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Reliving a Donner Lake rescue

Sylas Wright
Sierra Sun
File PhotoPersonal watercrafts, such as these pictured on Lake Tahoe, pose their own unique dangers to boating. Those who operate them should be aware of all dangers.
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With National Safe Boating Week wrapping up this weekend, the timing seemed appropriate to dust off an old first-person rescue story that fits right in with the theme.

The year was 2007. The setting, Donner Lake, early May.

My buddies Russell and Jeff and I were trolling for mackinaw, unsuccessfully, on Jeff’s old-school beast of a boat and#8212; a 1970-something inboard with a cabin cover, named and#8220;Rivets,and#8221; which once was used as a search-and-rescue boat on Walker Lake (or maybe it was Lake Lahontan).

The day was getting late, with few boats remaining on the lake, when we heard a holler for help.

We scanned our surroundings to find a man in a ski boat, gesticulating in our direction as he approached from about 100 yards away. He pointed frantically toward what looked like three bobbing heads in the still-chilly water.

A good distance from the floating lumps, which now appeared to include waving arms, we could see a personal watercraft (more commonly referred to as a Waverunner) idling in the opposite direction in a weaving pattern.

The situation quickly summed up itself. The undulating objects were indeed people, apparently dumped from their vessel, and they were stranded in the middle of the cold lake signaling for rescue.

By the time he reached us, the man in the ski boat had a plan. He instructed us to pluck the bodies out of the water while he went after the loose vessel.

We fulfilled our end of the bargain, speeding over to what we discovered to be two young girls, about 10 to 12 years old, and an older brother type, maybe 14.

Once we had their shivering bodies safely on board and#8212; not the easiest task with the deck of our bulky boat so high off the water and#8212; we turned our attention to the man in the ski boat.

He was doing his best to chase down the personal watercraft, which was snaking left and right as it motored along no faster than 3 mph. But it was clear that his boating skills were no match for the elusive vessel. He performed far better in the planning stage.

So we took over the slow-speed chase, Jeff behind the wheel of his boat, which, without power steering, was far from nimble in the chop. Soon after, it also became clear that Jeff was not competent enough to perform the mission (in his defense, the boat was new to him and not at all easy to drive).

Before he could argue, I shooed him from the driver’s seat and took the wheel and#8212; who knew those eight years working at a marina during high school and college would pay off in this way?

Slowly, steadily, I crept up on the shifty craft, matching its swerving motions. and#8220;Russell! Get out to the front and hop onto it!and#8221; Reluctantly, Russell positioned himself on the bow, seemingly ready to pounce. The small vessel vanished from my view as we pulled up on its tail, now just a few feet away.

and#8220;Jump, Russell! Jump on it!and#8221;

But he didn’t, wouldn’t, even after a few more choice words of encouragement. He just froze in his pouncing position, unwilling to make the leap of faith. and#8220;You would have had to rescue me,and#8221; he said later.

Before I could yell at him again, one of the young girls we pulled from the water and#8212; a wiry spider monkey of a kid and#8212; pushed her way past Russell and leapt without hesitation from the front of the boat. She landed squarely on the seat with a knee-banging thud.

The girl quickly slipped the lanyard cord around her wrist, gained control of the vessel and circled back alongside our boat.

After a brief but sincere and#8220;thank you,and#8221; the teenage boy and other young girl jumped aboard.

The young trio sped off with a great story to tell, or perhaps never to tell, as we reminisced about our successful rescue operation.

And with that, a potentially hazardous lesson was learned: Wear your lanyard, or be left stranded in the cold.


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