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Textbook sailing errors, but rescued by a passing windsurfer

by John S Hausman, Mlive/Sail-World on 10 Jun 2014
Chris Johnson, hero of the rescue SW
It had all the elements of classic potentially fatal errors while sailing. Solo sailing, he was tethered but not wearing a life jacket, then removed his tether to complete a task and was then knocked off his boat by the boom. The surface water was 59 degrees, down to 39 below. He was half a mile from shore and it was around 6.00pm.

It occurred on Lake Michigan in the USA, but what saved 73-year-old David Carlson's life was the alertness and commonsense of a passing windsurfer.

Chris Johnson, 53-year-old master windsurfing instructor with 35 years' teaching experience, was sailing shortly before 6 p.m. June 8 when he saw the empty sailboat drift past.

Rescue officials are crediting Johnson with saving Carlson's life. Johnson helped Carlson onto his board and kept him there until a Muskegon County Sheriff's Office Dive Team rescue boat arrived, possibly a half hour to an hour later.

Shortly before, Johnson had twice sailed past the 23-foot MacGregor sailboat's bow and waved to the older man who was sailing it, making sure the man was OK, Johnson told Mlive in a telephone interview the day after. The boat appeared to be having some difficulties in the gusty winds, Johnson said, with the sails down on the deck and the craft having a difficult time moving upwind.

A few minutes after that, 'the boat sailed past me, nobody on board,' Johnson said. 'I knew he had gone overboard.

'I sailed past where I'd last seen him. He was in the water. I asked if he had a life jacket on. He said no. That's definitely a huge problem.'

Rather than go out to the unmanned sailboat and bring it back, which Johnson judged would take too much time, he went straight to the stranded man. They were possibly a half-mile out from shore, a rescue official later estimated.

'He was probably in the water about five or six minutes before I was able to pull right up to him and get him on the board,' Johnson said. 'I had sailed past him and had to turn around to get back to him. He told me he was in distress. I had to sail right to him and drop my rig so he could get on board. And we waited it out.

The two sat on the 8-foot-8-inch-long board – which barely has enough flotation for two people, Johnson said – and conversed calmly until rescue came, talking to each other about their families and about sailing.

Johnson was wearing his usual wetsuit, which offers protection against cold water, but he said the soaked sailor was wearing shorts, a shirt and jacket. Carlson also had a harness around him with a carabine hook attached, to hook himself to his boat, but he had detached it because he was trying to control the boat in heavy seas, Johnson said.

An onlooker on shore, alarmed when the empty sailboat drifted ashore some time later, called 911. The sheriff's dive team, U.S. Coast Guard Station Muskegon and the Muskegon Fire Department responded, with the sheriff's boat reaching the pair first.

Johnson said he would have ditched his rig and pushed the board to shore if he'd had to, a maneuver called 'self rescue.' But the approach of rescue craft made that unnecessary.

According to sheriff's Sgt. Todd Dunham, the sailboat's boom had knocked Carlson into the water.

Dunham said the surface water temperature was 59 degrees when the sheriff's boat reached the two. Johnson said the water below the surface was much colder, as low as 39 degrees near the north and south buoys.

Dunham said Carlson was suffering from hypothermia when taken aboard, with his core body temperature approximately 80 degrees. After the boat brought him in to the Coast Guard station, a Pro-Med Professional Med Team ambulance brought him to Mercy Health Partners' Mercy Campus, where he was treated and released.

'I am convinced if it wasn't for Chris, David wouldn't have made it,' Dunham said. Dunham said he will put in Johnson's name for a life-saving award from the sheriff's office.

'I'm just grateful everything turned out in a positive way and everyone's safe and healthy,' Johnson said
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