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Boardsailor survives 18 hours in water

The Coast Guard found him clinging to a lobster pot buoy a mile off the Florida Keys

The Coast Guard found him clinging to a lobster pot buoy a mile off the Florida Keys

The wind dropped, the current was too swift, and boardsailor Gregory Lepock, out for a late-October sail, found himself being sucked between two islands in the Florida Keys on a sure course for the Gulf Stream and a potential ride into oblivion.

“You try everything you can do to increase the chances of your survival,” he says. Without enough wind to sail to the lee shore of Big Pine Key or West Summerland Key, he unrigged his short board, ditched the sail to cut down on resistance, and began swimming the board toward land.

Lepock, who is 55 and has boardsailed for 17 years, was losing ground to the current; land was slipping away. In the still-warm sun of late afternoon, he and his board were backing toward the Gulf Stream. He was becoming exhausted, and he knew the situation was serious, but he says he wasn’t losing hope.

It was only after dark, when the lights of a Coast Guard helicopter that had obviously been searching for him turned away and headed for home, that Lepock, shivering, first wondered if he would survive. By then, his wife had launched a search effort, to no avail. It would be the following morning, after he had spent 18 hours in the 80-degree water without a life jacket, improvising ways to fight off hypothermia, before a new Coast Guard patrol found him clinging to a lobster pot buoy a mile from shore.

“You pray; you hope,” Lepock says. And you have concerns, he says, like the realization he was floating in shark habitat. “You just try to avoid the negative thoughts and focus on the positive.”

Lepock, a former computer technician, kayak tour guide and sailing charter captain, had spent the morning of Oct. 24 caring for his invalid mother — now his full-time occupation — at his home on Big Pine Key, about 30 miles northeast of Key West. He planned to boardsail about three hours in the late afternoon. He normally sails on the windward shore of his home island, he says, but that area was crowded with liveaboards, so he decided to try sailing from West Summerland Key, the next island along U.S. Route 1 to the east.

That day, the second cold front of the season had come through, and there was a strong wind from the north. Wearing a “Farmer John” wetsuit — a sleeveless design with large arm and neck openings — he began sailing west, planning to tack east and west along the shore. Lepock explains that a short board doesn’t sail well to windward but that it compensates for this shortcoming with superior speed. As he approached the western end of West Summerland Key, however, Lepock felt the breeze weaken. Soon, he was in a wind-driven current, drifting south under the Route 1 bridge between West Summerland and Big Pine keys.

“I hoped once I got on the other side of the bridge I’d be able to sail to land on either side,” he says. “I tried making upwind progress once I was on the lee side of the island and the bridge, but it was even more difficult then. The wind was even weaker from the [effect of the] bridge … and the [full moon] current was running real strong.”

Lepock then tried swimming the board to shore, without success. “After swimming as hard as I could, as long as I could, I started getting exhausted and experienced leg cramps,” he says.

He thought low tide would come before sunset and that the current would change, sending him back to shore. He floated, knowing he was heading toward a reef about five miles off the keys and, beyond that, the Gulf Stream. “I tried to grab a few lobster trap buoys; I tried to swim the board toward them,” he recalls. “A few of them I could touch but not quite grab.”

The sun set, with Lepock holding onto his board, the mast and boom balanced on top, still drifting out to sea. “I was shivering, so it was kind of scary not knowing what was going to happen next,” he says. “After dark, a buoy was right in front of me, so I grabbed it.”

By this time, Lepock’s wife, Cindy Gavin, had notified the Coast Guard and begun her own search. In her gut, she thought her husband must be on an island somewhere, but she was scared, too. Her husband’s physical condition was “pretty good, but not as good as he used to be,” she says. Caring for his mother keeps him close to home, denying him the opportunity for the kind of exercise he once enjoyed. And a year before, after he broke a hip, doctors told him not to run any more, she says.

In the dark, Lepock tied the lobster buoy anchor line around the boom and put the two mast sections into the foot straps of his board. Like any anchored vessel, the board turned into the waves, which now were running 2 to 3 feet, Lepock estimates. The board doesn’t have enough buoyancy to support his whole weight, so he lay across the board and the boom. As the board bounced over the waves, he got soaked, the water entering the large arm and neck openings of his wetsuit.

“So I was bouncing around in the waves, trying to hang on,” Lepock says. “[The boom] was rubbing on my chest where I was laying over it. If I lay lengthwise on the board, it would flip right over. I was supporting my head by putting my chin on the trap buoy. It was wearing the skin off my chin. My legs were just killing me. I was in a lot of pain. That sort of kept me awake through the night.”

Lepock watched the red and green navigation lights under the Route 1 bridge that he had washed beneath, assuring himself that he was not drifting. “I’m pretty familiar with the stars and the constellations,” he says. “I figured the sun would be in Libra, and I was watching the signs of the Zodiac as each would come up. Every two hours, the next sign would go up. Aries was already up. I watched Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo and then Libra. And finally when Libra [came up], that’s when the sun started to glow in the east.

“Then it was a while before they started resuming the search,” Lepock says. “By that time, I was getting pretty tired of bobbing around out there.”

When he first saw the helicopter its side door was open, and Lepock could see people sitting inside. “They made one pass by me. The board is orange. They didn’t see me,” he recalls. “The next pass, they did spot me and circled around me. As they circled, they waved, and I waved at them. It wasn’t very long after that — a matter of minutes — that a Coast Guard boat pulled up and pulled me out of the water.” It was 8:24 a.m.

Lepock says he has learned several lessons from his confrontation with mortality. He will never again boardsail alone, he says, and he won’t stray far from shore. He won’t wear a life jacket because his board is his flotation device and, he says, a PFD could get a boardsailor in trouble while sailing in the surf or when trying to swim back to the board. He will, however, carry a waterproof case with a cell phone in it.

“That would have saved me a whole lot of trouble,” he says.