Sailing into Troubled Waters

Below is a facinating tale as told by Jay Bazzinotti on Quora. It’s a story that I have closely experienced firsthand on the Great Lakes. In 2008 while sailing into Harrisville on Lake Huron my wife and I encountered a foundering jet ski. After radioing in the situation with the Coast Guard and local sheriff  our ending was happy as the PWC operator was found. While cold and shaken the young lady was OK after a day in hospital. The story could have been very different.

What does it feel like to crush the life out of someone?

by Jay Bazzinotti

I crushed the life out of someone once, although at the time I was trying to save his life.

This was in the summer of 2005 and I was out in Narragansett Bay boating with some friends. My friend Linc owns a 40 foot Osprey and he and our Ospreymutual friend Greg had been out sailing for the weekend. We visited the Navy Pier where, to our absolute amazement, three aircraft carriers and the battleship Iowa were tied up awaiting decommission and demolition. The Saratoga and Forrestal sit there rusting away to this day, I think. The ships were huge, even though they were not supercarriers, and their hulks towered above, looking decrepit as they listed at the pier, rust streaking down their sides, their proud numbers prominently painted on the bow. They were roped off with anti-terrorism buoys so we couldn’t get too close, but it was impressive to see them tied up together like that, even in their neglected condition. Later, all the hatches and bulkheads of the Iowa would be welded shut and the interior filled with nitrogen to force out the rust-causing oxygen.

After that, we cruised to Providence to see the Russian missile sub used in the movie “K-19”. It was quite an eye-opening experience to see the weapon the Russians has planned to use to destroy Washington, DC or New York. It was a suicide sub with two huge nuclear missile silos on the side. In the event of war, the sub would surface, raise the silos and fire its missiles, knowing it had less than 15 minutes of life once the missiles were launched. Inside we saw that Russian sailors had it MUCH worse in this 60s-era sub than the Germans did in their WW2 U-boats. There were even bunks directly on top of the diesel motors. If you rolled over in your sleep, the moving valves could easily take your hand right off.

After that we visited Newport, partied in the bars, slept on board and then headed home after a short visit to the abandoned lighthouse and fortress on Dutch Island. In preparation for our return home I had showered and changed from my wet swimsuit to my clean shorts and shirt and was feeling pretty good about our adventures. Lincoln was in the wheelhouse piloting the boat expertly back to the dock and we were about twenty minutes out when suddenly the boat changed course. Standing near the transom, I grabbed the handrail to avoid going over the side. Greg thought Linc was fooling around, but when it came to sailing, Linc was deadly serious and competent — he never cut corners and never took risks. We worked our way into the galley/wheelhouse to see what was going on. Linc had his binoculars and was looking in the distance as the auto-pilot drove the ship.

Jet Ski Adrift“There’s a jet ski circling in the middle of the bay with no one riding it,” he said, “It’s pretty far from shore, could be someone in distress. I’m checking it out.”

As we got closer, he brought the engines to the slowest possible speed and we scanned the bay. The jet ski continued to circle round and round. “There!” said Linc, pointing. We all looked where he was pointing and there was a man, face down in the ocean.

“He’s face down,” I said, “That’s a really bad sign.”

Linc maneuvered the boat slowly towards the man. I uncovered the Zodiac lighter and Greg grabbed the gaffe.

“We don’t have time for the boat,” Linc said, as he pushed the button to release the anchor. It hit the ocean with a splash, the chain clanking out from the locker. Suddenly, Greg was in the water. He had jumped in, fully clothed. It was clear he was panicked for the man and I worried if we would have two rescues. I gaffed the man in the water and pulled him towards the boat as Greg finally reached him.

“Turn him over, turn him over,” Linc said. Greg grabbed the man, who was being held up by a tiny life jacket, one that was clearly too small for him. Greg turned him over and put his arm around the man’s neck and pulled him towards the transom. Linc ran back to the wheelhouse and cut the engine. I was taken by the sudden silence. In the urgency of the situation it seemed surreal. Waves slapped at the boat. I got the ladder ready and plugged it into the diving platform and Greg dragged the man towards the stern. He didn’t look good, foam and food constantly streaming from his mouth and nose as Greg towed him.

You see things like this in the movies but nothing prepares you for it in real life. Greg got the man to the back of the boat and I climbed down the ladder, but pulling his dead weight up onto the boat proved extremely difficult. In his frantic desire to get the man on board Greg kept pushing the man into the stern as I tried to pull him up but it was hard, and in one of the attempts we accidentally slammed him into the transom opening a gash in his face, a gash that barely bled. I could hear Lincoln on the radio, “Mayday Mayday Mayday, US Coast Guard, come in…” as we pushed and pulled him onto the deck. I was exhausted as we finally got him onboard, but we couldn’t stop to rest. Greg climbed back onboard and we dragged the man by his arms into the center of the deck. I was amazed to see that he was blue, as blue as a blueberry. I had never seen anything like it before. The word “cyanotic” came to mind. “He’s not breathing,” I said, pushing hard on his chest, and with a huge gushing cough, a surprisingly large amount of seawater flowed out of his mouth and nose along with snot and carrots and peas and corn. To this day I cannot eat these vegetables without seeing the image of them flowing out of his mouth. We rolled him over and pounded his back to clear the water. We lifted him up by the waist, doubling him over, to make sure it was all out, then flipped him onto his back. Foam continued to emanate from his mouth and nose along with an occassional green pea.

Round life preserver floating in waterLinc was on the radio with the Coast Guard and the engines fired up, a cloud of diesel smoke covering us until the wind blew it away. I started to do chest compressions. As I pressed on his chest I heard a sickening crack. I knew I had broken his ribs at that moment. But what could I do? How could I stop? I knew the compressions were keeping his blood flowing. I kept going, hearing additional, smaller cracks with each compression. It tore me up inside but I didn’t know what else to do.

Greg gave him mouth-to-mouth, spitting foam and peas with each breath. After a few minutes, the man’s skin began to pink up again. We thought we had saved him. Suddenly Greg said, “Hey there’s a boat coming!” and we looked up to see a fishing boat headed our way, distinctive by the cranes and nets hanging over the side. It was badly maintained and covered with rust, but it was moving at full speed on a collision course with us. It was all Linc could do to keep him from plowing into us. There were two people at the bow, a man and a woman, screaming and gesturing. Linc backed off on the throttle.

“It looks like they want to come aboard,” he said, “They must know him. Throw over the fenders.”

We fished the blue rubber fenders out and tied them off as the fishing boat came alongside. They made a quick hitch and scrambled onto the deck before the boat even came to stop. The Captain came running forward as well.

“Sam, sam,” they yelled, clearly distraught and shaking their friend. He did not respond. It was clear that they were all very, very drunk. One of the men sank to his knees and started giving mouth-to-mouth while the woman wept helplessly. Through all this a steady stream of foam poured from the man’s nose and mouth.

“You did this,” the Captain said angrily, turning and pointing at us, “You hit him with your boat.” He stood up like he was going to fight. He was really angry, angry and drunk.

“The Coast Guard is on the way,” Linc said firmly but quietly, “If you’re drunk and running that boat they won’t take it lightly. Now, we’re taking him to that beach right over there.”

He pointed to a beach where fire engines and ambulances were streaming into the parking lot. People were gathering at the beach and pointing at us.

Reluctantly the Captain and his friend backed off onto their own boat. One of them gaffed the jet ski and dragged it the stern.

“This isn’t over,” the Captain shouted, pointing at Linc, “I’m going to get you!”

We untied the hitch and the boat fell astern as Linc pushed the throttle and steered to the beach. We continued heading towards the beach at a faster and faster rate of speed while Greg and I continued our pitiful ministrations on the man. The beach was coming up closer and closer and I yelled to Linc, “What the hell are you doing?”

“It’s not high tide,” Lincoln said calmly, and drove his brand new, $300,000 Osprey right up the beach. The engines screamed at the boat tipped over onto its side, the keel digging into the sand. We grabbed the rail to keep from going over the side or slamming into the wheelhouse. When the boat came to a stop, two firemen waded into the water. One had a long gaffe in his hand. Both of them wore open jackets and no helmets, and cigarettes hung from their lips.  They looked bored. My heart was pounding. The stern was still in the surf, but it was a long distance down now, since the boat was on the shore. “We need a ladder,” I yelled to the fireman.
“Nah,” he said, “Just throw him overboard.”

What?” I asked incredulously.
“Just roll him off the transom into the water,” the fireman repeated. We saw it was the fastest solution, and we thought speed still mattered. We dragged him to the stern and rolled him off the diving platform. He hit the surf with a splash. With no sense of urgency at all the firemen waded out and dragged him onto the beach where the paramedics went to work. At that point the firemen put up a ladder for us to climb down. Linc powered down all the boat’s systems and followed us down the ladder. The fire chief was waiting for him and they started to talk. A large crowd had gathered including a news crew. Linc and the fire chief talked about re-floating the boat at high tide and estimating the damage. The paramedics bundled up the man, put him in the ambulance and sped off.

“He was already long dead by the time you got to him,” the fire chief said, ‘When the Coast Guard reported streaming foam from your description, we knew it was too late. That means water in the lungs. There was nothing any of you could do.”

The police gave us a ride back to Lincoln’s house and our cars. A Coast Guard investigation later reported that the man had been at a beach party with his three friends and spent the day drinking. They had a jet ski but no life jacket, and it’s against the law to ride a jet ski without a life jacket. They looked around until they found a child-size life jacket. The man forced himself into the tiny thing, then, drunk out of his mind, he went for a ride. He struck a big wave, was thrown and stunned, and the small life jacket rode up and forced his head under the water, where he drowned.

Linc’s boat sustained substantial damage; Greg was traumatized despite his heroic act of jumping into the water to retrieve the man, and me… I crushed a man’s chest in a fruitless attempt to save his life. I’ve thought about these events often since then and re-learned a lesson the ocean teaches over and over again – the margin for error on the water is always much, much slimmer than any of us realize, and the ocean rarely, if ever shows mercy.