Wednesday, August 19, 2009


One fine winter day in Arlington, Virginia I attached my brand new Hobie Cat to the back of the Oldsmobile and set out with my almost brand new wife, Julia, on the thirteen hour drive to Gainesville, Florida. My mother, now widowed, was waiting to greet us at her cottage on Swan Lake, thirty minutes from her home in Gainesville.

I've titled this little narrative “My Boating Accident” in the singular because in spite of my being in love with boats for as long as I can remember, and acquiring sailboats from the smallest imaginable to larger and larger, I had never had an accident. I count the numerous times I ran sailboats harmlessly aground on submerged sand not as “accidents” but as part of the routine process of sailing.

When we parked in front of the lake house and saw the wind lashing the Spanish moss on the oak trees, it was obvious that we were going to have much more than enough wind to move the catamaran. Even though Swan Lake is probably no more than a mile across, it flashed frothy white caps like a stormy sea.

It was very cold for a Florida late morning –- in the Fahrenheit 40's -- and the warm glassed-in porch of the cozy little house was the closest a normal person would have wanted to come to the blustery outdoors. The weather radio warned, “Lake Wind Advisory”. But one of my primary and most disaster-provoking characteristics is impatience. The boat was new. We had sailed it only during an orientation provided by the dealer. I had owned a smaller catamaran, a Seacat, and had plenty of experience sailing. Therefore Mr. Impatience announced that it was time to release the Hobie Cat into its natural element.

My mother, bundled up to the chin with a sweater and scarf, stood in front of the house and looked down the slope to the water while Julia and I slid the boat into the lake (I could almost hear it sighing with happiness at being afloat), turned the bow into the wind, and raised the sail.

A catamaran is much more lively and responsive to the air than any other boat, and as soon as we were on board and I allowed the sail to catch some wind, we were riding a wild tiger. The Cat surged forward with speedier acceleration than I'd ever experienced on the water, bounding from wave to wave, throwing out a white wake like a speedboat. I tried to keep the bow as close to the wind as I could, to avoid extreme heeling of the craft which would raise one pontoon too high above the water.

We were on the other side of the lake in an incredibly short time, and I didn't look forward to coming about and sailing with the wind behind me to some degree or other. The worst thing about sailing on this small lake was that the wind constantly shifted direction. Had even a wind this strong wind held steady from one direction, the most dramatic part of this little story would not have occurred, but as soon as I'd try to sail before the wind, the wind would start coming from another direction and I'd have to adjust the sail and the course of the boat. At times the sail would flap loudly and pointlessly like a flag, and then suddenly it would billow out and we'd be off once more like a race horse out of the gate.

Shooting along more or less toward Mother's house, we were suddenly moving with greater speed than I imagined possible. As catastrophe struck, I had time to glimpse the tip of the starboard pontoon slip under the water. In a gasp I was high in the air, the world tumbling around me. Then I was in the water up to my neck, with Julia in the same situation a few yards from me, and only the bottoms of the two pontoon hulls showing above the icy water.

We had pitchpoled, which is the most undesirable event a sailor can suffer short of seeing his boat torn apart on rocks. The bow of the boat goes under water, the now-blocked motion brings the stern up into the air, and the boat does a somersault, stern over bow, and lands upside down.

I swam around the boat and helped Julia scramble onto a pontoon. I was all right, but she had been badly bruised when she was thrown high into the air and came down on some part of the boat. But at least we had a place to sit and contemplate the situation. We were approximately in the middle of the lake, and suddenly, in spite of the wind, everything seemed extremely quiet and still. . . and lonely. There were no other boats on the lake, and no signs of life around any of the houses scattered around the shores. They were summer cottages, perhaps all abandoned for the winter.

Well, we said, thank goodness we had that lesson on how to right the boat if it capsized. So we descended fully into the water again, took hold of the proper parts of the catamaran, and did as we had been taught. But nothing happened. It was like trying to turn over a dock. Were we doing something wrong? We kept trying, but the boat stayed exactly as it was.

We climbed back onto a pontoon to contemplate our fate, feeling colder and colder. I had the strength and ability to swim to the nearest shore, but I had read again and again, “Always stay with the boat.” Most boat accident drownings occur when people swim away from the boat, and I was going to risk that only as a desperate last resort. Surely somebody would see us. My mother would soon look and realize what had happened. What on earth was she doing?

As frigid, windy minutes went by, I had never felt more isolated. After awhile a unique thought entered my mind: I might die out here.

Finally the little figure of my mother emerged from the house and hurried down the to lakeside, waving. We waved back. There was no way voices could be heard. We made motions which we hoped looked helpless and pleading.

Mother turned and disappeared into the house. Soon after, we saw her car moving onto the dirt road that circled the lake. Clearly she was driving from house to house, seeking help. Minutes passed as we watched the car sporadically moving along the road, never stopping long enough to encourage a belief that she had found somebody to speak with.

Then came the dreary moment when the car had completed the circuit and Mother came down the slope, raising her arms in a gesture of failure. She then hurried back into the house. What seemed like another hour day passed – it was by then after noon – before a Sheriff's car drove up. Rescue couldn't be far away! The world was alerted to our plight.

The deputy went down to my brother's boat, which was under a shelter on the beach. Good, good. Now just start the outboard motor . . . The deputy suddenly jumped back from the motor as if electrified and scampered back up the slope. As we later learned, wasps had built a nest under the motor cowling and swarmed in a horde after the deputy when he opened it.

Freezing and disappointed, but comforted by the knowledge that the Sheriff's Department probably wouldn't leave us to die, we waited, and waited and waited.

Then dejection turned to elation as we saw a small boat heading out into the lake from one of the houses on the eastern side.

Does it see us? Yes!

The boat putted up to us, and an angel in the form of a middle-aged, heavily suntanned woman helped us clamber from the pontoons into her rocking little skiff. It turned out that my mother had stopped at her house, but that only the lady's disabled husband had been at home, unable to help us. As soon as our angel had come home and learned the story, she came out to rescue us.

In Mother's house, warmed, dryly clothed, and fed, we gazed out at the underside of the Hobie Cat for several more hours before a Sheriff's Department boat was launched and swiftly dispatched to the site of the pitchpole.

Then we learned why we had been unable to turn the capsized catamaran upright: The mast had plunged deep into the mud at the bottom of the lake. When, with the help of ropes and full power, the Sheriff's boat finally worked the point of the mast free, the boat bobbed up sharply and comically above the water like a cork released below the surface.

So, there is the story of my boating accident, complete with happy ending and the lesson learned, never sail on small lakes on windy days.

(I put this story in writing for my friend Adriana, who makes blogging seem worthwhile.)


  1. Great story! I did wonder iof the mast had got cought in something :-)

    I had a sail boat once an Amigo 21 (I think that it actully exists one in the US). It is a kind of boat that is slow and really safe. It refused to capsize. I had a friend behind the rudder once and he didn´t let go of the mainsail in time once.

    My boat got the mainsail down in the water and I remember thinking that it would be expensive to get it in sailing condition after it had capsized. But just seconds after the boat rised again, even if the sail was filled with water.

    There´s nothing like sailing and sometimes I miss it. But I was never a good sailor so I think the world is a better place without me out on the ocean :-)
    Have a great day now!

  2. I sailed with you up on the Chesapeake and sailed with others and never had an event like this. I'm surprised with your talent at sailing you would have felt uncomfortable at the pull of the sail as described here and returned to shore. Risky my dear Fleming. Well, what did that lesson cost you? Do you still have the Hobie Cat here in DeLand?

  3. Thank you very much, Christer. I agree with you that sailing is a wonderful thing -- for me, one of the best experiences in the world. After the Hobie Cat, which Julia understandably didn't trust in much wind, I eventually went to a sailboat like yours which wouldn't turn upside down unless in a tsunami.

  4. Thanks for your comment and confidence, Vic. I eventually moved up from the Hobie Cat to a larger, conventional hull. No more pitchpoling.