Leaving the boat
I started building boats when I was in high school. The first one leaked so badly it sunk right under my feet, but I didnít give up. I have owned boats all my life of every type, size and shape. I will begin with a story that didnít have a very good ending. I had just gotten out of the Army and returned to my home in Peoria, IL and a new job as the service manager of a boat yard located on the IL River. It was a cold winter day and I was finishing up the last of the boats being put in storage when I got a phone call explaining that one of the afternoon ice boat sailors was missing and they asked if I could check the bay just north of the boat yard which was a popular ice boating area since the ice was very smooth compared to the river. I went down to the edge of the bay and I did see something on the opposite side that might have been the mast of an ice boat, but it was getting late and the light was poor. I knew The sailor who was missing I knew well and was an excellent sailor and a close friend of mine. I felt sure he would stay with the boat, but it was very cold and he would need rescue immediately
I had one mechanic available who could help, but the only rescue vessel we had was a old beat up 16 foot aluminum outboard with no motor, one oar and a pole. We threw it in the pickup and raced down to the edge of the bay where it was shallow enough to put the boat in. My mechanic noticed there was no drain plug, so he scooped up some snow and stuffed in in the hole on the theory the bay was all ice anyway.
We pushed the boat in and jumped in the stern. For the first 15 feet the ice was so thin we could paddle and pole our way across the bay. After that we had to break the ice by running the bow of the boat up on the ice and then run to the bow jump up and down to break the ice enough to move a few feet ahead, then running back to the stern and push ahead some more. All this time I am thinking about the drain plug and how long it would last. It was getting dark, neither of us had life jackets or a flash light. but we were sweating from pushing and jumping up and down. We finally got close enough to see the ice boat so we kept up the pace when suddenly we came to a large area of open water and in the middle was an ice boating helmet floating, or so I assumed.
I thought this was weird since he would be cold and should have kept it on his head. We pulled over to the helmet and I reached out to get it, only to discover the missing sailor was still in it. I was shocked and tears erupted. I asked the mechanic to come up to the bow and help me get him in to the boat, but we were so tired we couldnít lift him. We tied his body to the side of the boat and began the return to the shore, but we had lost all our energy and the water was now turning to ice.
I didnít know how we were going to get out of this situation (this was years before cell phones) when I heard a siren and saw emergency lights on shore. I could make out a fire engine and then another one. They immediately set out aluminum ladders across the ice and then crawled out to us with a long line which we attached to the boat so they could pull us back to shore. We guessed my sailor friend had tried to get to the shore and fell thru the ice after which hypothermia set in and he drowned.
As a former surveyor, boatyard uoerator and now a USCG Aux inspector, I am going to share some thoughts on vessel safety in future posts. I live in Florida now which has the highest number of accidents and deaths of all the states in the US. Leaving the boat either purposely or accidently by swimming rarely works due to hypothermia even in warm water. I did it once because the boat was sinking, my two crew members could not swim and there was no hope of rescue. I was very fortunate to survive