Sailors escape serious injury in storm

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Six people and one dog were rescued Saturday evening by Lake County Search and Rescue after three sailboats beached on Bull Island in Flathead Lake during a severe storm with winds upwards of 50 mph. Only minor injuries were reported by the sailors on board, although some boats sustained damage to their hulls and engines.

Sailor Gayle Graf was just finishing dinner aboard her 30-foot Catalina sailboat, Gayle Force, on the south side of Bull Island when the storm descended on their party.

“We’ve been sailors for 20-some years. We’ve been out in lots of conditions — we’ve never had anything like this,” Graf said. “As soon as we saw it, we were scrambling and then it was boats on their sides, trying to undo lines, people screaming ‘I can’t hold it!’ and ‘Go in reverse!’ The next thing you know, our keel is ground in. We’re done for. I would say the whole thing from when we saw it to when we were on the beach was less than five minutes.”

The ill-fated journey began Saturday morning when six vessels departed the North Flathead Yacht Club in Somers, bound for Polson as part of their 13th annual “Voyage to the End of the World.”

From the get-go, the weather wasn’t acting as predicted.

“The weather forecast was wrong all day — we had a wonderful north wind all the way down .. which is not what was forecast,” said sailor Bev Thornton of Lethbridge, who sailed on the X-Static, with her husband Doug.

They knew a storm was due to hit around 9 p.m. and were planning to find solid anchorages after dinner. But the gusting winds and waves arrived early, with fury and without warning.

“We were looking at the clouds and thought, oh that’s going to go past us, and all of a sudden, it didn’t,” Thornton said. “It was more severe than anything we’ve experienced — and fast.”

Graf said the waves were so high, they came right over the transom, or rear of the boat. She said one couple had to swim to their boat to get it off anchor, while a trimaran and another sailboat were also able to get off anchor and motor out. But Graf and two other sailboats couldn’t power past the onslaught of waves. Gayle Force was washed onto the rocks with its mast in the trees.

“It was lying on its side and we were braced for almost two hours, just in there with the waves bashing us around. I just held my dog the whole time,” she said, referring to her Lakeland Terrier, Derby. “It was just like a hurricane; it was like a wall of wind and water just rose up and smashed us.”

But despite the intensity of the storm, the sailors and their watercraft emerged largely unscathed. Thornton, who has logged over 11,000 nautical miles on Flathead Lake, said the experience within the group was a huge factor.

“Sometimes Mother Nature just catches you by surprise. That said, the skill of everybody who was there and knowing what to do really minimized any damage,” she said. “It could have been worse.”

The sailors were transported to Polson by Lake County Search and Rescue and Lake County Sheriff’s Office boats. The following day, dock building company Dockmasters retrieved the three sailboats from Bull Island.

“They’re not in the business of rescuing,” Graf noted. “They just happened to be in Indian Bay, which wasn’t real far from where we were.”

The full extent of the damage to the sailboats won’t be known until they are removed from the water.

“We’ve got some hull damage right down to the water line, but fortunately for us, that doesn’t go all the way through to the inside so we’re not taking on water. But we don’t know the full extent of it until we pull it out,” Graf said. “Unbelievably, I think we’re in pretty good shape, especially having to leave it over night…We were pretty fortunate all the way around.”

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