How I sank my sailboat and nearly died

A story of a life changing event on a small sailboat in rough seas

I lay down now, in a soft bed, on dry ground, in the back of a valley in Hawai’i. It’s been a long day… a day that keeps replaying over and over again in my head. I want to share my story with others, as a testament of the sea’s power, a power so strong as to change my view of the sea and of life. Here’s what I remember, before the details fade from my memory.

November 28

I board the boat with a beautiful girl named Naomi. The wind is completely dead and I have to use the motor to bring the boat to its anchor in the bay where we will camp out for the night. After anchoring we sat on the deck and admired the stars, something I’d done maybe a hundred times since July. We sat looking out at the glory of the ocean, reminiscing on times we’d had at sea – the magical ones, and the frightening ones. As we slept, there were times when the wind and rain picked up, but by morning things were fairly mellow again. There remained only a nice moderate wind for sailing.

November 29

Naomi, on her first day to sail with me in the bay, and the first time she’d ever steered a boat, joined me for what we expected to be a wonderful day of sailing. I started by giving her the basics of tacking, both by steering and by giving her the jib sheets to work. Her smile and enthusiasm was overwhelming. I relished that moment for a while as we continued out. The channel, which I had been through maybe 8 times, looked rougher than I’d seen it before, but I suggested that we should give it a go and when it got too rough we’d turn around. At the time I figured we’d get half-way, figure it was rough and not worth sailing in on a nice joy ride, then turn around and come back. As we sailed out, the wave swells got bigger. We actually enjoyed riding the waves up and down as we left the channel. Once a wave struck me and drenched me. I kept the nose into the waves, and without any breaking waves, I felt we were ok. However, at some point, I realized that we would have to turn around. I asked if we should return. Naomi, still full of her enthusiasm thought we should keep going. We kept going, now far from where the waves were breaking.

Then the wind started to howl. As we kept sailing, I got this bad feeling that we’d have to return soon with the waves at our back. I was not sure if we should attempt this channel or try to sail to the channel near Chinaman’s hat. I didn’t’t think that one would be any better.

“Ok, lets turn the boat around here and see how it handle’s the waves here …,” I said. I wanted to test the boat out with the waves behind me in the open sea. The boat seemed to take the waves extremely well. In fact, it was a breeze sailing with the waves behind instead of straight on. So I decided we should continue.

At this stage, I had no idea that the SamPan channel had closed. Waves were breaking in the channel, making navigating a sailboat pretty tough. I could barely see the channel markers so I had Naomi get out the GPS unit so that we could navigate the exact course that we had used to enter the channel.

As the channel approached I tried to make out a path for us to enter. At times it seemed like nothing but waves. At others the waves were only on the sides. One wave sent us steeply down the crest. Our adrenaline rushed. The last thing I wanted to do was send us into a nose dive in the waves. But the waves only came every so often. The next wave I turned the boat around and we broke through with the nose first. Then I steered it back and we had a clear sail for a few minutes.

Naomi then exclaimed as she sat in the seat in front of me, “Man, I really trust you a lot Rob!” We looked into each other’s eyes, and smiled. I had a sinking feeling then knowing that she trusted me as I was navigating into a channel that was full of the ocean’s furry. It was at that point I looked behind me.

I saw a wave building. From that point, I was in the trough and it seemed as high as my mast. We guessed about 15 to 20 as we sat in the boat.. I didn’t get the boat completely around when a wave came over the boat.

The next thing I knew, I was out of the boat and Naomi was looking back at me 10 yards a way hanging onto the boat. I yelled, “You gotta get into the boat! Just don’t let go! I gotta get in!” I figured I could swim, but I wanted her in the boat. If she could turn it into the waves we could sail out of the channel and just stay outside.

She couldn’t get in the boat! The waves tossed her back and forth. “Get in Naomi, Get in, get in, get in. S##t, get in, …” the boat was on a dead course for the giant breakers on the North side of the channel. …

“Oh F#!K,” I thought and exclaimed. I ripped off my sweatshirt and began swimming as hard as I could towards her. Waves and chop pummeled me from all sides. I looked up and saw her in the boat, but she couldn’t steer the boat into the waves. The waves came from the starboard side and jib was hooked on the starboard side. She had to unhook the Jib and move it to the other side to turn the boat!

boat-with-wave2“Naomi! Undo the JIB.” I yelled, now feeling totally helpless. Huge waves lay just in front of her. I yelled as loud as I could and waved my hands in the air. “Undo the jib! Undo the Jib … Oh, Lord, let her undo the Jib!” “NAOMIIIII….” S#!t. At this point my body was filled with adrenaline and emotion. I yelled and cried and swam as hard as I could to her.

Then I looked up. She had dropped the jib. She was however, up on the deck working on the lines when I saw behind her, an enormous waveIt dwarfed the boat and began to break. “NAOMI!!!!!” I yelled! She didn’t see it coming. Bamm! That’s the last time I saw her. I looked at the boat. I could barely make it out now, as it must have been 200 yards away. I no longer saw my mast though, and I no longer saw Naomi. I ripped off my pants and ditched my GPS unit that I had in my pocket. I started swimming like I’ve never swam before to the boat, in hopes of finding her. Then, the next wave hit me, sucked me under and wouldn’t let me up the surface. When I finally popped up I was surrounded in white wash and barely able to breath. I was able to just catch my breath as I saw the next wave come. I dove through it, but it too crashed and tumbled me around. I thought I was going to drown. I looked again for the boat. I couldn’t see it. It was gone. There was nothing now but me in the middle of a set of breaking 15-20 foot waves.

I thought, “Rob, you can’t do anything now.” You’ll drown if you don’t get out of there. You gotta stay calm and you got to stay on the surface. Suddenly, my panic left me and I got into a zone. I knew I must swim, like I had swam in rough water a thousand times before, one stroke at a time. I must stay calm, and when a wave comes, to dive under it and let it tumble me. I must remember the breath holding skills I had tried to tone for the past few years.

My mind shut out all worry about the crash, so that I could stay calm, feel the ocean and relax enough to breath after every swell.

I had decided to swim in to shore, down the channel. I knew it was a couple miles, but I figured I had to get in, to tell someone. I looked back and saw the outermost channel buoy about 100 yards away. I swam backstroke to keep my airways mostly out of the water. Every once in while a big wave came and I would stop and repeat the wave tumble.

After about 30 minutes I looked up, exhausted and the buoy was still about a hundred yards away but this time I was far into the southern break. I was getting drug into the waves and I wasn’t making any progress onshore!

It took everything I had to swim out of the waves again, this time the opposite way. I kept an eye on the buoy. It never got closer, but kept changing position. Pretty soon I was looking down a set of breaking waves at it. It was no longer behind me. “Oh S#!t” I was getting drug out to sea. “I may never make that buoy”, I thought. I decided I had to abandon the backstroke, and put my head down and kick it. I swam as hard as I could for about 5 minutes. When I looked up it still wasn’t closer, but this time I was more behind it.

It was at this moment, that I suddenly realized that “I” may not make it. I was getting exhausted and more and more water filled my mouth as I would swim … a sure sign of exhaustion.

buoyFinally the buoy began to get closer, and after another 10 minutes I made it to the buoy. Yet, when I got to it I realized that it was gigantic. There were no stepladders on the side, but just large rings on the side where I would have to wait for a wave to come to reach. I calmed myself and as a wave came, the front end came close enough down that I could reach it. I was glad then that I had done rock climbing, because I was able to throw my legs over as I basically was catapulted onto the “bucking bronco” as I called it. I crawled in and tried to wedge myself inside. I didn’t know if I’d be able to hang on as the waves tossed me.

After a minute or two of realizing I had made it, I suddenly realized I could climb the large 20 foot tall structure to look for Naomi and the boat. I climbed, precariously to the top of the swaying beast. On top I suddenly had panic. Where was she! Did she make it? After and hour of being in the water, I was exhausted and I didn’t know if Naomi was strong enough to withstand the middle of the waves, let alone the boat capsizing.

My mind was filled with thoughts. The more I looked, the more I began to think I had lost her. I thought this from the minute I saw her get hit by the wave, but it seemed more like it could be reality now. I couldn’t see the boat. I couldn’t see anything. I could barely see the land in the distance.

Now I had only been seeing Naomi for a week, but in that time, it seemed there was a magical presence between us. We had barely been separated for the past 8 days. I felt so happy when I was with her. I began to feel pity on myself. Here I am in the middle of the raging ocean, and I can do nothing to save anyone. I felt that I had lost the girl that I could see so much potential in. I began to wonder how I would tell everyone that loved her that I had lost her.

Two hours went by and I was still on the buoy. I was beginning to get seasick riding the “bucking bronco buoy”. My bare skin was exposed to the waves, the wind and the rain. I’d been shaking uncontrollably for over an hour. I had no energy to look for boats anymore. I began to wonder if I’d make it. I kept looking at my watch. Surely, someone will have seen my boat drifting in by now. “Where were the rescuers,” I thought. I couldn’t pound on the buoy anymore. It took too much energy. If I had to be out here all night, I’d have to conserve energy.

Finally, three hours after having been hit by that first wave, I looked up and saw two guys on a jet-ski. I jumped up and started yelling, “Over here! Over here!” They zoomed over. I was so glad to see them!

“Jump in the water,” they said. I jumped in and grabbed onto the board and nearly tipped the jet ski over. Not good as a big wave was starting to break behind us. As soon as I grabbed the modified boogie board attached to the back of the jet ski they were off. “Go, go, go” I heard them yelling. We had to get in front of the waves.

We powered on for about 10 minutes in this tricked out rescue machine. Many times we went airborne riding through the waves. My energy came back as the adrenaline pumped through my system. Finally we got back to the docks at the Marine Corp base. I was too scared to ask if they had Naomi. Finally one of the rescuers told me that had gotten her before. They said she was taken to Queen’s hospital for some injuries but that she was fine.

I hopped on the docks and reassured everyone that I was fine. I said there’s nothing wrong, I just wanted to get to Naomi. The said I should cover up though and get someone to check me out. I realized that I was still shaking uncontrollably. Someone gave me something to eat and put a blanket around me. That’s when the long process of answering questions began.

I got rescued at about 12:30 and I had been in the water since 9:15. My body temperature had dropped to 96 degrees, a bit colder than I would have liked. I had only some minor cuts on my back from laying two hours wedged into the bucking bronco. Castle hospital was kind enough to give me a cab. I borrowed some clothes from a doctor and headed off barefoot and in scrubs to the other side of the island.

At Queen’s hospital I found Naomi lying on a bed on her stomach. I gave her a kiss and she began to cry. We were both so happy to see the other person alive. I found out later that I wasn’t the only one to think we had lost the other person.

Upon examining her myself, I noticed she was more cut up than I thought. Her face had some cuts, her right arm was badly bruised and blue. I arrived just in time to see the doctors coming in to stitch up a wound she received. I told him I wanted to stay, even when he told me that I should leave if I was at all squeamish, as it was a pretty nasty wound. I wanted to be with Naomi and hold her hand. I didn’t want her to have to do it by herself. Ten minutes into the process I began to feel myself get woozy. Seeing the wound, combined mostly with not eating even after getting rescued, made me have to leave. I came back in at the end of the stitch-job, to see the last few stitches go in. Thirty stitches completed the wound.

After the accident I kept relieving it over and over in my head. I realize I could have done some things better, and I know it will make me a better sailor. I feel that the experience made me realize how important people are, and how important life is. All of my studies and my small trials in life just didn’t seem that important while I was bobbing up and down on a buoy in the Pacific! I hope I continue to sail, and continue to have adventures, but I realize now that I need to always be prepared for anything that could happen. I guess I underestimated the power of the ocean. It truly is an amazing force; it nearly killed us both, and it took most of my worldly possessions down with it! But as the circumstances have it, I realize that my prayers were answered that day and I am forever grateful. Was there a reason I didn’t succumb to the sea? It doesn’t seem that it was my doing. I must remind myself that life isn’t about what you loose from your mistakes, but what you gain from them. I’ve gained so much from this experience, both spiritually, and mentally. For that I am very grateful.


For more info about the event refer to the Hawaii Star Bulletin 11/30/2003

Written by Rob Nelson

Rob is an ecologist from the University of Hawaii. He is the co-creator and director of Untamed Science. His goal is to create videos and content that are entertaining, accurate, and educational. When he's not making science content, he races whitewater kayaks and works on Stone Age Man.

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