The Puget Sound can be very unforgiving; you can never truly be prepared for what it can bring.
In the early evening of July 12, I launched my boat to check on my crab pots off the Maple Grove area of Camano Island. I had all the required safety equipment with me, and I let someone know I would be out on the water.
When I left, there was virtually no wind, and the water barely had a ripple. After about 15 minutes, I pulled up my first pot and harvested one crab. While I was pulling up the second pot, the wind dramatically increased.
I now found myself dealing with strong winds and constant waves of about 3 feet. I headed directly into the waves and reached a point where I had to try to turn the boat in order to head back to shore. Unfortunately, my timing was slightly off and a wave caught the side of the boat, lifting it up and throwing me into the water. A second later, the boat followed and landed upside down just missing me.
I was fortunate that the shock of landing in the cold water did not fire my defibrillator. I immediately swam to the overturned boat, climbed up and wedged myself between the motor shaft and the boat. I then took my waterproof radio and called my contact on shore for help.
With the noise of the water, wind and the splashing water, I could not hear any response. I continued to request help about 10 more times and still could not hear any response.
Some panic started to set in as well as hypothermia. Being about a mile offshore and not knowing if anyone heard me, I started to feel death was imminent. After thinking of my grandchildren and the fact that I am a cancer survivor, I decided — not today.
I then started to send a mayday on each channel on my radio in hopes someone would hear it.
After about a half hour in the water, I spotted a boat coming toward me. It was a neighbor, Tim Kelly. After spotting me, he pulled alongside of me, and I grabbed his boat as he tried to pull me in. With the wind, we almost tipped his boat. Tim then tried to pull me in by pulling my life vest, but the vest was separating from me. We decided to tie a rope under my arms to keep me above the water and I would hold onto the side as we made our way to shore.
Due to the winds and waves, we made very little progress and after about 15 minutes or so as hypothermia was preventing me from holding on. I was fortunate that a second neighbor arrived. Between the two of them, they managed to pull me aboard one of the boats.
The Camano Island Fire & Rescue boat arrived, and the responders wanted to know if there was anybody else in the water. Upon finding out I was the only one, they went out to look for the boat because it was a navigational hazard.
Paramedics on shore placed me inside the Medic One unit and started treatment for hypothermia. I was transported to Skagit Regional Hospital where they continued my treatment. X-rays also showed some saltwater in my lungs. After my lungs cleared up, I was released within 24 hours to recover at home.
After evaluating the events and my reactions, I feel being prepared and remaining calm were key factors in my survival. I did have a whistle that I forgot I had and would have been helpful in being located.
I have since upgraded my safety equipment. I have life preservers that strap under the legs and automatically inflate when they hit water. I also purchased emergency GPS locators with strobe lights that activate upon hitting the water.
I’m so lucky to live in Island County with the tremendous professional emergency services that are available. More importantly, I am blessed to live among such caring, wonderful neighbors who are willing to do what is necessary to help one another.
I would like to thank my life partner Sarah Stiteler, Tim Kelly, Shannon Sedlacek, another neighbor who prefers to remain anonymous and Camano Island Fire and Rescue. Without all their help, I don’t think I would be writing this.
The Camano Island Fire & Rescue motto is so true: “Neighbors Helping Neighbors.”