WELLFLEET — Curt Felix says that if the wind had just stayed steady, he and two other sailors would have enjoyed a beautiful Sunday sail on Oct. 17.
Instead, gusts of over 20 knots began to punctuate the 15-knot winds, according to the National Weather Service. All it took was one big gust, while they were on a beam reach two miles offshore in Wellfleet Harbor, to knock the 19-foot Rhodes sailboat into the drink.
“It was a freak northwest puff and it capsized the boat,” said Felix, 61, of Wellfleet.
All three sailors and one dog “got wet” but were able to climb onto the side of the hull, Felix said. The center board, meant to stay down with gravity, had retreated into the boat. The only chance to right the vessel would have been to stand on the centerboard. But that was not an option, Felix said.
So, wet and cold, Felix, his wife, Suzanne Gray, and the boat owner, whom Felix declined to name, considered their options.
They had a few factors working against them. The Wellfleet boating crowd had thinned considerably by Oct. 17 and no one else was out on the water. The harbormaster had just stopped staffing his office on weekends, so the likelihood that someone would see them dropped a bit lower. They did not have a waterproof marine-grade radio on board. Such equipment is highly recommended, Fire Chief Richard Pauley stated in a press release issued about the incident.
On the plus side, however, they had life jackets. And, Felix said, he is not only a strong swimmer but a certified diver. Facing the possibility no one would see them and the boat’s precarious circumstances, Felix jumped into the water and began to swim toward shore for help.
The swim would have been over a mile, but Felix reasoned that if he could just float with his life jacket, the northwest wind would carry him to where the crew dredging the harbor would see him. He resolved not to tire himself out. “Most people drown from overexertion,” he said.
Fortunately, someone on shore had already spotted them, according to Harbormaster Will Sullivan. That person dialed 911 and the police and fire depts. dispatched a crew to meet Sullivan at the harbor at 12:01 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, Sullivan and two emergency medical technicians set out to find the boat. They reached the sailors 15 minutes after launch.
Pauley said they had been stranded for a total of 45 minutes before being rescued.
“We were all hypothermic,” Felix said. “I have been colder in my life. But we were cold.”
The water temperature hovered in the low 60s, as did the air temperature that day.
When Felix saw the rescue boat heading his way, he felt two emotions at once.
“I was extremely happy and extremely embarrassed,” he said. Together, the three sailors have over 50 years of sailing experience, Felix explained.
When Sullivan saw Felix in the water, he had one thought: “He was wearing a life jacket, thank God.”
None of the three required hospitalization, Pauley said. And even the sailboat got a lifeline.
When Felix warmed up a little, he called everyone he could think of from the local oyster fleet. Shellfishermen still have their boats in the water at this time of year. Jacob Dalby picked up the phone and volunteered to help Felix save the troubled craft, which would not have lasted much longer, given its age and condition.
“It was extremely challenging because the wind kept hitting the boat,” Felix said. But they got a line around it and pulled it up, bailed it out, and pulled it back to shore, minus a rudder and some of their clothes.
The boat can be repaired, thanks largely to the fact that the federal channel had been dredged up to the boat ramp. It was near low tide by that point, and had the channel not been dredged, “We would have been completely screwed,” Felix said.
“All the folks who rallied around to help us — there are not any words to thank them all enough,” Felix said.