Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Lake Erie Story (for a Wintry November Day)

This story is about 90% true, with some fictionalization at the end.

Cruising the Big Lake a Late Summer Evening

 By Bob Coughlin

The air was benevolently warm as we skimmed the surface of the calm lake last Thursday in my old Sea Ray. We were a quarter mile off shore of the Mentor Lagoons, cruising Lake Erie, one of the world’s largest and most beautiful lakes. Late summer, the sun sinking down now before 8 pm, the sky glowing red, creating a path of gold from the setting sun to the shore.

Around 7 pm the onshore wind begins blowing, enough to fill the sails of the boats from the Mentor Harbor. About a half dozen sailboats go out onto the lake, hoist their sails, and follow the wind toward Fairport Harbor and the Grand River. Coming back against that wind will take some skill, tacking back and forth back to the Lagoons.

We head east, toward the Fairport Harbor Light at the entrance to the Grand River. Our first vision is the eroding clay cliffs near the Lagoons. There are yellowish, grey, and brown strata on these cliffs, in the most interesting whorls, carved vertical by 15-foot waves from last fall and winter. Perched precariously on the lip of the cliff we see gigantic red oaks, their roots partially exposed, waiting for the gales of November to go diving into the Lake. I hate to see these ancient giants go! Right on the rim of the cliff a deer browses on some grass, oblivious to the danger and unaware of its own surprising beauty. This square mile of beach and upland forest and marsh is thick with nearly tame deer.

We move further east at about 20 knots, along the mile-long wild shoreline, one of the only undeveloped shorelines on the south coast of Lake Erie (which, interestingly, is the north coast of the United States!). I see a few walkers, with their dogs racing along the beach. A guy throws a stick into the lake, and a big yellow lab plunges in after it. The perfect joy of being a dog chasing a stick!

Further east the beach is totally empty, as close to a wilderness as we have in Northeast Ohio. Driftwood, some of it the remnants of giant red oak and cottonwood, litter the beach. Back from the beach about 50 feet I see a small grove of willow trees and cottonwood. Then eroded hillside, full of small trees and some rather exotic shrubs, more reminiscent of much further south—yucca is everywhere; even some prickly pear cactus in the sand right below the hillside. Don’t these plants know what January is like in this environment? The lake will freeze, maybe freeze solid; then no more warming by a benevolent heat sink, the Big Lake!

Now, only a mile or two from the mouth of the Lagoons and a perfectly calm lake, a chop kicks up—not bad yet, but the Sea Ray begins rocking and rolling. I’ve learned to relax with this movement, not worry about it. My first couple years with this boat I would shift into panic mode when the lake kicked up. Not so much anymore.

We move further down toward Mentor Headlands and the great sand beach, a quarter mile wide and a mile and a half long. There are still a number of late-summer visitors on the beach, most of them on shore, lounging, reading, some playing beach volleyball. We cruise the boat very close to shore, maybe 200 feet off the beach. Many people wave to us and we wave back. A few hardy souls are in the water. Today is one of those days when the water is warmer than the air. The trick is to get in. I do it slowly and painfully; the brave and smart ones jump right in and get the initial shock over with quickly.

Soon we are along the wild part of Headlands beach, where there are no lifeguards and where the sand dunes are covered with beach oats and other hardy plants that can handle the wind and the sand. This part of the beach is nearly empty of people and is littered with driftwood and the trunks of giant trees. I remember how, as I kid living in Euclid, my brother Denny and I would launch one of these logs and ride it a mile out into the Lake. Today’s over-protective parents would have a hissy fit with something like that! Heck, police would probably get involved and the Coast Guard would come to the rescue!

As we approach the Grand River breakwall, I steer the boat south so we can enter the harbor by the lighthouse. I notice the lake is really kicking up now, contrary to the weather predictions I heard earlier on the marine radio. As I make the turn around the far end of the breakwall, we experience big waves and intense rocking and rolling. And then I see off the port side a small sailboat flipped over in the water. Three people, not wearing life jackets, are clinging to the boat and waving frantically to me.

I want to call a mayday in to the Coast Guard (who are stationed less than a mile from this very spot), but the urgency is to get these people out of the water. Linda grabs 2 telescoping hooks we use when we’re docking. She also grabs several life jackets and the life preserver ring to throw to the people in the water.

I maneuver the boat close to the overturned sailboat, careful not to hit anyone with the 5500 lb boat. Linda throws the ring to the teenage girl in the middle of the three and launches three life jackets to them. The three are frantic as they try to grab the life jackets and get them on as they tread water in the now very rough lake.

I wish I had another hand on board, but decide I need to make the mayday call to Channel 16 right now. Believe it or not this is the first time I’ve ever called on my marine radio. I sure hope it works. I call the mayday and the Coast Guard answers immediately. They are on their way and should be here in minutes. I hope it’s not too late.

By now Linda is using the telescoping hooks trying to reach the outstretched hands of the folks in the water. They all have lifejackets now, but only one was able to get it put on correctly; the other two are grasping them to their chests. Linda reaches the teenage girl and begins to pull her toward the Sea Ray. The girl reaches the swim platform and, with help, is able to climb the boat ladder and board the boat (which is bobbing and twisting in the increasing waves). Linda turns toward the other woman--she was not able to put on the life jacket. She grabs for the telescoping hook and Linda begins to pull her toward the boat. She gets to the boat but is too weak to climb the ladder and pull herself on board. She grasps the boat’s ladder, holding on for dear life.

The third boater in the water has begun to drift away from his overturned sailboat and my Sea Ray. Luckily the Coast Guard is approaching in a speedboat that looks like it’s doing 60 knots if anything.  As it approaches the man in the water, a guardsman dives into the lake and comes up behind and under the victim. He secures the man with a line and attaches an inflatable device of some sort. Another Guardsman reaches out with a real hook, one meant for the purpose of saving a person in the water. He quickly draws him to the Coast Guard boat and pulls him in. The rescue is over. Everyone is all right.

I haven’t had time to even think about what was happening. I notice now that my heart must be beating 150 times a minute and my head is throbbing. I feel suddenly nauseous and want to be back on terra firma.

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