Sarah Pederson’s first thought in hitting the water was a simple one — breathe.
“The first thing I said to myself was ‘you have to regulate your breathing,’” Pederson said. Slow your breathing down, she told herself, and don’t panic.
Which, in the circumstances, was easier said than done.
Pederson was bobbing in the water about four or five miles off the Lake Michigan shore. It was about 4 a.m. It was pitch dark.
The wind was howling and it was raining so hard that on another sailboat in the annual HOOK race a crew member reported he could not see the mast from his place at the tiller.
“It was really poor weather,” said Petty Officer German Bahena Cardozo, who was in charge of the U.S. Coast Guard rescue boat at the Sturgeon Bay Station early Sunday.
“There was a really thick fog and a huge rainstorm, thunder and lightning. The air temperature was in the low 60s and the water temperature dropped to about 57 degrees. There were four-foot swells.”
A sailing life
Pederson, 65, grew up in Kenosha and has spent most of her life sailing from the harbors of Kenosha and Racine.
Although she and her husband moved to Florida a year ago, she had returned to Wisconsin to take part in the HOOK Race last weekend.
On Saturday morning she left Racine as part of an eight-person crew on a 36-foot sailboat, planning to race nearly 200 miles from Racine to Menominee, Mich.
“I’ve done this race 23 times,” she said. She was sailing with a “very experienced crew” including her brother.
The crew knew a storm was expected overnight Saturday, and Pederson said they were prepared. They had reduced sail and were wearing safety gear, including life vests with strobes, and Pederson and each of the other crew members on deck clipped to the boat with six-foot lines attached to safety harnesses.
But when the storm struck, the wind suddenly shifted and the boat broached. Pederson and the other crew members who had been on the high side of the boat were suddenly flung backward as the boat shifted and water swept down the deck.
When the water hit, Pederson said, the clip holding her safety harness failed. She was swept away into the darkness.
Calling the Coast GuardOn the boat, Pederson’s fellow crew members had seen her swept into the water and they instantly went to work trying to get the boat under control, to drop sails, to secure lines and start the engine.
One crew member noted the coordinates where she had fallen. They called the Coast Guard for help.
“It’s a pretty intense situation,” said Pederson’s husband, David, an experienced sailor who had remained on shore that day. “They had to right the boat so they didn’t lose anyone else.”
In the darkness and the storm, Pederson and the crew immediately lost sight of each other and she was alone in the water in the darkness.
She remained alone, drifting through the storm, for an hour.
Was she scared? “I have a hard time answering that question, because I surprisingly managed in my own mind to stay calm,” she said. “The first thing I said to myself was you have to regulate your breathing. I do a lot of swimming and I guess I would call it water awareness, that helped me a lot.
“I also told myself—I had a lot of self talk—I said things like ‘this doesn’t have to be your end, you can do this … although I’m not going to lie, there were times when I wasn’t really sure.”
As she drifted, she tried to keep herself oriented using distant lights on signal towers on shore. She scanned for the lights of boats. When she caught sight of scanning search lights, she blew her whistle.
Prepared for this Pederson insists this is not a story about her, it is a story about preparedness.
When she hit the water, she was wearing her life jacket. Not the inflatable life jacket she would wear while sailing during the day, but a full life jacket that allowed her to stay upright and tread water.
Attached to the jacket she had a strobe light that acted as a signal beam, and a whistle, a simple child’s whistle, that she could blow to bring attention to searching boats.
“My story is about how I was able to survive because I had a full life jacket on. I had a strobe. I had a whistle, I had water awareness because I know how to swim,” she said. “And I had a group of people who worked very hard to find me.”
Throughout the storm, the crew of Pederson’s boat was sweeping the search area looking for her strobe and listening for her whistle. Cardozo’s crew from the Coast Guard station quickly joined them.
Cardozo said nighttime water rescues in stormy weather are rare. “But we were pretty hopeful,” he said, “If she had not been wearing a life jacket with a strobe,” he said, it would have been a different story. “That’s part of the reason she is alive right now.”
As the weather began to clear Pederson’s crew spotted her in the water. They pulled her aboard, then transferred her to the Coast Guard boat.
“We took her to the station at Sturgeon Bay, where I had EMS on standby,” he said. Pederson said she was taken to the hospital for treatment for hypothermia.
Pederson returned to Kenosha Wednesday, She said she hopes to use her experience to highlight the importance of being prepared and for using safety equipment on the water. She also is thankful for the work of the crew and the Coast Guard in searching for her through the storm.
“It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about the people who worked very, very hard to bring me home.”
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