Seaworthy Surrender on Lake Mendota | Sailing on Lake Mendota

When you live in Iowa, in the middle of a large continent, but have spent most of your life on a small island in the South Pacific (good ol’ New Zealand), the opportunity to hire a wee sailing dinghy for a little day jaunt across a moderately sized lake proves surprisingly irresistible.

I like to regale my companions with island-hopping adventures and impress them with my sailing know-how acquired from a childhood spent messing around in boats. The stories are exotic enough that I can easily give an impression of salt-worthy experience. But I’ve never been officially “in distress,” nor needed the services of those patient Coast Guarders whom my father so diligently supports. Until now.

The Little Sailboat That Could

On the southeast side of Lake Mendota in the city of Madison, Wisconsin, salsa music blares from outdoor speakers underneath the banner advertising “Supreme Water Sports.” The rental desk overlooks the boat shed and jetty, where a generic grayish sailboat is being prepared for our departure.

As we leave a hasty sign-and-date on the official Supreme Water Sports waiver, one of the rugged types who tend to run these places sizes up our group. “I think we can fit all five of you in there,” he decides, and we nod vaguely, having previously been informed of the four-person limit. But as he is one of those rugged types, tanned, tee-shirted, with a tangle of hair, his professional opinion seems valid.

On closer inspection, the FJ (Flying Junior sailboat) gives a slightly sketchy air but looks fit enough for our service. Fuzzy ropes, saggy bungee cords, small shreds in the sail, and mildewed hiking straps fail to dampen our enthusiasm. I exclaim to anyone who’ll listen about the joys of capsizing a dinghy on a hot summer’s day—you can bob in the silky water for a while, just you and the boat alone in a refreshing bubble of solitude. Eventually you’ll apply the physical laws of leverage (sit-in-water-and-pull-on-centerboard) to right the boat.

But we don’t anticipate capsizing today; the offshore wind barely feathers the lake, and besides, none of us is dressed for a wild run. After a brief debate, we even decide it’s safe to take the camera.

We all clamber aboard and find a seat amidst the overflowing folds of sail. Captain Aengus takes the helm—with wild red hair and a British command—and I the mainsheet. Tammy cautiously composes photographs on her Canon SLR, while Charly, the German-with-Australian-accent-from-Japan, and bear-like Brendan fumble with the jib sheets. It’s a feeble tug of war, trying to figure out which way that silly second sail will flop next. We’re an eclectic class of Iowa college kids and an unlikely bunch to take to the seas, which is why we’re not (taking to the seas). We toss up whether to attempt a lake crossing but decide that a wild-looking headland to the northwest is a comfortably adventurous target.

Here Comes the Wind

Soon enough our gentle, flappy run turns into a steady reach through a sail-school fleet, picking up speed and a few inches of water as the waves nip up their heads to chomp at our bottoms, which are hanging over the side for balance. The camera gets stuffed in my jacket pocket and stowed in the bow for spray protection. A few surprised squeals, exhilarated whoops, and spray-soaked gasps accompany our rushing wake as we enjoy the daring freedom that comes with not complete control of a nature-powered vessel. Whatever happened to Mr. Windless Day? Who knows, but we begin the beat back to shore.

The lake is liquid obsidian in its depths, but the five inches bathing our feet is a pastel olive green. A half-empty water bottle starts to float in the cockpit, and the towels stowed in the bow become limp and soggy, but I’m unperturbed. I’ve seen it all before. I’ve sailed with enough water in the bottom of a boat to make a bath-sized tidal wave. Tammy clutches the jacket with the camera inside to keep it away from the puddle. Our lack of a bailing device does cause mild alarm, but we race along in not nearly the direction we’d hoped, flying as close to the wind as we can.

There is a curious rectangular hole in the stern, about the size of a large hand, through which water starts to slosh with every wave. As if pointing out the scenery, Aengus casually reminds us that the buoyancy chambers are filled with polystyrene, so there’s no way we could actually sink. The water creeping up our legs appears to prove that statement false, just when its truth becomes significantly more important. The rectangular hole starts to admit free entry to as much of the lake as it wishes, becoming more and more accommodating as it bows under the weight of its fluid guest. Two small circular orifices on either side of the cockpit spew forth yet more drink to add to the merriment.

Distress Signal

Sailing becomes drunken lurching becomes frantic paddling, until even those efforts to reach the nearest shore are swamped by the hilarious dawning that we are standing underwater. A flutter of surprised worry awakens somewhere between my stomach and my throat, but I’m also secretly delighted to put the buoyancy chambers to the test and find that they pass with flying colors, as much as they’re expected to. We’re not at the bottom of the lake anyhow.

We drop the sail in surrender, better than it catching an inopportune wind to tip our lumbering balance into a capsize. Its wet, smothering folds dragging over one side are not a huge improvement, though. In a sudden burst of pathetic theatricalities, I wave my arms around and yell “Help,” my friends joining in, aiming our futile attempts at whatever white speck on the lake seems nearest. At about this point I give up any sense of superiority to my buddies, for this is new to us all, and we’re in this boat together. A thoroughly swamped boat. In fact, we are simultaneously in the boat and in the lake.

With a flash of inspiration, Charly precariously ties the camera-jacket halfway up the mast. The hull wobbles violently and we applaud his heroic effort, until we lose our balancing game completely and the whole boat rolls over like a belly-up whale. “Not my camera!” wails an angry and despairing voice. I dive after the bundle, but fail to hold the entire weight of boat, sail, and mast long enough to untie the jacket. The mast sucks out of my grasp and I briefly glimpse an odd and frightening image—that thin metal finger, pointing down, sinking away from me in the murky green waters. When I resurface, I find myself clutching my glasses and both of Charly’s flip-flops. I don’t know how I happen to have them. Floating is easy and the water caresses like a second skin; soon my moment of panic resides.

The righting operation is already underway. It’s similar to opening a tight jar lid —you’ll tense every muscle and make a constipated face as you twist on the rim that’s slipping from your grasp but doesn’t seem to budge. Just hold it one more second and suddenly it’ll pop free. After a solid pulling effort, the mast finally swoops up, complete with the camera-jacket draining the lake from its pockets.

Aengus and Charly swim aboard while  Brendan and I cling to the bow. More yelling and arm-waving ensues, this time at a fisherman in a black motorboat. He contemplates us then turns back. Fairly soon I’m simultaneously swearing and laughing at our absurd situation. I’m glad to be with friends who don’t fluster easily and, despite chattery teeth and blue lips, we all agree it’s an adventure worth writing home. We sit and wait, swim to keep warm, gaze at the sky, and try to decide if the shore is any nearer than it was five minutes ago.

One of those white specks on the lake grows bigger, heading straight for us, and we welcome it with cheers and more arm waving. The thought of its large foamy wake washing over us is a little unnerving to someone who’s already drunk a lot of lake water in the past half hour, but the search and rescue crew have practiced skill and ease carefully towards us. On board the launch, we wimper at the drenched remains of the camera and joke about hypothermia. It’s actually not much of a joke as the five of us huddle in blankets and shiver like a fitful flag in a gusty squall.

Our dying swan drags heavy as we tow her home. “You know,” our rescuers comment, “that boat has a maximum capacity of two.”


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