From a mile away, the objects bobbing in the water looked like logs, but something made Washington State Ferries Capt. Dave Alger take a closer look.
Did one of those logs just move?
Within minutes, Alger and the crew of the Nisqually, en route through the San Juan Islands from Anacortes to Friday Harbor yesterday afternoon, were battling waves and 50 mile-an-hour gusts to rescue four people whose kayaks had overturned and left them clinging for their lives.
According to the fiancee of one of the victims, two of the four were in the water for two hours struggling to make it ashore only to be turned back by rolling waves. All wore life vests but not wet or drysuits, which would have protected them from waters colder than 50 degrees. People can survive in such cold water for hours but many die of hypothermia in less than 30 minutes.
By the time they were pulled on board the Nisqually, the four were incoherent from cold and fatigue, said ferry-system spokeswoman Susan Harris. The ferry turned back to Anacortes, where Lorene Sanford, 23, Scott Brainard, 23, Mike Noreen, 24, and Ian Smith, 21, were treated for hypothermia at Island Hospital and released. Hospital officials said Sanford also suffered a dislocated shoulder.
"They were very lucky. It could have been a very bad situation," said Angie Marsh, Brainard's fiancee. None of the four, all students at Western Washington University in Bellingham, was available for comment.
According to Marsh and ferry crew members, the four had been camping on Strawberry Island, near Cypress Island, for several days. Late yesterday morning they went into the water in two double kayaks, intending to hug the shore.
In Thatcher Pass, less than a mile from James Island, the kayakers encountered four-foot swells and sudden wind gusts. One of the kayaks capsized, spilling Sanford and Smith into the water. Noreen and Brainard, fighting to stay right-side up, were able to reach them.
Sanford and Smith tried to cling to their friends' kayak and Noreen and Brainard struggled to hang on to them while they paddled for shore. But the wind kept pushing them back.
A couple of hours later, the second kayak capsized, leaving all four clinging to the side of the vessel.
Alger, the ferry captain, said the kayakers were first sighted at 1:35 p.m., about a mile from the ferry. Within minutes, Alger knew he had an emergency rescue on his hands and sent two crew members out in a 12-foot boat. At 1:45, while Alger used the ferry to block the wind, crew members Gordon Brewster and David Lawton worked their way toward the kayak.
"The waves were so big they made that little rescue boat disappear at times," Alger said.
The last of the kayakers was pulled onto the ferry around 2 p.m. Passengers and crew had rallied to collect blankets, sleeping bags and heavy coats. "We had a pile of coats four feet tall on all of these folks," Alger said.
One passenger, Bev Hauptli of Friday Harbor, said the passengers watched the drama from the car deck. Even before the victims were brought aboard, "everybody was taking out blankets and sleeping bags to give to them."
Hauptli said the wind and waves were so rough that the crew needed help hoisting the victims onto the ferry. She said passengers formed a "human chain" for ballast and strength to help pull them up.
"It was really emotional," Hauptli said. "The passengers and crew worked together to save these people, and the adrenalin was just flowing all day. All of a sudden it was just neighbor and neighbor helping out." The ferry was two hours late pulling into Friday Harbor.
"The whole way," Hauptli said. "People were counting their blessings."