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A Strange Afternoon
|Author||Topic: A Strange Afternoon|
posted 09-13-2015 06:10 PM ET (US)
A Strange Afternoon
On Wednesday, September 2, 2015, we hauled our boat over to Lake Leelanau to go for an afternoon boat ride. We got underway from the boat launch at The Narrows, and headed into the southern half of the lake. It was a very warm summer afternoon, there was no breeze, and it was quite humid--good conditions for a boat ride on a lake.
As we headed south through a no-wake zone, some clouds began to occasionally block the sun. Once we cleared the no-wake zone, we got the boat on plane and cruised along the east shore of the lake, heading south. We were looking for the remains of an old resort on the lake that our family used to visit in the 1950's, a place called Au-She-Gun Landing. I remember it from many trips up there for a week of vacation every July, and from old home movies my dad filmed there. The cabins we rented were very rustic--even by 1950's standards--and I was curious to see if there was any sign of the old place left on the shore.
Several miles south from the launching ramp, we found a few of the old c.1940 cabins still standing, although they were now bunched together on what appeared to be one lot. The rest of the resort property appeared to have been sold off and the lake frontage converted into private homes and cottages.
I took a few pictures of the old cottages to send to my brother, to remind him of the days of our youth on Lake Leelanau. Then I noticed the weather. The sun was disappearing, blocked by low gray clouds, and the wind had really picked up. It was blowing from the North now at about 20-knots, and wind waves had formed on the lake. The air was much cooler than when we had launched about 40-minutes earlier, and it looked like it might rain any moment.
The weather had very quickly deteriorated. We decided to head back to the launch. Going back to the North was quite a run into what was now a very stiff headwind. We had about 30-MPH of boat speed, and into the wind we must have had at least a 50-MPH boat wind. It was a huge change in conditions in just 40-minutes from when our cruise began.
As we were heading north along the east shore, I noticed some flags on shore were flying out stiffly from their masts, a good indication of wind at 20-knots. The weather had made a very sudden change from the start of our cruise just moments earlier.
We soon were at the no-wake zone and entering The Narrows. Coming toward us in the buoyed channel was an 18-foot Boston Whaler GUARDIAN type boat, fitted out as the Leelanau County Sheriff's Rescue Boat. There were three men aboard. The boat had apparently just launched from the ramp a bit farther north.
As the Sheriff's boat came close, its red flashing police lights came on. My first reaction was that was a signal to us to stop for boarding. I was quite confused why they'd want to board our boat at this instant, as we were in a very narrow and very shallow channel. There was only about 3-feet of water here, and the wind was blowing very strongly, making it difficult to steer at low speeds.
It soon became apparent the Sheriff's boat had no interest in us, as we got not a glance from the occupants as the boat passed by us close abeam. They were heading to the lower part of the lake. Glad to not be getting stopped and boarded, we continued on toward the launching ramp.
When we arrived at the ramp, one boater had managed to tie up both sides of the ramp, one with his trailer backed into the water, and the other with his boat tied to the courtesy dock. It looked like he might be there a while, so rather than idle around near the ramp, we continued along the channel, exploring the northern part of The Narrows, which leads into the upper part of Lake Leelanau.
Eventually we returned to the ramp, and hauled out. Of course, by the time we drove back home, about a 15-minute drive, the sun had come back and the weather had cleared up. The Leelanau Peninsula is only about 4-miles wide at its northern end and it doesn't take long for weather to blow over it.
While all this was happening, we were completely unaware of a real tragedy that was taking place on Lake Leelanau, and occurring just a short distance across the lake from where we had been taking pictures. We learned the details of this story from newspaper accounts.
On the west side of Lake Leelanau at Kelenski Point, less than a mile opposite from where we had been taking photographs of the old cabins, there is a sandbar. This is apparently a popular spot for boaters to anchor and gather. A group of four people had anchored their boat on the sand bar, and were swimming or wading in the shallow water. Apparently when the wind came up, their boat dragged its anchor and began to drift away. The water depth increases rapidly once off the sandbar. They began to swim after the boat, but one them disappeared in the winds and waves.
Later that evening the Sheriff's divers recovered the body of a 56-year-old man, who was the pastor at a church in Interlochen, a community just a few miles away.
I was very unnerved to hear about this. When we were on the lake I thought the conditions were quite unusual, the wind unusually strong and the waves unusually high for a small lake. To learn that another boater was drowning in those winds and waves just a mile away from us came as both a shock and a surprise.
This accidental death while boating made me realize how easy it might be to get into serious trouble, even on the water of a small lake that should normally be very protected and calm. There can be danger in boating, and we often overlook it. We need to be more mindful of what can happen if you are unexpectedly in the water and have to swim in winds and waves.
A second thought came to mind: I didn't have our VHF Marine Band radio operating while we were on the lake. Having the radio on is normal procedure on our boat, but I don't think it was operating that afternoon. I did not anticipate making or receiving any radio calls on an inland lake. I never turned it on after we launched and got underway.
Would I have been alerted to the distress situation on the other side of the lake if I had my VHF Marine Band radio in operation and monitoring Channel 16? I don't know. I don't know if the boat that was drifting away from the sandbar had a radio, or if it did if any calls were made from it on Channel 16. Perhaps the boaters called the Sheriff on their cellular telephones. I suspect that on an inland lake there normally is not much Marine Radio traffic.
That we were less than a mile away from a boating accident that resulted in a fatality and we were completely unaware of it seemed strange. Who knows if we could have rendered aid to the other boaters. Perhaps we could have taken them to their drifting boat if we had heard a call on the radio. But, since I don't think we even had our VHF Marine radio operating that day, we wouldn't have heard that call.
As a result of this unfortunate accident and our coincidental boating on the same lake at the same time, I am now more than ever a believer in the need to keep our VHF Marine Band radio in operation and tuned to Channel 16 at all times. While there might not have been any chance of our radio being off becoming a factor in this tragic drowning, our closeness to the other boaters and our complete unawareness of their plight was a shock that reminds me we should always keep a radio watch on Channel 16.
For additional coverage of the drowning on Lake Leelanau, see
The Sheriff's Boston Whaler rescue boat can be see at
posted 09-13-2015 08:42 PM ET (US)
Pretty shocking to have that happen so close Jim. You can be gone in the blink of an eye.
posted 09-13-2015 10:19 PM ET (US)
This is an important point to remember: cell signals are point-to-point; you can call 911, but no one else can hear you. VHF marine radios are open systems, anyone on your channel (frequency) can hear you. On inland lakes one should use both the VHF Marine radio and a cell phone.
posted 09-13-2015 11:22 PM ET (US)
I was thinking that in a daylight situation, a visual distress signal could be effective. I looked at what equipment is required to be aboard a small boat, and I got another surprise. There are federal requirements for boats to carry certain safety equipment when operating on certain waters. I believe the definition is as given here:
Lake Leelanau is connected to Lake Michigan, but not directly. A dam intervenes. Also, the width of the connection is very narrow, much less than two miles wide. Under those circumstances, the federal laws do not apply on Lake Leelanau.
Lake Leelanau is in Michigan, so the state boating rules would apply. As best as I can determine, there are no Michigan rules about visual distress signals governing a boat operating on non-federal jurisdiction waters. I am looking at that more closely, but it appears, upon a close reading of the boating safety handbook of the State of Michigan, that there are no state requirements for carrying distress signals on a boat operating on state water that is not part of the federal jurisdiction mentioned above.
posted 09-14-2015 01:22 PM ET (US)
If you do much boating in Florida, you soon learn to keep looking over your shoulder. Storms come up often and on a daily basis in the summer. What you describe is not an unusual circumstance here. The normal way to avoid bad weather is to plan to be back on the trailer by 3pm, and get out early. Sometimes the storms show up earlier, and sometimes not at all. As soon as the temperature dropped they should have known something was up and got off that sandbar.
I didn't know vessels under 16' were not required to carry VDS. I always carry them on my 13 and 15ft. Whaler. I'll be sure to mention that though, the next time I'm boarded.
posted 09-14-2015 02:54 PM ET (US)
What a tragedy. Never risk your life for a thing. Things can be replaced. And I think many people don't realize just how difficult it is to swim in any kind of weather. Unless you're a lifeguard or something, don't even try it. Even in calm weather, swimming any distance is reserved for those with special training and a very high level of fitness.
Of course if you're on a submerged sandbar in a storm you might have to weigh your odds of swimming for it vs staying put.
From one of the articles [linked above]:
"The sheriff hoped only that as boaters head out onto lakes for the holiday weekend and other trips in the future, they realize the value of having a 25-50 foot rope attached to a life ring aboard any vessel. The rope enables rescuers to continue throwing the life ring until it reaches the intended target."
I'm not 100% sure if I agree with this. During our SOLAS training we learned that the first, VERY first thing you should do when a man goes overboard is to throw something, anything that will float, to mark the position, as well as to give him something to hang on to. People disappear very quickly in wind and waves. 2nd thing is notify the bridge, preferably while continuing to visually track the victim. 3rd is stand lookout and visually track and point so the watchstanders can find him. Ideally there are enough men on deck to share these tasks and the victim can be kept in sight at all times. If there are extra hands on deck everybody should try to maintain visual contact and point at the location to aid the bridge until he is recovered.
That said having some sort of throwable line is certainly an excellent idea for pulling them back in. And these guidelines are designed for ships under way on the ocean, not small boats on inland lakes. But some lakes are pretty big...
My usual lake has no cell coverage. I am planning to get a radio, but I don't think anybody else on the lake has one.
posted 09-14-2015 03:37 PM ET (US)
We were boarded by the coast guard when we first got our boat and I do not believe they asked for visual signals. It's been gnawing at me that I absolutely 100% want to have some on board, but interesting that they did not ask.
Definitely a case for always monitoring 16. I remember when 16 was for both hailing and emergency, which seemed to make more sense, but it is what it is.
This also reinforces my anchor line scope paranoia. Coming from a sailing background, I was worried about scope when I got this boat. The previous owner had 150ft of 3 strand with a splice/eye at the end, but never cut it up. I wound up buying a 1-size-too-big fortress and keeping all 150ft of line on there. We also have a smaller anchor with a more reasonable rode, but I tend to use the Fortress despite the nightmare of coiling all that line.
I see smaller boats pulled up at the beach, etc. and they don't have much line out. It seems to work fine for them but I always worry. The only problem is if you are in a crowded area people may not be expecting such a long rode!
We had an engine issue (long/boring story) on a relatively windy day out by an island we were checking out. The depth was ~20ft and my first reaction was to drop the hook before we drifted into deeper water. I must say, it was very comforting to know I could get a 7:1 scope in that wind if we had wound up needing to wait for help!
posted 09-14-2015 03:46 PM ET (US)
If I was in your situation; i.e., significantly sized lake, no cellphone coverage, and no marinas (nor anyone else for that matter) that monitor or use the marine VHF band, I'd consider an aviation handheld. The emergency freq of 121.5 might allow you to talk directly to an aircraft overhead.
Another thought would be one of the newer EPIRB's.
Regards - Don
posted 09-14-2015 04:10 PM ET (US)
dfmcintyre is right. An EPIRB or PLB would be the quickest and most reliable way to summon help out there.
I re-read the article. It sounds like all four people swam after the boat, three made it, realized the fourth was missing, threw the throwable, but by that point the victim was already gone from sight. If he was already under and they couldn't pull him out within a few minutes it's unlikely that he could be revived even if assistance did arrive sooner.
posted 09-14-2015 05:51 PM ET (US)
The only problem I have with most of the EPIRB's is once you trigger it, everyone is coming lights and sirens. If your overdue or adrift but not in danger of sinking, being able to send a message that a simple assist and not the emergency services coming for a rescue would be handy.
That's where an aviation walkietalkie might be handy.
Regards - Don
posted 09-15-2015 05:11 AM ET (US)
After 10 minutes without oxygen, you are not going to recover, even if you were found by the best of CPR experts. 10 minutes is very short when you are looking for someone in the water.
posted 09-15-2015 09:15 AM ET (US)
I disagree. Both of those system would be much slower to summon help than a call on Channel 16. The EPIRB is great if you are in the middle of the ocean, but not for an inland lake. I believe the Sheriff's boat was coming to provide assistance around 4 p.m., and the swimmer was reported to have disappeared around 3:30 p.m. I doubt that you'd get any faster response.
posted 09-15-2015 09:37 AM ET (US)
This new, currently not FCC approved, product may be the real answer to the deficiencies in both EPIRBs and PLBs.
posted 09-15-2015 11:34 AM ET (US)
"Both of those system would be much slower to summon help than a call on Channel 16 ... I doubt that you'd get any faster response."
Agreed, but like I said, nobody on my lake has a radio.
posted 09-15-2015 01:25 PM ET (US)
There is a lot of discussion in this thread about visual distress and radio-frequency communications. It seems to me these discussions completely miss the lesson of what happenned here.
No VHF, PLB, nor visual distress signal would have saved the individual who drowned. Attempting to swim while carrying such devices is likely to increase the frequency of drowning incidents. Nor would having had every single one of these devices aboard the boat helped the drowing victim. None of the suggested communication methods would have helped the survivors rescue their friend under the circumstances described.
Our boat has visual distress signals. It is also equipped with a fixed-mount VHF networked to GPS with DSC/MMSI, connected to an eight-foot whip antenna, and which is kept on while operating the vessel. It also has a hand-held VHF with integrated GPS and DSC/MMSI. It further is equipped with a PLB with 66-channel GPS positioning, 406 mhz satellite communication, 121.5 mhz homing signal, and a bright strobe. None of these would have helped the drowning victim in this case.
If anything, this should be a discussion of proper anchoring techniques, as well as the importance of maintaining situational awareness.
Also it's a good time to discuss swimming safety 101. At remote locations, have at least one safety-spotter remain in the boat to monitor the vessel and serve on life-guard duty. Always have throwable floatation readily available to assist swimmers in trouble. Keep a mask and snorkel aboard in the event a swimmer goes under and doesn't come up -- time to effect a rescue is critically limited and it's unlikely any rescuer summoned by any communication method will arrive in time to do more than assist in recovery. Take a CPR refresher course.
In short, don't be lulled into a false sense of security by required safety equipment lists or elctronic gadgets. Plan to be self-sufficient. Think "what-if." Think safety.
posted 09-15-2015 01:44 PM ET (US)
Thing is even if the boat was equipped with the latest electronic survival equipment, these folks were standing in the- water on a sandbar and then boat floated away.
Learning how to anchor a boat properly would have prevented this whole thing.
posted 09-15-2015 04:42 PM ET (US)
I doubt that even a Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer can keep up with a boat that is adrift in a 20-knot wind and accompanying wind waves. I am actually surprised that three of the four people could swim back to the boat that was adrift. Maybe it was still dragging its anchor, and that slowed down its rate of drift.
Yes, it is a bit ironic to talk about safety equipment that should be on the boat when it is the boat that has drifted away from the swimmers. No one goes swimming with a VHF radio, a PLB, or an EPIRB attached to their swimsuit.
posted 09-16-2015 06:31 AM ET (US)
Re required safety equipment: I believe in Canadian water boaters are required to carry a 50-foot-long length of floating line. I have such a line aboard, which I bought specifically to comply with those Canadian regulations, as we do a lot of boating in Canadian water.
posted 09-16-2015 10:00 AM ET (US)
There are discussions on the Austinblu Facebook page about lobbying for mandatory EPIRBS on all vessels in Florida. The AustinBlu foundation is in memory of the 2 Fla boys who went missing in July.
Im only going to say this once, Binkster is right....About always looking over your shoulder for storms in the south that is, it is a possibility every single day. The more you sail or boat in the Southeast the more you know to look over your shoulder and always have an escape plan in the back of your mind.
posted 09-16-2015 11:34 AM ET (US)
I hope the effort to make EPIRB equipment mandatory on all recreational boats in Florida fails. There is not even a requirement to have a VHF Marine Band radio on a recreational boat. Having a DSC CLASS-D VHF Marine Band radio would give a boater excellent distress alert notification ability up to 20-miles offshore. That makes much more sense than having every boater in Florida buy a $400 EPIRB that they'll likely never use before the $100 battery needs to be replaced.
posted 09-16-2015 02:19 PM ET (US)
jim--it is very erie and strange feeling when you are around something so close and within the same time period somthing tragic has happened to someone else due to natural cause. The almost exact same thing happened to us a month ago. We were out enjoying an evening out on the water it was like a lake as they say, but suddenly the wind picked up and it was the big ocean again within minutes. By the way this was an usual occurance if wasn't called on the most recent local marine weather report
We ducked into a bay set a crab trap and waited as we relaxed with a happy hour and BBQ. Ironicly meanwhile at the very same time two people were fighting for their lives caught in an unfortunate circumstances. Didn't find out that news until the morning. It happened no more then 3-4 miles ahead of us and the hard part about it all was we were heading up in that direction to lay a trap but decided last minute to abort that plan as the sudden no warning wind was not favourable for laying a crab trap. I sometimes think maybe we would have seen or heard something and be able to react if we just had continued on.
Article is below but video tells the most info. Might need to scroll down to video.
From my experience in the area I beileve they went for a swim out in the open and when this wind arrived from west it blew their boat away from the shore and then down current as it got deeper. Boats can turn so easily and catch much like a sail, at that point they we're forced to tred water in some very deep area with no where to go. I heard they were stopping for a short swim just before they got to the cabin. I know the spot everybody swims their because the water is very warm its literally less than 1/2 a mile off the island to where there end destination would have been at their cabin. I understand the urge but the boat was left unattended without anchor. That was the big problem here. Never ever do that. Possibly the dad may have had a heart attack and the girl was left to fend for herself. We won't ever know because the body was never found. Very sad indeed!
posted 09-16-2015 07:16 PM ET (US)
My dad taught me to be respectful of the water--"judgement," he used to say--when I was a kid running 12 to 14-foot fishing boats with a 9-HP Johnson, most of the time, on small and big inland lakes, in the Drummond Island area. Later I learned to be super-careful running white water and fast moving western streams specific to currents, eddys, rocks, and learned how to read the wind and feel the current under your hind end in rafts and drift boats. And some occasional time on the Pacific Ocean with others at the helm. I learned a simple change of wind direction was a predictor of everything blowing up and immediate need to reel in lines, stow everything loose, and get the hell out of there.
Now living next to Lake Michigan I am extremely careful and trust it less than the Pacific Ocean and any whitewater or coastal stream moving water I ever ran I am more alert by far on that sucker; constantly watch conditions, monitor VHF, carry a hand held VHF, when in range I keep an eye on on-line resources, Weather Underground, NOAA and other radar sources. Any wisp of clouds on the horizon, wind change to the southwest, or stiffening west wind-- or both--is an indicator of time go get back to sheltered waters. No games. Four of us got caught in messy weather about six weeks ago, 10 or more miles from Grand Haven. We got to shelter, storm blew through, and we had to make way back in knarly conditions--and proved the Outrage 17 is one bad ass boat.
Plus we have drownings, near drownings, boat break downs routinely, and local news reports quite thoroughly.
Nevertheless, it is apparent that the news and NOAA has increased intensity and frequency of warnings about rip currents and hazardous conditions for small craft. Not able to confirm but I don't think there have been as many drownings around here this year as in previous years.
Don't beat yourself up Jim.
posted 09-17-2015 07:16 AM ET (US)
It's a sad time for me because my wife passed away last week. Reading of your experience leaves me a bit uneasy, too.
We all know you must respect the water when ever there is a change in weather predicted. However it seems that it's not uncommon inexperienced day trippers end up in these tragic circumstances.
posted 09-18-2015 02:36 PM ET (US)
pete r, I'm so sorry to hear about the loss of your wife. Sometimes life just doesn't seem fair. Every day we have here is a gift, and no one knows when it will end. After all we are all just passing through. The best we can do it to try to take care of ourselves, our loved ones, and stay safe.
posted 09-18-2015 02:58 PM ET (US)
pete r my condolences but I don't think the boater that drowned on Lake Harrison was in-experienced just over confident with getting in the water without the boat being anchored or a line to him or his daughter.
As said before in this thread it was/is a question of anchoring knowledge and when leaving the boat for swimming make sure you have a line to the boat.
My wife and I often swim of our boat in Lake Michigan or any of the larger inland lakes here in West Michigan and always we have one or 2 lines and always at least one floatie (PFD, noodle, throw cushion) in the water between the two of us. i.e. on of us can always make it back to the boat if needed. I use my floating tow (ski/towable) rope which is 60ft long and one of us is always connected unless it is like glass but again we're withing 50ft of the boat.
I always have my VHF on when on the big Lake (Mich) but never hear a reply to a radio-check on the larger inland lakes such as Elk, Torch, Mullett, Burt, Charlevoix, Houghton, etc.
Inland lake boater normally don't have VHF only a 500W sound system on their ski/wake boat and cell phones only work sporadic.
Learn to put the right scope in your anchoring using the correct anchor for the bottom conditions or be tied off to the boat.
posted 09-18-2015 08:47 PM ET (US)
Well said Rich, and I'm sorry as well Pete to hear of your loss. Maybe a better anchoring job would have been a saviour but at least they did try to anchor the boat. The story I sent the poor girl and dad are gone, they didn't anchor at all. It's a big tragedy and mystery now where the father is and what actually happened out there.
posted 09-19-2015 11:47 AM ET (US)
Speaking of boaters who have vanished, it has been over ten years since Lana Stempien drowned in Lake Huron and her boyfriend Chuck Rutherford vanished. See
posted 09-20-2015 06:26 PM ET (US)
Yes, There are times were I have been caught out due to being over confident.
The last time was when I laid out only a short length of anchor rope (being lazy) and went ashore.
As have it, he wind picked up and formed a small chop, big enough to bounce the boats bow and unearth the anchor.
I was away only a short time. However I came to see my boat had slipped about 1/4 of a mile across the bay. With my heart in my mouth I was able to quickly swim out and rescue the boat before it either hit other boats or the reef which were now only a 100 yerds away.
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