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A chillingly close call for a longtime frostbiter

The first Sunday morning of December 2010 was cold, and I had to remove chunks of ice from my Laser's cockpit. The sun was shining, and the water temperature was still in the 50s, with a prediction for increasing winds out of the north - a nice day for frostbiting on the lower Connecticut River. It should have been a nice day of racing - with the proper gear.

I hadn't sailed my Laser in five years, and I was looking forward to seeing how my skills had slipped. I put on my wetsuit - having lost 50 pounds, it fit better - spray top, hat, gloves and PFD and headed out to warm up.

After two hours on the water, my reactions and thinking started to slow. A fellow Laser sailor shouted over between races that I should be careful and think about how I was feeling. My gloves were wet and my hands just about frozen. The wind had picked up, and when boats capsized, ice was falling off the sails upon righting.

I hadn't flipped yet, so I figured I should call it a day. I started the next race, as the course would lead me in the direction of the dock. I was almost at the dock when I was hit by a gust and flipped. I righted my Laser and made for the dock with a crash boat escort. I waved them off as I sat on the dock, holding my boat with my feet. I figured I was OK.

The sun was shining, and I was in the lee, but I couldn't stand. My vision became tunnel-like, and I was disoriented. I was thinking I hadn't shivered yet. A teenager saw me and helped me up, walking with me to the clubhouse. I said thanks and walked down the hall to the head. A hot shower was in my thoughts, but I started to get dizzy. Better not fall in the shower or on the tile floor, I thought. I need help - now.

I made it out to the hallway, got on my knees and there she was - the first "angel." She was dressed in khakis and a blue polo shirt, her long blond hair crowned with a halo. I mumbled, "help," and she said she would be right back. She returned with three more angels - two dressed in the same uniform as her and the other in chef's attire. All had halos, and then my ability to see faded.

I heard one of them say I would be all right. They started to warm me up. I felt safe now. As my vision started to return, I saw a burly volunteer firefighter and an EMT. They went to work checking me out, and after a short ride to the clinic I was warming under a special blanket. My body temperature was 95 degrees 45 minutes after arrival. It's scary to think it was even lower before those angels came to help.

Three hours later I was eating a hamburger. Hypothermia makes you hungry - if you are fortunate enough to survive. I was lucky to have had so many people nearby. Losing the blubber I carried for insulation pointed out the need to be better prepared for the possibility of changing conditions. And it's interesting to note that I never shivered throughout my experience.

I'm 51, and I've been frostbiting on the Connecticut River since 1983. This was the first time anything like this has happened. In fact, I didn't think I really had a problem until it hit me at the dock. From now on I'll be frostbiting in a dry suit with proper-fitting gaskets.

It has been said that the water - be it ocean, sound, river or lake - will discover what we have not prepared for. It's important to keep this in mind whenever we head out. Be aware and be prepared. And let's all help each other stay safe on the water. There may not always be angels.

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.