Monday, November 10, 2008


The wind was a bit gusty Saturday morning on the Willamette. I wanted to take the girls out (my seven and five y/o daughters), so made them wear windproof stuff; in hindsight, neoprene would have been the better choice.

We got the boat set up in the parking lot and then launched in the water without too much trouble. Once alongside the dock, however, the mooring line set itself free and the boat set sail on it's own. Fortunately, it was moored on the upriver side of the boat launch ramp, and, corralled as it was, the boat only drifted to the downriver side, before I was able to grab it and convince it to stay put with the port jib sheet.

I put the pickup back in the parking lot and loaded the girls on board the boat after a safety discussion and a re-check of their life vests to ensure they were secure. I had a brief thought of reefing the mainsail, but I thought the wind was only a bit brisker than the previous two days and I'd spent both of those drifting for the bulk of my time. This looked to me like it would move us a little bit more consistently than in my past two days experience and potentially be an exciting introduction to sailing for the girls.

As soon as the main was up we began to move across the river at about 3-4 knots. I had the girls each assigned to a jib sheet and they unfurled the jib and we picked up another knot. We were across the river very quickly and I made my first tack.

My youngest didn't like the rolling motion of the tack and began to get a little upset, saying she wanted to go back. At this point I released the main sheet to get them situated and we weather-helmed. I took over the jib sheets, as the girls were having problems releasing them from the cleats, which now seems like it was because of the wind strength.

We had drifted down river about fifty meters from the launch and the wind was coming from the boat ramp, so we were going to have to tack back upriver to get to the dock. We made our first tack toward the West bank and the docks and turned into the wind and went across the river again.

Now, slightly upriver from the dock, I set us up to turn to starboard, back into the wind and home. I released the port jib sheet, turned the rudder and pulled the main sheet in toward the center of the boat. The wind gusted and the boat began to heel over to port, sending the 5 y/o across the cockpit and into the lap of her older sister. I released the mainsheet, but it was too late. We had a long slow moment of hope and fear, not unlike last Tuesday evening, and then we were all into the water between the boat and the boom, our hopes dashed in the face with the cold reality that, although Obama may be our man and may be able to help us improve our image around the globe, turn around our lives at home, and create a new hopeful America, he wasn't going to be here to stop the three of us from splashing into the Willamette River this Saturday morning.

With the mast downriver, the sail in the water, and the prevailing wind blowing against the bottom of the boat, it wasn't long before the boat started heading toward turtle-land.

I grabbed the 7 y/o and tossed her an arm's length away from me, outside the gunwale of the boat, then did the same with the 5 y/o. I ducked under and out myself and was able to quickly chuck both girls up on top of the now turtled boat. I was near the stern, so turned and waved and gave a shout, "Hey, can you guys give us a hand?" to a couple of fisherman at the dock launching their boat. The girls heard my shout and both began yelling "Help us!" in their high-pitched little girl voices.

I told them to relax, we are going to be fine, as the guys in the boat waved back and headed our way. As they came across the river, I took my car key out of my pocket and told my older daughter to stick it in her jeans pocket. She took it and said, "I'll just hold it really tight, dad." I told her, "No, put it in your pocket right now."

When the fisherman arrived they asked how they could help. I asked them to take the girls back to the dock; told them the girls had my key and asked that they put them in the pickup while I try and right the boat.

They reached me with a gaff and I pulled on the gaff with one hand and the gunwale with my other and eased the two boats together. I had the girls come to me one at a time and was able to quickly get the girls in their boat without another dip in the water. As they headed back to the dock, I ducked under the open transom and moved forward toward the mainmast.

I was able to release the main halyard, without ducking under the water, and then, using my legs under the boom, and my arms over the boom, I reefed the mainsail up the mast (up being down in my newly inverted and very wet world). I then found the jib furling line (thank god for the self-furler), by imagining where it would be if I were right-side up and then looking on the opposite side; I think my years of turning wrenches while hanging upside down in engineroom bilges gave me the conceptual skills I needed here, as well as the practical ability to get something mechanical done in a sloshy, wet confined space.

I came back out from under the boat and two solo outrigger paddlers had arrived, as well as the original boat driver who'd helped me get the girls back to the dock. A second fishing boat came along and the driver was saying that the fire department was here and wanted me to return to the dock.

I looked across and sure enough, there were at least five Portland Fire Dept. vehicles in the parking lot.

Shortly thereafter, a jet-ski with two PFD swimmers and a Multnomah County Sheriff Water Patrol boat arrived. The mast hit some rocks at this point, and I was thinking the angle was going to make it easier for me to hoist myself up, grab the centerboard and get this thing righted.

The PFD swimmers now insisted that I return to the boat launch. Fisherman number one gave me a lift and I checked in on the girls, who were snuggled up in the back of Engine #10. I counted seven emergency vehicles in the lot and asked the firemen who had called them. They said they got a report of a "DR 1" which apparently means somebody had drowned.

By this point, no more than ten minutes had passed since we capsized. So, although impressed at the local emergency responders reaction time, I'm still not sure why the turnout was so large. Apparently, fisherman boat #2 had come over to check things out when my girls were back at the dock, and, me being underneath the hull reefing sails, they panicked when they didn't see anyone around.

So, without giving a shout, or really investigating much at all, they had reported to PFD that I was missing. The guys in the firetruck then took charge of my girls and told them their dad was "missing."

Later that night I found out that my 5 y/o overheard the radio talk and thought dad had drowned.


By the time I got back down to the dock, the PFD swimmers had righted the boat without me and towed it to the dock.

Kris came down and brought a change of clothes for me and the girls and we pulled the boat out of the water and called it a day. I dropped the sweatshirts back at the fire station on Taylor's Ferry and Terwilliger. The trucks were all gone as they were off for the day's scheduled training session, which happened to be a drowning practice. Later, I saw that this must have been the reason for the huge turnout. There was even a truck in the parking lot that was dispatched as the 'Air Command' center; apparently, these guys were to be the ones to direct and communicate with a helicopter that I guess must fly around and look for floating bodies.

Reflecting on my adventures, I learned a little about wind strength and dinghy stability. I'll take the girls out in a keelboat again, but probably will keep them out of the dinghy for a while.

I'm a former lifeguard and big-wave surfer and at the back of my mind the whole time was my consideration for what would happen if any of us ended up in the water. To that end, I had the girls both secured in their highly flotatious vests, and a couple of lines, as well as a seat cushion, were handy for tossing.

I'll reef the main and get more practice in higher winds before heading out with anyone less experienced that I am in the future.

The girls are not huge fans of sailing, needless to say. However, despite the panicky fisherman's call to 911, I still love this stuff and I know if I had pictures I'd be able to make it on H2uh0.


Greg and Kris said...

Oh, yeah, while very slowly capsizing I recall thinking "Those guys at the brokerage must have been thinking about a moment like this when they strongly encouraged me to get a mast float before sailing with the kids..."

Jolea said...

Oh my gosh what a day! Glad you are all ok though! In about a week you will all look back and laugh, if you aren't already!

Greg and Kris said...

Oh, there's some laughing going on, alright. The girls were a little scared because of the firemen's radios. And the one in the swim mask right there =====>
cried a little on Saturday night to my wife when I was the Blazers game. She said she was 'worried about daddy.' But I have no doubt that this will be a story they will whip me with for years to come.


Tillerman said...

Wow. Glad you're all OK. Hope it hasn't put the kids off sailing for life!

Tillerman said...

Oh yeah, this is going to be a family story for ever.

In our family the tale is still told over 50 years later of "The Day I Rescued My Little Sister From Drowning In The River" (my version) or "The Day You Tried to Drown Your Little Sister" everyone else's version.

Greg and Kris said...

They were a little put off at first, but they made a clear distinction between the large cruisers we've been on and the dinghy. They said "We like big boats, daddy, but not tippy ones." I think it'll sort out okay in the long run.

O Docker said...

Greg, TM's right about us all having a family story like this that's invoked whenever we claim to know what we're doing.

We have a paperback book that my wife refuses to let me throw away. It's all kinda puffy, almost as if it had been, well, under water.

How it got that way and who was holding it at the time and who was at the helm are things that come up at almost every family function.

Greg and Kris said...

Yeah, I imagine I'll have to keep the kids around just like that paperback. As much as I'd like to throw them away sometimes.

Should I put a smiley or a wink right here?

JP said...

Glad to hear you're ok - hope the kids take it in a "big adventure" way.

Reminds me a family discussion we had when thinking of buying a laser - certain members wanted a stratus as less tippy than the smaller ones.

Redwing said...

Wow. Amazing story. Glad you are OK!

Zen said...

LoL, give me a keel boat any day!
Unless I want to go swimming.