It started like something from the ’70s TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” what was supposed to be a one-hour tour turning into something unexpected and rather more protracted. My husband, Mike, and I pushed off our little piece of shoreline on Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota on July 4 under blue skies, planning to sail as far upwind as we could. Little did we know, this excursion would provide more excitement and fireworks (figuratively) over a few hours than we’d see across the lake that night.
The boat was a 15-foot Designers Choice, a Sparkman & Stephens-designed centerboard dinghy created with sail training and racing in mind. I had purchased her in a wave of excitement on a windy September day in 2020, failing at the time to see one major flaw (we’ll get to that later). She was older than either of my grown children and came out of the mold about the time I was riding horses back in sixth grade.
The sailplan was simple, a loose-footed main with two reef points, a lightweight genoa/jib, and a spinnaker. She even had hiking straps, should we decide to take on some competition. We had equipped her with a small, 3-hp outboard on a bracket that a previous owner had already installed.
The wind was out of the west at a steady 10-12 knots, and we were working the puffs to head up closer and get around Mattson Island, only a quarter mile from our cottage. Handling the tiller and the main, Mike called the tacks, and I backwinded the jib before a full release, ducking under the boom as we synchronized moving to the windward side.
After about an hour and a half, we rounded the island and turned downwind to run back home. We figured we had been out long enough, and we were due to meet our daughter for an Independence Day cocktail contest. I had picked a few wild blueberries that morning, and we were looking forward to some interesting and original concoctions.
We’d been running downwind with no problem, but we were headed for some rocky shallows and needed to jibe. We knew how to safely jibe Lost Loon, our 40-foot Caliber LRC, but we hadn’t done it on this boat before.
And, as the main came through the center and the boat’s angle to the wind changed, we suddenly found ourselves off balance and on the low side. With all the weight to leeward, the dinghy capsized in the blink of an eye.
I surfaced, stunned at what had just happened, and quickly looked over for Mike. Calmly, he asked if I was OK. We were both fine though obviously soaked and a bit shocked. The water was cool but not cold, and thankfully there were no waves. We took a few moments to gather our thoughts and briefly discussed what we had to do to save our boat, which by now had completely turtled.
In no time, several power and fishing boats zipped over to us, whether to catch the novelty of a capsized sailboat or to make sure we were OK wasn’t entirely clear. Someone threw us a comment about life jackets. No, we weren’t wearing them. Yes, this could have been a bigger mistake, but in this case, the life jackets proved to cause more trouble.
I was actually doing fine until Mike tossed me one that had floated free. I could find no easy way to don the life jacket in the water (and yes, this is why the Coast Guard encourages you to put them on before you go accidentally swimming). I managed to get one strap locked, but the thing kept riding up in front of my face, and even having it partially on made it difficult to dive or even reach very far underwater to try and free the sails’ sheets or attach straps to try and right the boat.
So, I took it off and threw it to one of the powerboats, assuring them I was a strong swimmer in calm waters. I knew that if push came to shove, we would let her go and swim for shore, less than an eighth of a mile away.
Because we had been already running downwind with the centerboard up, when we jibed and capsized, only a tiny bit of it was projecting from the upturned hull. We needed all of it to lever the boat upright. Mike dove under the boat—again, something he couldn’t have done wearing a life jacket—and was gone for several seconds that seemed like forever. My thoughts flashed to him getting tangled up in halyards and jib sheets.
But he successfully released the centerboard mechanism, and we were able to crawl up onto the hull and pull the board up. This was a novel exercise for both of us. Despite having sailed a Sunfish for years, we were lucky to never have capsized. It took a bit of upper body strength to hold onto the centerboard and then walk up the wet, slippery hull to a point where we could share a little foot space.
Using the board as a lever, we leaned back, and the boat began to right itself. She rolled over in slow motion to the windward side, and we saw the mast with its jumble of lines crest the water surface. But because we’d been unable to uncleat the sheets while the boat was turtled, the wind caught the jib, and she quickly took off sailing briefly, then capsized again.
We made another attempt. This time one of the powerboats had thrown us a line, and we asked them to begin pulling her from one of the forward cleats as she rolled upright.
Over she went again. Each time the mast came up, all the lines dragged from one side to the other, and my fear was that one of us would get caught in this tangled mess. I tried several times to dive down and release the jib, but the camcleat was too small and wet and my fingers couldn’t work it. And, unlike the waters we love in the Caribbean, this tannin-stained lake provided no visibility.
Finally, we took a second line from the powerboat and made a towing bridle, attached to both bow cleats. Again, Mike and I worked to bring the boat upright. Like a sleepy whale, she slowly turned over. We asked the powerboat to start pulling, and we grabbed onto the stern. As the powerboat increased speed, it was helping to drain the boat. We held on tight as we headed for shore. Needless to say, we were a spectacle by this time.
We headed for a small beach near the cottage, the only place we could land the boat on the rock-lined shore. The tow boat got us close enough that we could finally stand up in the shallows and release the tow lines. We shoved the dinghy into the beach, and several bystanders helped us push her farther onto the shore and prop her up. Mike pulled the drain plug, and for nearly 20 minutes the boat released a constant stream of Lake Vermilion water.
After removing the outboard, we opened the aft storage locker, and suddenly we understood why the boat kept capsizing over and over after we righted her. When the previous owner had attached the outboard motor mount, he had cut out a large section of the inner, watertight hull and never sealed it back up. This allowed water coming into the cockpit to drain freely into the boat’s bottom, rather than overboard through the cockpit drains. So, once righted, the boat couldn’t drain off enough water to become stable and would simply capsize again.
Mike caught a ride back to the cottage to retrieve more lines and our trusty aluminum fishing boat while I derigged the boat. When he returned, we towed her back to the cottage, arriving just as the sun disappeared in the western sky. With well-deserved blueberry-based cocktails in hand, we recounted the events of the day, trying to decide how best to fix the boat’s problem. In the end, we covered the entire opening with Plexiglas and sealed it with 3M 5200—an easy fix that since has successfully prevented water from seeping into the hull.
What We Did Wrong:
I should have more carefully inspected the boat before I bought it. I was excited about finding a boat in decent condition, in my price range, in a size I could handle alone, and I didn’t look too carefully at its integrity.
Jibing is a tricky maneuver, no matter what size the boat and how experienced the crew. We should have talked through it first. We’d become a bit complacent on the easy upwind sail, and we were caught off guard when we quickly found ourselves on the wrong side of the boat.
Life jackets save lives, period. We were not hundreds of miles offshore, but we should have had them on, even if it meant we had to remove them after the capsize while we were working on getting the boat back on its feet.
What We Did Right:
We accepted help when it was offered from kind fellow boaters.
Mike and I trusted each other. We worked together, taking and giving ideas to handle a difficult situation. Level heads prevailed—probably the greatest lesson.
Nancy Magnine and her husband, Mike, sail winters in the Caribbean on their Caliber 40 and summers in small boats in northern Minnesota. She writes a blog about land and sea life at sailinglostloon.com.