|Last year, on October 1st, almost 10 months to the day after I picked up the
first 5 sheets of quarter inch plywood, I launched a Bolger designed Light Scooner at
South Lake Beach on Lake Montauk. She's named "Margaret Ellen" after my
daughter, who was all of 11 months old when she, my wife and I went for our inaugural sail
on that fine and fair Autumn day. Both Margarets are quite beautiful, much admired, and
the source of considerable fatherly pride.
We got in a few more outings
during October, but it wasn't long before cold water and even colder air put an end to
family sail. But an end to family sailing didn't mean I had to stop; Winter offers many
days just as fine and fair, if somewhat colder, and the Light Scooner Margaret Ellen has
been beached at South Lake throughout the Winter.
Now the fact is, South Lake is really not a very good Winter anchorage or
beaching place. All of our really big blows come out of the northern quarter and South
Lake is really exposed. The big Nor'easter of earlier this week pushed the tide about 3
feet above normal maximum high, and float the boats down there all up and down the beach.
The LSME did a little modification to the starboard rudder of a hobbycat before settling a
considerable distance away from the water. On top of that, I haven't been sailing nearly
as much as I thought I would this Winter. No excuses, no good reasons. I just haven't been
on the water much.
So March 11, I decided I'd do what I should have done months earlier: sail her
less picturesque, but more sheltered spot protected from the West, North, and East. I'd
get a little sailing in, and while I was at it, I could slosh a little salt water around
the boat to ward off any mold that might have gotten a toe-hold over the last few months.
The light toddler Margaret Ellen explored the beach while I walked the Scooner
to the water's edge. Then I took her home, picked of the foresail rigging, went down
to the marina and bought a pair of rubber boots to keep my feet dry, and a piston type
bilge pump, and headed back to the beach. The wind was light to nonexistent -- no flapping
or flogging as I rigged the sail. In no time I was gliding ever so slowly away from the
About 200 yards out I was joined by juvenile harbor seal. The little thing swam
right up along side the boat and looked my right in the eye as I ghosted along. The he
dropped back to examine the rudder, then came along the port side and gave me another
wink. I was in heaven; calm grey-green water, slate skies, and a seal escort. At this pace
it was going to take at least an hour to cross the lake, but I didn't care.
The seal peeled off to do whatever seals do and the wind picked up ever so
slightly, putting a nice shape in the sail. I threw a hitch in the sheet around one of the
unused mainsail halyard cleats, then stood astride the tiller steering with my knees. To
the West I could see the clouds giving way and the orange of an impending sunset
Everything was perfect, everything was about to go wrong.
I won't say without warning, rarely do such things happen without warning, but
without warning that *I* saw we were hit with a strong gust. The boat heeled sharply. I
went to cast off the sheet, then thought I was too far away and too late for that and
turned to through the tiller a'lee. Then I was too late for everything and she went over.
Right there in the middle of Lake Montauk, in the middle of Winter, she went over.
And she kept going! As I scrambled over the rail, and then onto the bottom I
felt the mainmast stick into the silty bottom. As I sat perched on the daggerboard I
though "David, you are stuck and stuck good." I saw the rudder had fallen out of
the gudgeons and along with my new bilge pump, was drifting away.
The last of the clammers had gone in just as I headed out; they're the only
ones on the lake this time of year. But just in case, I scanned the water, hoping against
hope. Nothing, no one. My boat was nearly upside-down, her mast in the mud, and the wind
and waves on
the hull were likely driving it deeper into the mud by the minute. The grey-green water
had lost all its appeal now that I contemplated a 300 yard swim through it. I sat on the
chine with my feet on the daggerboard and considered my options.
I have lots of good cold water gear. In fact the reason we moved to Montauk was
for the Winter surf. With the proper wetsuit you can spend a few hours frolicking in the
40 degree water and subfreezing air and suffer no lasting effects. Modern wetsuits are cut
to give good mobility while keeping you warm. Unfortunately, my wetsuit was back at the
house. There I was, perched on the bottom of the Scooner in my jeans, sweater, jacket and
new rubber boots. I had a feeling my feet weren't going to stay dry for long.
I also have a VERY healthy respect for cold water; I've seen it reduce strong
men to jibbering fools; I've seen it take lives. But I also knew the swim I was
contemplating was not a killer. Cold? Yes. To the first house with the lights on, pound on
the door I need to use your bathtub? Yes. But not a killer. So I decided to see if there
was any hope of improving my condition before abandoning my boat and making for shore.
I put all the weight I could on the dagger board while maintaining a grip on
the rail. Ever so slowly I could feel her coming up, inch by inch. The "pop" the
mud let loose of the mast and she began to roll up quickly. I scrambled onto the port
topsides, ready to keep going if she kept rolling up. But she didn't. She settled on beam
ends, me perched a top her. Free of the mud, we began to drift to leeward. Sitting on her
rail, I could ride the LSME to the lee shore and might yet keep my feet dry.
But it was going to take a long time. The wind was up enough now there were
whitecaps on the lake, but our progress was slow. I decided I try to get her upright. I
still hadn't closed off the midships or forward lockers and suspected self-rescue wasn't
possible, but I didn't know for sure, and this seemed like a good time to find out.
I climbed back out onto the daggerboard and put my weight into it. Of course
before it was wet for sure vs. staying dry. Now it was dry for sure vs. maybe getting
dumped in the drink. I had no idea how quickly she might roll up. I leaned back a little
harder, waiting to feel her coming upright.
It turns out, she came up pretty smoothly and I didn't too much trouble getting
onto the rail and back onto the poop deck which rode high enough to keep my dry. The boat
was shifty with all that water in her, so I stood up to better move my weight port or
starboard as she sloshed back and forth.
She was down by the bow, floating so low in the water there was no hope of
bailing out the forward cockpit. There was also a good 12 inches of water in the after
cockpit, but there was some hope of reducing that. I started in with my pail, but about
every minute or so, a good sized whitecap would come combing over the rail and put all the
water I had just thrown into the lake back in the boat. It didn't take many go arounds at
this to get discouraged. I stopped bailing and looked around for another way to improve my
Now all this time I had been making progress to leeward, and as I looked
downwind, it looked more and more like I was going to fetch up on a private jetty in the
southeast corner of the lake. All that gentle shoreline and I was headed for the one spot
that presented a hazard. I decided it was time to make a play for getting control of the
foresail. If I could get ahold of the sheet, perhaps I could coax a little headway out of
my swamped craft and avoid the rocks.
I made my way forward and the Scooner responded by sinking lower in the water.
By the time I was at the mainmast, it was clear that going any further forward would mean
getting very wet and possibly capsizing again, and the sheet was still well out of reach.
I retreated to the poop deck, wet from the knee down, and re-accessed.
To this point I've left out one important detail. Being out in the wet and the
weather all winter had caused the dagger board to swell, and I had to stand on it while
clinging to the mast and jump up and down to drive it home. It now well jammed in the
slot, presenting a substantial impediment to making it into shallow water. Even swamped
she'd only draw about 18 inches; with the board down it's more like four feet. I
went forward again to check on it, only getting wetter and confirming that it was indeed
stuck. Once again I retreated to the poop deck. It was beginning to get dark.
While I was standing there, I noticed a dark figure back at South Lake Beach. I
couldn't make out any detail, but it was clear the figure was looking at me. Not wanting
to raise any alarm, but wanting to acknowledge that I saw him (her?) I gave a casual wave
with one arm. I hoped the gesture would say "Yes, I've had a bit of trouble. No, I'm
not in any danger. Yes, if you wanted to meet me at the beach I could use some help
bailing this thing out."
The figure turned and left the beach. I saw some motion in the parking lot and
saw the light bar of a police cruiser peeling out of the lot in a hurry. The "dark
figure" had been the navy blue uniform of the East Hampton town police. Someone must
have spotted me and phoned it in. Great.
I was looking more and more like I was going to miss the jetty and fetch up on
the cobbley beach just to the West. I thought some more about my jammed dagger board and
decided that when I hit ground with it, I'd put the boat over on her side. That would let
me get into
about two and a half feet of water. From there I could get out, try to do something about
the board, unrig, right, and bail the boat out. In the bushes above the beach I saw
someone moving around, and figured it was the policeman come to check up on me. Well at
least when I got within shouting distance I could tell him I was uninjured, not yet
hypothermic, and unless he wanted to get soaked, there was nothing he could really do for
me. About 200 yards out, the daggerboard grounded, I tipped the boat on beam ends, and
resumed my sheepish pose on the topsides.
As I drifted closer, the figure emerged from the brush. It wasn't the police,
it was a woman in a dark coat, spying at me through a pair of binoculars. Well actually ,
she wasn't spying at me. She was spying past me. Strange. It was still to far to yell, and
getting darker by the minute.
Finally at about 75 yards she called out, "Are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine."
"The Coast Guard is one their way!"
The Coast Guard? Oh no. I'm in three feet of water. I'm not in any danger.
There's nothing they can do for me now, except put my name in a report. I feel totally
humiliated. I want to tell her to go back to the house and tell them I'm fine, but I know
that will just confuse things.
Then the policeman appeared on the jetty to the East, only about 20 yards away.
"How are you doing?"
"I'm not sure if I am more cold, or more embarrassed."
"Do you need any help?"
"The Coast Guard is on the way."
"I know." My tone must have revealed my humiliation at the prospect
of being "rescued."
"Do you want me to tell them to cancel?"
"Um, yeah. That would be great."
The policeman brought his radio to his mouth. Thank God for small favors.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked.
"Unless you want to get soaked helping me bail her out," knowing
there was no chance he would, but hoping none the less, "I don't think so." I
continued my slow drift to shore.
"What's your name?" the policeman asked. Instantly I saw the write up
in the local paper.
"Do I have to tell you?" I pretended to make myself busy with my
inert craft so as to better ignore him. I heard him saying something, but the only word I
made out was "report." My sense of civic duty told me to just give him the
information he needed to do his job, my sense of embarrassment told me to say nothing.
"What's your name?" he called again.
"Daaaaaviiiiiid," the word slowly crawled out of my mouth as my two
"And your last name?"
"I really don't want to tell you." I really, really didn't want to.
"I need it for my report."
Yes, I know you do. I know you're just doing your job. I don't want to be a
pain in the ass, but I really, really, really want to remain anonymous. Finally my last
name crept out of my throat
"Rrrryyyyaaaaaaaannn." I was in agony.
"Where do you live?" he asked.
"Maaawwwntaaalllkk." It told a full 10 seconds for the word to cross
my lips. Have some compassion man, haven't I told you enough?
I can see it now: David Ryan of 190 S.Fairview Ave. is a complete idiot. His
total lack of judgment necessitated a Coast Guard rescue. His foolishness put the lives of
our brave boys in jeopardy and cost tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
"It's not true, it's not true! I just went for a little sail on the lake.
Had a spot of trouble. Nothing I couldn't handle. Why here I am, just yards from shore.
I'm not even that wet! And I'm not in any danger!" I decided these were thoughts best
kept to myself.
"South Fairview Avenue," I answered slowly, the house number
conspicuous in it's absence. If it was really important they had more than enough
information to find me.
"I think I see them coming!" It was the woman again, binoculars to
her eyes, looking out onto the lake.
I turned and saw the launch about half a mile away. They had there search light
on and were looking for me. Clearly there had been a communication breakdown between the
officer, his dispatcher and the Coast Guard. He was back on the radio, but whatever
instructions he was giving were being garbled in the relay and they weren't getting any
closer. Beside, the water was much to shallow now. With luck they wouldn't even be able to
get within shouting distance.
Finally the rail grounded. No more putting it off, it was time to get wet for
real. The water was cold and waist deep. I got the sail down, I managed the work the
daggerboard out, and without my weight I could get her into about a foot of water. The
policeman left, the woman left and the Coast Guard disappeared into the darkness. Whether
they had listed me as missing at sea, or the police had finally managed to tell them I was
ashore, I didn't know.
I got the Scooner bailed out, and with the help of another lakeside resident, I
walked her down the shore to South Lake Beach. Along the way we found the rudder and
tossed it in the boat. The tide was near flood, so I tied her off and hurried back to the
car. On the way
home, it became clear that I was in the grips of hypothermia. My body shook violently and
my feet hurt so much all I could do was cry out in pain. Fortunately, home was only five
I burst through the door and headed straight for the tub, climbing in fully
dress and turning on hot tap. We put in a tankless water heater a couple of years ago, and
if necessary I intended to stay in until our 500 gallon propane tank was empty. The
shaking got worse before it got better, and the daughter Margaret Ellen looked a little
worried at her daddy's distress. My wife made me a big cup of Earl Grey. That seemed to do
This morning, as I wrote this up, the phone rang.
"This is David," I answered.
"Yes," I answered.
"This is Coast Guard Petty Officer Buddy Hinkle."
"I deny everything. I wasn't even in Montauk yesterday, let alone out
Petty Officer Hinkle was a little bit thrown.
"Look, tell me what you need to fill out your report." They had my
name, they had my number. The jig was up.
Buddy asked me the name of the vessel, the length, the registration number. I
asked Buddy if they ever even made visual contact. He said they did, but by that time I
was in water too shallow for them to render assistance. Thank goodness.
I thanked him and his colleagues for coming out, but felt compelled to tell him
I never really felt like I was in danger. I'm not sure why I needed to say it,but I did,
and that was that.
There's another fact I haven't mentioned. Aside from not doing any sailing or
building, I've done almost no surfing or shelf-fishing. The last couple of weeks I've
slept terribly. suffering nightly from very upsetting dreams. The night before last I
dreamed I unwittingly became involved in an S&R for a woman who went missing at the
beach. I had the dubious honor of being the one who found her body, and am now saddled
with a vivid image of her grey, lifeless, open-mouthed corpse wedged under a the ledge of
a reef. Needless to say, I haven't been waking from these dreams feeling refreshed.
Last night I slept like a baby.
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