Sailor of the Week: Aug. 5-11
Don Whelan (Bonita, Calif.) hadn’t sailed with his crewmate, Alan Johnson, in over a year. They decided to get some extra practice in prior to the start of the 2010 Huntington Lake Regatta, hosted by the Huntington Boat Club in Fresno, Calif. As it turned out, they did a lot more than test their boat speed and get re-acclimated before the big race. Don had his safety skills put to the test, and he saved lives in the process.
For 56 years the Mercury Class sailboats have been racing on Huntington Lake in the Sierras of California. On Friday, July 23, Don and Alan launched their 18-foot sailboat to practice for the upcoming race that weekend. While out on the water, Don heard shouts for help. At first, locating where the shouts were coming from was confusing. He could see an individual shouting and waving from a small rock island 100 yards off shore. Don also saw three people in the water close to the island. Clearly in distress, the swimmers were bobbing in and out of the water.
Don immediately changed course and prepared to rescue the swimmers. Don and Alan were both wearing flotation devices, and they had a pair of flotation cushions on board as well. On the first rescue pass the boat was going too fast to stop for the swimmers, but the two cushions and a life jacket were dropped in the water as they passed by. Don circled back immediately, and on the second pass the three swimmers were grabbed as they held on to the leeward side of the boat. While the swimmers were holding on to the boat, Alan retrieved one of the cushions, laid it on the deck and lifted the first swimmer’s body onto the cushion. The remaining swimmers were more fatigued, so Don and Alan tipped the boat as much as possible to get the rail closer to the water and lift the swimmers onto the cushion and into the boat.
After the swimmers were safe and secure, they picked up the remaining swimmer on the island. The swimmers were breathing and conscious, but in need of medical attention. They sailed a mile back to the launch ramp where the paramedics could more easily access the swimmers coming off the boat. After they were evaluated at the paramedic vehicles, two were released, but one was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital in Fresno.
Later in the weekend there was a tearful reunion of swimmers and rescuers at their campsite. The young men had gone camping to celebrate a birthday, when they decided to swim to the island. The cold water and high elevation proved to be exhausting for the swimmers. One turned back, while the others continued. Don and Alan were in the right place at the right time. Fortunately, they applied the skills they learned from US SAILING’s Safety-at-Sea Seminars to make a successful rescue.
For what it’s worth, Don finished fifth out of 31 at the regatta later that weekend, but he’ll probably remember the rescue first and foremost. Don said, “It all happened so quickly. We responded with common sense and instinct.”