by Ken Baer
Ken Baer was a lifetime boater and a keen new sailor, with a passion to learn the sport well. Here he tells candidly of his first, abortive, attempt to sail from his home to his holiday playground, the unusual life jacket without which things may have turned out very differently, and the lessons he learned on the way.
The Bear Cat, post-wreck
Growing up on Long Island I had always been around the ocean and an avid boater. Last year, I wanted a new challenge and I had grown passionate about learning to sail. I had just purchased a new catamaran from a boat maker in Annapolis and was preparing to sail it, for the first time, to my vacation home in Grand Cayman. I had friends that were to fly down and meet me at various stops to travel with me for certain legs of the journey. I had spent months getting everything right for the boat; I was taking delivery fresh from the factory and it still had that 'new boat' smell.
A novice sailor, I spent the previous few months in the bays of Annapolis learning the basics of sailing. Another important step in my preparation was to purchase a U.S.C.G. approved Float-Tech® inflatable life jacket; the owner, Jeff Betz, and his girlfriend, Rachael Wheeler, are friends of mine and when she heard of the new boat and the journey she insisted I try one out. Float-Tech®, based in Troy, NY, is the only U.S.C.G. approved inflatable life vest that zips into high-tech waterproof, windproof outerwear; Rachael said I would love the functionality along with the fashion aspect. How right she was.
It was the middle of Fall in 2009 and the weather was certainly cool in New York but I was looking forward to the warm, blue waters of the Islands. I set sail right from the ship yard, gained my sea legs, and set out on the ocean.
My path kept my relatively close to shore, as I would be making stops to pick up my travel companions. Only 26 hours into the trip I ran into unexpected high winds off the coast of South Carolina. Earlier in the evening I had donned my new Float-Tech life jacket since it's a jacket and foul weather gear as well.
In all honesty I put on the jacket to add to my comfort on the cool evening, I wasn't even thinking of the safety aspect (after all, 'I never thought it would happen to me').
Against advice I had been given by more experienced sailors I was pushing the envelope and I was on a schedule. I had already been sailing for 17 hours that day; determine to make it to Georgia that evening. Relatively new to sailing, my instruments were failing me and disorientation quickly occurred; I feared I was too close to the outer limits of the channel. Around midnight my boat came upon the north jetty (which is fully submerged at high tide) in the port of Charleston and became lodged on the structure.
I quickly radioed for assistance; I knew it was a matter of time before the catamaran went down. I was quite relieved to see the U.S.C.G. approach, and a diver swam to meet me on the remaining part of boat.
He asked how I was doing, my response, 'I've had better nights!' I didn't have time nor was I in a position to gather any of my belongings. Underwater photography equipment (a hobby of mine in the Islands), cell phones, clothing, laptops, etc. went with the boat (thank goodness for insurance).
I had chosen to manually inflate my Float-Tech while the boat was going down in anticipation of fact that I was going to have a tough time swimming in the violent, cold waters. The clever life jacket would have automatically inflated upon contact with the water if I had waited. I was instructed by the diver to get into the water and swim to the basket of the helicopter, as the rescue helicopter could not get too close to the rocky structure. By the time I reached the basket I was obviously quite shaken and hypothermia had set in.
Unfortunately my now-precious Float-Tech life jacket was left in the helicopter after my rescue, but Mr. Betz was kind enough to replace my product gratis. After a brief hospital stay to get my body temperature back into a normal range the wonderful Coast Guard escorted me to the airport and I was home in my bed in Troy, NY by noon the following day.
Now after another new catamaran (a twin to the one that went down), and a professional Captain delivering her to me in Grand Cayman I am able to enjoy the Bear Cat in the warm, tranquil waters when I visit the Island. I am much wiser now and had to learn the hard way to always plot a course on the tried and true paper charts, not always to trust my GPS and electronics.
I also always don my Float-Tech life jacket before I set out, as do the rest of my crew and friends that join me; safety is not a part time thing. Had I not had my jacket on when the boat hit, I would not have been able to reach another life vest to get it on in time, and my story could have a very different, very tragic, ending.
The Charleston Jetties have been the cause of many mishaps before. In one of the worst, S/V Morning Dew, back in the late 90s, plowed into the north jetty costing all four persons aboard their lives. At a time before everyone had a GPS, Morning Dew was trying to enter Charleston in the wee hours of the morning in fog, a few days after Christmas.
They thought they were between the jetties (largely submerged jetties with rocks peaking above the surface here and there), but in fact were north of the north jetty. A passing boat reported hearing cries for help and notified the Coast Guard, but could not locate the source of the yelling.