Lake Michigan Continues to Devour its Wounded
by Tom Rau

During the spring of 2001, I wrote a column about a life-saving rescue by a Holland Coast Guard station crew off the waters of Saugatuck, Michigan. The Coast Guard rescuers battled eight-foot seas as they pulled four crewmen off a floundering 34-foot sailboat just before gale-force winds drove the hapless craft ashore. I called the column Lake Michigan devours its wounded, which would later become the title of my book.

In the book, The Boat Smart Chronicles, Lake Michigan Devours Its Wounded, I address just how difficult near shore rescues can be, especially those involving sailboats. Their small auxiliary engines combined with hull displacement forces can find a sailboat at a huge disadvantage in heavy seas near shore.

This proved to be the case in a recent sailboat mishap on Lake Michigan. This time, however, rather than four sailors being saved, three died.

On October 26, 2007, at 5;35 p.m. a 35-foot sailboat departed Chicago’s downtown Columbia Yacht Club with four crewmen aboard. Their destination was Calumet Harbor where they were scheduled to place the sailboat in winter storage. Several hours after departing Chicago, the sailboat slammed into the breakwater off Calumet Harbor, Chicago.

In July 2007 a Station Manistee boatcrew pulled three sailors off a 40-foot sailboat moments before it sank in eight-foot seas at the mouth of the Portage Lake entrance, Lake Michigan. A 35-foot sailboat experienced a worse fate off Calumet Harbor, Chicago in late October resulting in the deaths of three sailors. Photo, Tom Rau/Boat Smart.I spoke with Chief Allen at Coast Guard (CG) Station Calumet regarding the mishap, and he told me when Station Calumet received a Mayday from the sailboat at 8:15 p.m., waves near the breakwater were10-12 feet high with 25-30 knot winds. In fact, as the call was coming in, the Officer of The Day was writing a heavy weather message to be sent to CG Sector Lake Michigan, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The heavy weather message would stand down the Station Calumet’s 41-foot rescue boat for all underway operations except urgent search and rescue (SAR). The heavy weather limitations for the station’s 41-foot rescue boat are eight foot seas. But being an urgent SAR, the Coast Guard launched not only the 41-footer but also a 25-foot rescue boat.

I spoke with Boatswain Mate First Class Dan Foy, coxswain aboard the 41-foot rescue boat. “The last words we heard from the distress vessel was ‘send a helo and cutters.’ End transmission,” said Foy. It took five minutes from the time the Coast Guard received the Mayday call to the time they arrived on scene in spite of an incorrect position provided by the sailboat. A tug boat in the area redirected the Coast Guard boat to the vessel’s position alongside the breakwater at the north end of Calumet Harbor’s South Gap.

“We were dealing with ten to twelve foot seas alongside the breakwater”, said Foy, who held station parallel to the breakwater. A twelve-foot wave slammed into the portside of the 26,000- pound rescue boat, nearly dumping it onto the breakwater. A fate that had left the 35-foot sailboat in splinters “It was just too dangerous to hold station broadside to the seas while his crew attempted to retrieve one of the victims from the water,” said Foy.

Foy maneuvered the rescue boat into the seas while slowly backing down towards the person in the water. “At one time my crewman at the stern yelled out that we were five feet from the wall,” said Foy. All the while sea water rained down on the crew amongst the roar of diesel engines, grinding reduction gears and waves exploding against the breakwater. The person in the water was wearing a life jacket with reflective tape that helped mark his position in the beam of the rescue boat’s search light when it found its target amidst the crashing waves.

“It would have helped if the lifejacket had a strobe light so I could keep an eye on his position at all times,” said Foy. He had to constantly maneuver the rescue boat with a person in the water just off his stern. That required some serious boat-handling skills and a coordinated effort from his crew.

His crew had tossed a rescue heaving line, but the person in the water was too fatigued to grab it. Finally the Coast Guard crew was able to snag him with a boat hook and bring him along the port quarter where they hauled him aboard. He later died.

Meanwhile crewmen on the 25- foot rescue boat had scrambled onto the breakwater from the inside of the breakwater where they pulled two of the victims onto the wall, including the sole survivor. One they had snatched in the air from atop a wave. The fourth victim was retrieved by a Chicago Fire Department diver after he jumped from a helicopter to assist the person in the water.

The crew of the sailboat were all wearing lifejackets, and they fired off a Mayday on VHF-FM Channel 16 to the Coast Guard. Although the original position reported to the Coast Guard was in error, it was close enough still to allow a timely response. Unfortunately, when the one crewman went overboard while hauling down the sail, the boat was only 100 yards from the breakwater as reported to the Coast Guard in the initial Mayday.

The J35 sailboat with its Yanmar 24-horsepower engine could not generate enough headway to allow the helmsman to head the bow into the seas. Those poor sailors laying broadside to the breakwater in 10-12 foot seas were doomed, and Lake Michigan took little time in devouring its wounded.

So what are the lessons learned? Let those who read this draw their own lessons and conclusions from this mishap. For 21 years we have been sharing these stories with the public, many of which are documented in my book, Boat Smart Chronicles, Lake Michigan Devours Its Wounded. Our intent is not to preach or second guess the decisions, as in this case of the sailboat captain, but instead to share these mishaps so other boaters may learn.

To that end we are committed to passing along critical Boat Smart messages and in so doing, we pray, may there be less to pass.

Tom Rau is a long-time Coast Guard rescue responder and syndicated boating safety columnist. Look for his book, Boat Smart Chronicles, a shocking expose on recreational boating — reads like a great ship’s log spanning over two decades. It’s available to order at:,,, or through local bookstores.



All contents are copyright (c) 2007 by Northern Breezes, Inc. All information contained within is deemed reliable but carries no guarantees. Reproduction of any part or whole of this publication in any form by mechanical or electronic means, including information retrieval is prohibited except by consent of the publisher.