had a full tank of gas and was working beautifully and we were able to get out so quickly. Ken did an amazing job driving the whaler.

Today was hazardous weather. Ken and I were only planning on sailing on the Bay. Remember, that when the winds are this strong:

1) Let someone know what you are up to and when you should be back
2) It is best not to sail alone with no one aware of where you are or your status (WAC is closed, etc.)
3) It is club rules that you must have a whaler with you when sailing on the Lake in Hazardous weather even if you have a skipper rating
4) This is not a club rule, but I cannot stress enough, it is a really good idea to have a radio with you if *you are sailing all alone, and/or *you are going on the lake. We would have had a much smaller search area and would would have found this man that much quicker if he had a radio. The radios are not that large and fit into life-jackets pretty easily. My radio has now helped save the lives of 2 individuals.
5) WEAR A LIFE-JACKET. If this man had become separated from his board, he would have probably been dead. The waves in that wind were about 4 feet and break over your head, making it hard to breathe.
6) Don't just assume that you will just get rescued. We were the first on the scene and Harbor Patrol and the Coast Guard were not communicating. We were one of only two boats on the call (it was us and 1 from Harbor Patrol).

To windsurfers: I personally think that him jettisoning his rig was a good idea. The rig would have served as a sea anchor, tossing the board around in the wind and waves and flailing widely if it caught any wind as the board spun. He was able to have full control of the board and lie on top of it. He was much more visible on top of the board than in the water especially since we were given such a big search area. In a life and death situation, the Club's last concern is the equipment. Do whatever you need to stay alive and keep safe.

Ken and I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!!!


Later on, club member Bill Smersh found this first-person report on Yahoo group NW-Windtalk:

Re: Missing sailor in lake washington
    Posted by: "Ivo"morjick
    Date: Sun Dec 25, 2011 11:31 pm ((PST))

Yeah, it was me.....On my first jibe way middle in the lake something happened to my mast......either it snapped right there or the webbing on top of the sail gave out and the mast went thru it and detached. I will never know. All that I know is there I was in the middle of the lake in 40 mph winds with unfunctional rig. I tried to make it with only the bottom half of the mast and the sail almost collapsed, but in these winds and chop and cold water I just could not. Had to ditch the whole rig and let it behind. Started paddling laying halfway on the board......and so it went for about 1.15-1.30 min. What was really discouraging and alarming was that I simply could not paddle towards the beach and kept drafting downwind.......was getting mild hypothermia. Later I realized that for some reason even wearing O'Neill Boost drysuit I was very wet below the harness....really don't know how the water got there, there are not any holes or faulthy seals. It is basicly brand new. Anyway, I was probably about 15-20 min. from whatever that residential place is on the East side across from the old NOAA when the water rescue patrol pulled me in.
Had to spend about 2 hours in UW Hospital to bring back my body temp. to normal.
Looking back even that many things went wrong with my session I did all the right decisions, so I am still here to tell that story. That drysuit even partially flooded probably saved me, though I may wear wetsuit under it in the future. And of course Fabrice calling 911 for help.


P.s.  Since my boom is on the bottom of the lake I am looking for used small carbon boom for 3m2-5m2 sails.

There you have it.  Remember to be careful out there and follow Alexia's advice.