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Voice of Experience: An August Nightmare

Gazing upon Cayuga Lake on a calm August day, I am struck now three decades later by my vivid memories of what must be every sailing instructor’s worst nightmare. It was supposed to have been a picnic, a final exam for the summer sailing program at the local yacht club. Instead, in less than 20 minutes, it turned into a terrifying, life-threatening maelstrom of wind and water.

Gazing upon Cayuga Lake on a calm August day, I am struck now three decades later by my vivid memories of what must be every sailing instructor’s worst nightmare. It was supposed to have been a picnic, a final exam for the summer sailing program at the local yacht club. Instead, in less than 20 minutes, it turned into a terrifying, life-threatening maelstrom of wind and water.

It was the summer of 1982. I was 28 and enjoying all the perks and popularity of working as head sailing instructor at the Ithaca Yacht Club on Cayuga Lake in Ithaca, New York. It was the perfect job: I loved sailing, and the club had supportive members and a first-class racing team. That summer we were passing around a copy of Fastnet Force 10, John Rousmaniere’s account of the 1979 Fastnet Race, the worst disaster in the history of yacht racing, in which 15 lives were lost.

“Could that ever happen here?” asked one student. I responded with a smile and said something like, “No, you don’t have to worry about that here.” The exchange was an omen of what was to transpire on a late August day just two weeks later.

Cayuga Lake is 38 miles long and two miles wide. The morning of our race/picnic was cloudy with a moderate southerly breeze, which meant our three-mile sail to the state park would be a run downwind. We’ll be there in no time, I thought, as I counted up the fleet: ten 13-foot Mistrals, 12 Lasers and one Catalina 27. The boats were crewed by 60 students in all, ages 6 to 16, all good swimmers and all wearing lifejackets.

But something didn’t feel right to me. I checked the forecast again: wind 10-15 mph from the south, no rain. I called the father of one student, a pilot, and he said he saw no problems. Reluctantly, I made the decision to go, and blowing the horn, we were off. I gave directions to the other five chaperones: there were two each on two motorboats covering the front and middle of the fleet, I brought up the rear, and a fifth was in our Whaler, covering the least experienced sailors.

Predictably, the fleet soon separated. Within half an hour, the best sailors were well ahead of me. And then it happened. The wind shifted northwest and suddenly grew stronger. Almost immediately, the smaller boats started capsizing. We came upon the first capsized Mistral with three sailors in the water, and before I knew it my 17-year-old assistant, Peter, was in the water. He helped right the boat and started sailing toward shore. I wouldn’t see him for the rest of the morning, and now I was alone. It started raining, the wind increased to 40 mph, and the whitecapped waves grew to 4 to 5 feet, unheard of on our narrow lake.

I came upon a turtled Laser with two very young boys clinging to the centerboard. The boat belonged to Todd, the son of a close friend and the nephew of one of the chaperones, Kim. Except Todd wasn’t there. “Todd swam away,” cried one of the boys as I pulled them into my boat.

“My God, Todd!” I shouted into the wind, and then I saw Kim’s motorboat. “Todd’s missing!” I shouted. Kim and his wife acknowledged the shocking news and moved downwind. I motored parallel to the waves and came across a second capsized Laser. I didn’t see Todd. At this point I knew only that eight of my 60 students had been rescued. It’s early in the storm, I thought, and I’ve possibly lost one student. How many parents of drowned children would I have to face at the end of this day?

I continued to fill my boat with frightened children, abandoning their sailboats to the lake. I continued looking for Todd, but failed to find him. The empty boats were literally cartwheeling downwind. I would have been in awe if I hadn’t been using all my energy to suppress my terror.

I drove my boatload of students to a cottage on shore and let them off on the dock. “Find a phone,” I told them. “Call the club. I’m going back out.” 

“I’m going with you,” yelled 12-year-old Brent as he jumped back on the boat. I knew I didn’t have time to argue. “Hold on,” I said. “We have to move.”

I became more methodical: pick up as many kids as possible; shuttle them to shore; keep my boat from swamping; do it again. Eventually, I could see only empty boats on the lake, and then I noticed flashing firetruck lights at the marina opposite the park.

“Let’s check it out,” I said to Brent. We pounded across the lake, pulled up to the dock, and I identified myself. “We have 23 kids here,” said the volunteer fire chief. I looked over the group. There was Todd, wet and frightened, but perfectly safe. I exhaled. Kim came up and explained he had picked up Todd shortly after I told him he was missing. He’d tried to yell to me, but the wind was too strong for me to hear.

Kim and I went back out in his boat. I was doing the math in my head: 23 plus the 17 I picked up, plus the three Peter helped to shore. That’s 43. How many made it to the park? My two assistants in the lead boat had to have picked up some. Would the number equal 60? Kim and I said little to each other as we towed several abandoned boats to shore. We didn’t want to consider the possibility that even one child hadn’t made it.

When we arrived at the yacht club, all I could see were hundreds of people. Stepping ashore, I was immediately met by media people shoving microphones in my face. “Who are you?” they demanded. “Were you out there with the kids?” I calmly and instinctively responded, “I’m the head sailing instructor of IYC, and I have no comment right now.” They fell away and were replaced by a gauntlet of parents looking at me in shock. I didn’t know if all their children were safe. Did they know? I kept my eyes forward and the club commodore ushered me into the game room, where we eventually concluded that every child was safe ashore. I hugged my assistants. “We got them all,” we said simultaneously.

Then the flag officers and I met with the press. Next morning I woke to the headline: “Wind spills 20 boats; 60 kids safe.” At the awards ceremony that night, I was a little more confident than I had been the day before as I stepped up to the microphone to address the crowd. I acknowledged the many heroes of the day and complimented the students for following my directive that lifejackets must be worn at all times.

I learned subsequently that there was no way to have predicted the arrival of the super low-pressure system that created the storm. It was the same phenomenon that struck the Fastnet fleet. At the height of the storm, it turned out the wind was blowing up to 55 mph, Force 9, and was even stronger at the north end of the lake. All the boats were retrieved, though several were damaged. Three Lasers had their mast steps wrenched right out of their decks by the force of the wind and waves.

Though the children were all saved, some still carry emotional scars from that day. My assistants are now scattered around the country with children of their own, and I have a daughter who just turned 17. I also have a terrifying memory that will never leave me. Nonetheless, I learned a lesson or two: you can’t always predict nature’s moods, but you can prepare for them; and sometimes it’s best to trust your gut.

James Scarpulla lives in Ithaca, New York, with his daughter. He works for the Ithaca School District and spends his summers sailing on both Cayuga Lake and Lake Ontario

Illustration by Tom Payne

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