A Time Not Soon Forgotten
(Based on a True Story)
by Shirley Schroeder
"Oh, things couldn't be better. Ten mph winds, blue sky with white fluffy clouds, Oshkosh here we come," Lana said, her golden brown eyes shining. "You sure know how to pick the weekends, Steve."
Steve winked at her and grinned. Then he adjusted the main of their 19 ft. Flying Scot sailboat and pointed a bit higher into the wind. They'd planned to take this trip for weeks. The weather forecast showed possible thunderstorms late in the day but he was sure they'd taken off early enough to beat them.
Two hours into the three-hour trip south, winds picked up and the clouds became thick and dark. It started to rain. Steve looked to the west and saw a flicker of lightning and heard the corresponding rumble of thunder. As they tacked upwind, he heeled the boat as much as possible to avoid attracting lightning to the 25 ft. mast. The wind continued to increase to 20 mph with gusts up to 25 as dark clouds marched across the sky.
"Coming about," Steve shouted. Lana jumped down, swung herself under the boom and scrambled to the high side while the boat flopped to its new position. As the Scot pounded through three foot waves, she yanked the jib sheet into its cleat and quickly grabbed the sidestay to hold herself on the high side. She'd no more get set and Steve would tack again and more waves would pound over her. Back and forth they struggled, continuing to heel close to 45 degrees and yet keep the boat upright.
Thirty minutes later, Lana pointed ahead and shouted above the wind and waves, "Isn't that the harbor to the Pioneer?" Steve took a glance and nodded. Heaving a sigh of relief, he tacked once again.
The couple docked and hastily tore the sails down. The thunder and lightning had stopped but the rain continued. How glad they were for their reservations at the resort. Dry clothes were just a few minutes away.
The next morning Steve frowned as he checked the weather. Treetops were whipping back and forth. The sky showed patches of blue with scattered gray clouds and they were moving smartly across the sky. The channel showed only ripples but when he looked out on the lake, he saw whitecaps. Winds had to be near 30 mph. Now what!
Over breakfast the couple discussed their plans.
"I checked the weather forecast and there are no storms today. Winds are out of the southwest at 25 mph with gusts to 30. That means a broad reach all the way home."
Lana scowled and said, "Are you sure it's the whole way?"
When the waitress set their plates before them she remarked, "You aren't thinking of going out in this wild weather, are you?"
Steve glanced up at her and said, "Appreciate your concern, but we won't be doing much tacking where we're going. Upwind would certainly be out of the question in this kind of wind but the boat will stay pretty flat on a broad reach. We should be OK."
The waitress raised her eyebrows, "If you say so. Good luck." She shook her head and left.
Lana looked at Steve and with a wry smile said, "If you think we'll be OK, let's go."
As the two readied their boat, they couldn't help but notice they were the only ones preparing to sail.
Sue's phone rang at 9:00 that beautiful Sunday morning and she ran to answer it.
"Hi Sue. Are you ready? Winds are great for trying out my new cat. I've got everything together. Can you meet me at the dock in half an hour?"
Sounds great, Hal. I'm really excited but are you sure it isn't too windy? Remember, I've never sailed before so I don't want that boat going too fast."
"Naw. Winds like this make sailing fun. Yesterday when I went with the salesman he told me this boat will handle anything this lake can give me. We'll be fine. See you soon."
He hung up the phone and gathered up his tiller, sail bag, sunscreen and headed for the door. Then he remembered the law about the life preservers and ran back to grab the two hanging by the door of his boathouse.
He'd just gotten the sail up when Sue arrived. She ran toward him, her long blond hair flying in the wind. She kissed his tanned cheek and said, "Where do you want me? In the middle of that canvas?"
Hal chuckled and said, "Anywhere's fine."
Sue stepped on and immediately sat down. Hal handed her the life preservers and the rest of their gear. He then untied the bowline from the dock and pushed off.
Hal pulled the mainsheet in and the cat moved out. When he tried to tack he found it hard to keep the boat flat and decided maybe it'd be easier to handle things if he got away from the shoreline and out into the open waters. He turned the tiller and the cat sprang forward. Within minutes they were well out into the lake.
The boat seemed to plow through the waves and Sue held her breath as the water splashed over her. Soon she and Hal were soaking wet. She hung onto the side rails, trying not to show how scared she felt.
When Hal tacked again a gust caught the sail and flipped the cat. He, Sue and all their belongings flew in different directions. Hal swam toward the overturned cat only to find it elude him in the heavy winds. He swam harder but it kept just out of his reach. When he knew he couldn't possibly catch the boat, he turned and swam back to Sue. She was treading water while waves pounded over her. As he swam toward her he grabbed one of the life preservers. He took it to her and together they clung to the only thing that would help them.
"Boy, this is a gusty one, George. Got any calls about trouble on the lake yet today?"
"Nope, but it's early yet. Most people won't go out until this afternoon. Any sense they'd stay home today or go to a movie. But not around here. We have some real daredevils don't we?"
George and Jake were on duty at the Sheriff's office that Sunday morning. Included in their usual routine was keeping an eye on the lake. They often patrolled the waters checking on the fishermen and helping any boats that needed assistance.
When Steve raised the mainsail, he noticed an elderly gentleman walking slowly toward him.
"You sailed long, Bud?" the gentleman asked.
"Oh about seven years now. How about you?"
"Used to. Not up to it anymore. Sure you want to go out in this stuff today?"
"Well, we gave it a lot of thought and although I wouldn't normally do it, our destination is about twenty miles north of here so we're going to be sailing on a broad reach the entire way. It's going to be rough getting out of the channel but once we're out in the lake and head north we'll be fine."
"Oh. I see. Well, won't worry about ya then. Have yerself a safe trip."
"Thanks. We will."
Lana struggled the suitcase to the dock and Steve stored it under the back deck. Then she loosened the bowline, shoved the bow of the boat away from the dock and leaped on the deck. She barely got down in the boat when a gust caused it to heel sharply. Steve quickly shoved the tiller starboard and the boat leveled off. Back and forth they tacked, lines flapping on the mast, sails whipping wildly as the boat swung to each new position. This flopping back and forth continued all the way down the channel. When they were finally well out into the lake, Steve swung the bow north. The boat flattened out, the sails filled and everything quieted down.
Sue gasped as she once again sank under the cold water. She came up sputtering and gasping. Hal grabbed her around the waist and started talking.
"Hang on, Sue. We're going to be OK as long as we hold onto this life preserver. If only I could have gotten both of them instead of just one."
Sue whimpered and tried to hold back tears as she clung to Hal and the life preserver.
"Let's try swimming toward shore."
"I - I do - don't know. I'm so tired. Th - the wav - waves keep pounding me," she sputtered.
"Well, why don't we try, huh?"
Hal looked longingly down the lake at his catamaran growing smaller and smaller as the wind blew it further and further away from them. Their only chance to survive was to make it to shore and that seemed like miles away too. There was nothing else to do but try.
George hung up the phone and scowled at the notes he'd taken. "Jake. Get the boat out. Hurry. Just got a call from a Mrs. Johannes who lives on the lake. There's a catamaran lying on its side in front of her house. Be sure the lifering with the long line is in the boat. You stay with the phone. I'll check this out."
As Steve and Lana settled in for the long trip home, they looked ahead and saw what appeared to be a square-sailed vessel way off in the distance.
"Look," said Lana pointing ahead, "See that weird sail up there? Looks like a Chinese Junk. Ever seen one of those on these waters?"
"No, Sure looks strange, doesn't it?"
About twenty minutes into their trip, Steve looked off to his right and frowned. He thought he heard something. He shielded his eyes from the glare of the morning sun, and looked again. Then he heard voices.
"Look," he shouted. "Over there. Somebody's in the water."
Lana shielded her eyes and squinted into the sun. "Where?"
"There!" He said pointing again. "We're tacking. Bring in the jib."
He swung the boat east and the sails strained against the heavy winds. Lana yanked the jib in and climbed up on the high side.
They slowly made their way to the bobbing, screaming Hal and Sue. When they reached their side, they eased the sheets and the boat slowed. Hal grabbed the side of the boat with his muscular arms and climbed inside. While Steve worked the sail to keep the boat flat, Hal and Lana struggled to lift the shivering, limp Sue over the side of the boat and on to the floor. She was pale and her lips were blue. She was covered with goosebumps and shaking. Lana grabbed a jacket and covered her. Sue muttered, "Oh thank God you came along. Thank God."
"That sail ahead," said Steve, "Now I get it. It's no sail but the bottom of your over-turned catamaran."
"That's right," Hal gasped, his breathing still heavy from the ordeal in the water. "Sail caught a gust of wind and flipped. Have no idea just how long we were in the water but it seemed an eternity. Sue was getting weaker every minute. I don't think she could have held on much longer. You have no idea how good your sail looked when we saw it coming."
"I'll bet," Steve said as he pulled the mainsheet in. He maneuvered the boat to as many of Hal and Sue's belonging as they could find and then headed for the overturned cat.
When they neared the cat, they noticed a motorboat circling around. It started toward them as Steve and Lana let the sails go to slow the boat.
"Hal, are you sure you want to sail your cat back? We'll be glad to tow it in and take you two back to your dock," Steve said.
"No, we'll be OK now. I just shouldn't have taken a new boat out so far until I knew her better. Let me get it righted and we'll be on our way. This time, we hug the shore."
Hal jumbed in the water. He grabbed a line, threw it over the cat and then swam around and pulled on it. The cat came upright and rocked back and forth. Hal swung her into the wind and climbed on. He held the main sheet to steady the boat for Sue to board.
Lana helped Sue into the remaining life preserver and said, "Are you sure you're OK, Sue?"
Sue nodded slightly and with a weak smile said, "I think so. Thanks so very much for helping us."
While Hal and Steve hovered their boats together, George steered his motorboat up to them and asked if there was anything he could do. Both skippers assured him everything was now under control.
"I've been searching for you people for some time," he said. "Sure glad you're OK. Maybe I'd better follow you in just to be on the safe side."
Hal thanked him and then pulled the mainsheet in and sailed toward the shore.
Steve headed the Scot north. When underway, he glanced back to see the catamaran hugging the shoreline and slowly moving south. He said, "Good thing we decided to go home today, huh?" Lana nodded and after a brief pause added, "They're not going to forget this ordeal any time soon. Wonder if they learned anything?"
When George returned to the dock, he moored the boat and went into his office to write his report.
As he pondered the situation he couldn't help but feel he'd made a mistake in his search methods. He leaned back in his chair and sat deep in thought for quite some time. Then he said, "You know, Jake, I really learned something today."
"Well, I probably circled around the overturned boat too long. Should have taken into account those strong winds. Heavy as they were and the position that cat was in, on its side and all, I should have looked directly upwind. If that daysailor hadn't come along, well, I doubt they'd have made it."
"You're probably right but hey, they're OK so don't beat on yourself so much."
George shook his head and then leaned forward, picked up his pencil and wrote out his report.
Shirley Schroeder is a freelance writer from Wisconsin.