For more than 25 years, a couple of veteran sailors carried a rescue device developed in Seattle. A sudden squall off Camano Island proved its worth to a desperate kayaker.

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There’s an old saying: If you’re ready for an emergency, one won’t come along. With that in mind, when we bought our Newport 28 sailboat one of the first accessories we added was a Lifesling. Developed by The Sailing Foundation, based in Redmond, it’s recognized as one of the best systems to get a person who has fallen off a boat back on board. We practiced using it in ideal conditions — even using the block-and-tackle system that allows one person, no matter what their size, to lift an unconscious or injured person back onto the boat. Each time our boat, named Great Scot, left its Shilshole Bay Marina slip, the Lifesling package came from our salon to live on our stern rail, handy and ready for action. More than 25 years passed, and no emergency. Perhaps the old saying was true. Until a recent summer when we discovered that, while preparation is vital when facing an emergency, luck can play a big role, too.

Homeward bound

After two weeks gunkholing in Washington’s San Juan Islands and British Columbia’s Gulf Islands we were summoned home on a family emergency. After negotiating Deception Pass at the north end of Whidbey Island and spending the night in Cornet Bay, we motored south under a sunny sky and through smooth Skagit Bay water. As we passed Rocky Point on the northwest tip of Camano Island and entered Saratoga Passage a brisk southerly breeze built to 15 knots on our nose with oncoming waves 1 to 2 feet. Sally, at the tiller, dodged and wove through the building waves as windblown spray climbed our bow and slammed into our dodger. I kept watch on the port side to avoid the scores of colorful crab-pot markers that dotted water along the west shore of Camano Island. Then a red-orange flash of color caught my eye off our starboard in the middle of the passage, 100 or more yards away. A crab pot must have come loose and floated away. A minute or so later, the color was still there but there was something else, too. Spray on my binoculars prevented a clear view. We changed course to have a look.

Kayaker down

Soon two kayaks came into view, slipping in and out of sight behind the building waves. One kayak carried a paddler. The other was overturned and a man in a bright orange life vest was trying to right it and climb back aboard, but with little luck. As we neared the pair, I threw the flotation collar of our Lifesling and shouted for the man in the water to grab the red-and-white floating line as we circled him. “Hang in there,” we shouted at the other kayaker. “Once we get your friend we’ll come for you.” The man in the water grabbed the line and slipped the collar around his back and under his arms, and we began pulling him in. “You OK?” we shouted as he came near. “Yeah, think so,” the gasping voice of a young man answered. As he came alongside, I tied the line to a cleat to secure him to our boat and began to prepare the Lifesling pulley system to bring him aboard. “Maybe we don’t need that,” Sally shouted. “How about using the wave action to pull him on?” It worked. As a wave lifted the young man higher against our hull, we grabbed his life vest and pulled him aboard, one leg at a time. His clear answers to a few questions told us he was cold and wet but apparently OK. His age, about 19, and his good physical condition likely didn’t hurt. “Where’s my uncle?” he shouted, looking out across the waves. Meanwhile two people in another sailboat that had suddenly appeared corralled the overturned kayak and were taking the other kayaker onto their boat. Our new young friend told us he and his family had rented a house on Camano’s west shore and he and his uncle had gone out for a paddle. “We had no idea the weather would change so fast,” he said. “We’ve never done this before. By the time we noticed the waves, we were in the middle and just trying to stay upright. “Then a wave hit me and I was over.” He guessed he’d been in the water about 15 minutes. “I tried to get back in (the kayak), but I couldn’t. Sure glad you came along.” We motored toward shore looking for a place to get the guys to the beach. But there was no dock and the wind and waves were still fierce. A man on the beach must have seen what was going on. He shoved a small rowboat into the water and fought the waves to get to us. Once the bobbing craft was at our stern, our new passenger scrambled in and shoved away. Meanwhile, the other sailboat was able to help the uncle into one of the kayaks, and he paddled for the beach. “Hey, guys, thanks,” the young man hollered, his voice weakening and his hands gripping the rails of the dinghy. Once on the beach, they turned to wave. We didn’t even learn the lad’s name, only that he was a freshman at Washington State University.

Wide, empty waters

We turned Great Scot back into the channel and waved to the other sailboat crew. And then it occurred to us. We looked all around us. The wind was still snipping the tops off waves and sending the mist to join the low-hanging clouds. We two boats were alone. No other boats were in sight. What might have happened had we not seen that flash of color in the middle of the channel and been curious enough to take a look? The folks in the other sailboat said they hadn’t seen the kayakers. They only came by when they saw us changing course and thought we were in trouble. And if we hadn’t shown up, what’s the chance that our student friend may not have survived the 50-degree water? We trust he’s OK and will watch the weather a bit more closely the next time he decides to take a leisurely paddle in our local waters, even in August. Did the Lifesling save the day? Perhaps not entirely. But with it we were ready. What we couldn’t have planned for was the luck that put us in the right place at the right time. And we’ll take that anytime.
  • Below is a video demonstration of the Lifesling in use.