Tuesday, April 30, 2019


Let me start by saying that there never was any real danger, and it all ended well. But for about 40 minute yesterday, there were some periods of doubt.

Yesterday's forecast called for 15 mph wind. With a little bit of thermals added to that, we were hoping for a nice mellow 20 mph, perfectly timed with low tide in the afternoon. The readings from the sensors around Buzzards Bay picked up shortly past lunch. Since southerlies don't always make it to Kalmus, we packed the big slalom gear and a long board, and off we went.

As we were rigging, the meter readings went up to 18, then to 20. Nina decided to do freestyle, and I started out on the 112 l slalom board with a 7.8 m sail. But the wind had already turned from "easy" SSW to "bumpy" WSW, and kept picking up. After fighting three colds in the last month, I did not feel 100%, and decided to switch to the easier longboard. That was plenty off fun. The daggerboard did not come out once, I had plenty of power to plane on the fin. Nina was hacking away on her freestyle, throwing Flaka tries as if it we mid-summer and the water was warm.

With the tide coming in, the wind picking up to the mid-20s, and the chop getting higher, I decided to seek flatter waters a mile upwind at the Kennedy Slicks. Getting there was easy, and I had a blast planing in the back footstraps on the ME2, with 10 feet of board high up in the air in front of me. But to play it safe, I stayed there just 20 minutes, and then decided to sail back. That's when it started to be really interesting, as the GPS tracks show:
See where the blue squiggly line starts? I had messed up a jibe on the outside, and the wind pulled the sail out of my hands when I was trying to waterstart. My first reaction was "great, now the sail is on the downwind side and I can just uphaul it" .. and then I realized that the boom had landed on the board, and the sail was mostly lying on top of the board, with just a little bit of the clew in the water. I realized that this could mean trouble, since the wind can push the board downwind really quickly that way. So I tried to swim toward the board, which was only perhaps 15 meters away, as fast as I could.

I am a decent swimmer and quite comfortable in the water. However, I was wearing a 5 mm wetsuit with a hooded neoprene vest on top; a seat harness; 5 mm boots; and open-palm mittens. With all this gear, the "fast" swimming was rather slow. After getting a bit fat over the last couple of months, breathing deeply in the tight suit plus vest plus harness was anything but easy - after a short swim, I was totally out of breath, but had made no visible progress towards the board. That's when things got a bit scary.  I had to think about the SUP paddler that they had pulled out of the ocean dead just a couple of days before. He probably died of a heart attack, and I started to wonder if my shortness of breath had any medical relevance. I had to concentrate on just getting some oxygen into my body for a few minutes, before trying a few more strokes towards the board. But it quickly became clear that the wind was carrying my gear away faster than I could swim. I was separated from my gear, in water that was about 10 C (50 F) cold, about a kilometer from shore. The chop out there was about 3-4 feet high, so the chances that anyone would see my head bobbing out there were just about zero. Swimming in all the gear was very slow, and did not seem to result in any progress towards the shore.   Swimming on my back seemed the best option, but after a couple of strokes, I'd end up with water in my face from a wave or wind-blown foam. So I ended up mostly treading water, without any clue if I was getting closer to shore. Nina had been the only other person out on the water earlier, but she had stopped by then. At times, I saw her standing on the shore looking out, perhaps searching for me, and I tried to wave both arms over my head - but it was clear that she did not see me.

After about half an hour in the water, I noticed several people standing on shore, looking out. Soon after that, I saw Nina sail again. Someone had spotted my board drifting towards land, so Nina went out to see if I was perhaps close to it. When she did not see me, she went back in, and someone on shore dialed 911. Nina went to grab the big slalom board, and then went to search for me. Around that time, I noticed the first blinking lights arriving at the parking lot - police, fire fighters, and an ambulance. The fire fighters also came with an inflatable boat that they soon launched.

Nina was the first one to reach me, and towed me towards shore, with me clinging to the back footstraps. The GPS tracks show that by then, I had drifted about 550 meters towards shore. Nina pulled me another 240 meters, and then I was able to reach the ground in about 4 feet of water. A minute later, the fire fighter's boat arrived, and they offered me a ride to shore, which I gladly accepted. Nina would have made it back to the launch on her own, but that was a dead downwind run, which was near-impossible with the gear she was on. Instead, she started to do a few "downwind tacks" on more moderate angles, falling at every turn. That made the fire fighters in the boat a bit nervous, so they picked her up, too. One of the fire fighters jumped out of the boat and walked her gear back.

Back on shore, I was walked to a waiting ambulance, where they checked my vital signs and listened to my lungs to see if I had gotten water in, which can cause "secondary drowning" a day or two later. My pulse was up to 140, which probably was mostly from shivering - the boat ride and walk on the beach had been a lot colder than the swimming! No big surprise for anyone who's ever done an ABK camp, and tried to keep his wetsuit on during the lunch break. The wind was still gusting above 30 mph, creating plenty of wind chill.

By then, the parking lot had filled up with police cars, fire fighter vans, and the ambulance. On the water, two more boats had arrived. The size of the effort was quite amazing! I am very grateful for all the efforts - big thanks to everyone involved!

There's a writeup about this with lots of pictures at http://capecodfd.com/PAGES%20Special%202/Hyannis-Kalmus-Boat-Rescue-042919.htm
The pictures I find most striking are these two (click on the pictures for a larger version):

This is Nina going back out to search for me. I'm pretty sure I am somewhere in this picture, but it's impossible to see a swimmer's hear in this chop.

In this picture, you can see my head next to Nina - but the photographer has zoomed in quite a bit.

I just had to add this picture of two of the three fire fighters in the boat. Big, big thanks again!

In hindsight, I was never in much danger. Even though I made very slow progress swimming to shore, I would have reached shallow water within the next 30 minutes or so, since both wind and waves were pushing me towards shore. And while all the neoprene I had on made swimming hard, it kept me warm enough. Not that I did not really appreciate the hot shower when we got home!

Even though I sort of knew that I was not in real danger, and that I'd most likely be rescued before I drifted into shallow water, the incident was somewhat troubling.  I have been windsurfing for almost 40 years now, and needed rescuing twice in this time. I have sailed at least 1500 sessions, and this was the second time that I got separated from my gear. In addition, there were a few sessions where I got lucky when I lost a fin or crashed hard a few miles from shore, but was able to walk or sail back. Overall, I have been reasonably lucky - just in the past few months, I've read about several rather serious injuries that other windsurfers had when getting hit by boats, or just falling badly. Even something as simple as bad cramps while being separate from your gear a kilometer from shore would at the very least increase the panic factor. So in the future, planning for the worst-case scenario will definitely get more attention, especially during the colder months.

One of the things I might end up doing is carry smoke flares, like those required when racing in Australia. Another alternative is to always carry one of the phones I got for use with GPSLogit - even without activation, they can be used for emergency calls. However, I am not sure if I would have been able to place a phone call while swimming in 3-4 feet chop.

Another alternative for increased security is to use the Motion GPS, which has a built-in emergency function. The function is limited in that it requires another user with the same GPS to be within radio distance (about a mile or so). On the upside, it provides the coordinates, which can help with search efforts - and it is probably the best currently available GPS unit. I have thought about getting one, anyway, but could not really justify the expense. But for some peace of mind in problem situations, the price of about 260 Euros seems rather reasonable.