Three weeks ago, there were small-craft advisories for hazardous seas along the Southern California coast. The wind was howling at more than 25 knots, strong enough to raise a cloud of sand off the beach. And the seas were whitecapped with 3- to 4-foot waves.
I have sailed for years, and I have a very healthy respect for the ocean. But a friend, Chris Woodyard, and I decided that--if we were careful--we could manage it safely.
It had been a while since we’d had the thrill of a ride on rough water. We planned to stay close to shore and return immediately if it seemed too heavy.
So our 20-foot sloop--named Muckraker--headed out of Los Alamitos Bay in Long Beach, crashing through the waves and bucking like a rodeo ride. The sailing was manageable, so we stayed and enjoyed a wet and wild time.
As it turned out, it was good that we did.
Barely 100 yards from shore, we passed a windsurfer who was sitting on his board, waving in distress. We dropped our forward sail and maneuvered toward him.
He looked sick. His eyes were blinking and his head was drooping like somebody trying to fight off sleep. He was so weak that he could hardly sit up or wave his arm.
Clearly, he needed to be taken in as soon as possible, but the heavy conditions made everything exceedingly difficult. Muckraker bucked even harder when she lost speed, and the wind was so strong that it took a loud voice to be heard just 10 feet away.
We dropped the main sail and switched to our piston pal--the outboard engine we call “Mr. J,” short for Johnson. As we did, the pounding of the boat from each wave was so fierce that it tore the sail boom from the mast, sending it banging onto the deck.
But under power, Muckraker swung around back toward the wind surfer and we pulled him aboard. He was disoriented and without strength, shivering violently from the cold water and wind.
He was suffering from hypothermia. Irrationally, he insisted on clinging to his sail board rather than going below into the cabin.
We never really stopped to make introductions, so his identity is still a mystery to me. All I know is that he was probably in his late 20s.
As we were told later, he had been windsurfing too long and the strength it took to hold up a sail in the high wind and waves had surreptitiously sapped his energy, leaving him vulnerable to the cold.
Within 15 minutes, we were at the Harbor Patrol station. So much had happened that it wasn’t until then that I realized how serious the situation had been.
Eventually, a sandy-haired paramedic, clad in bulky foul-weather gear, appeared and said, “You guys are heroes. You saved his life.”
This is not a story offered in search of acclaim or reward. Despite the accolades, I think there are real heroes who actually put their own lives on the line to save strangers. This is more a tale in the tradition of longtime nautical lore.
It does prompt certain reflections, though. One is an even greater respect for the ocean.
This guy was just over 100 yards from the beach, barely the length of a line for a good movie. Yet in his condition, it might as well have been 100 miles. He was a physically fit young man and wearing a wet suit. Seeing him, though, it was clear that there was no way he could swim or sail to safety.
I think of sailing out in the ocean as being like walking into the Wizard of Oz’s throne room. The ocean is in a position to be angry or calm, malevolent or benevolent. The visitor’s place is only to be reverential.
Herman Melville certainly never saw a windsurfer. But he knows the same lesson: “The sea is a foe to man, who is an alien to it. . . . Panting and snorting like a mad battle steed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe.”