Kings Point graduate credits search pattern for the rescue of a kiteboarder missing offshore
Good Samaritan David Wright didn't think he was doing anything heroic - just what he was supposed to do - when he launched a nighttime search for a kiteboarder and found him cold but very much alive after eight hours in the water.
"To be honest, I didn't think this was that newsworthy," says Wright, 28, a Laser sailor who lives in Toronto and is a member of Canada's national sailing team. "You help a guy out, right? I feel that people do that every day." But it's not every day that the right man is in the right place at the right time to make a difference and save a life.
Wright, a 2004 graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, N.Y., learned a few things about search and rescue while he was at the academy. Chief among them is to have a search plan and stick to it. You don't want to be just running around in circles hoping for a chance encounter. "I had a good plan," he says. "I made the best assessment I could."
Wright and other Olympic aspirants on the Canadian and U.S. sailing teams were training at the International Sailing Academy in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, just north of Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's Pacific coast. The sailors had been scheduled to race in the French Olympic Sailing regatta in Heyres, France, but ash from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano intervened. Their flights were cancelled, their plans scotched, so they wound up in La Cruz instead for 10 days of training on Bahia de Banderas, Mexico's third-largest bay.
Asleep at their villa near the Marina Riviera Nayarit, Wright and two buddies, Rob Crane and Clay Johnson, were awakened by frantic pounding on the door about 10:45 p.m. April 24. A man in shorts and kiteboard harness, soaking wet and with panic in his eyes, gushed out a story of a kiteboard outing gone awry. He and his friend, a Mexican in his 50s, had been kiteboarding on the bay at about 6 p.m. when the wind suddenly died and they wound up in the water about a mile-and-a-half off the beach.
The man - the younger of the two and a visitor from Spain - had started swimming to shore to find help. A fisherman returning to port picked him up and dropped him off at the marina, but declined to help beyond that. It was too late and too dark. The Spaniard said he had met some staff from the sailing academy and knew they had a coach boat - a 12-foot inflatable with 25-hp outboard. He asked if Wright could get the boat and the two of them would search for his friend.
Wright was taken aback at first, but the panic in the visitor's voice quickly convinced him this was for real. He got the keys to the coach boat and motored about 20 minutes up the beach to the parking lot where the kiteboarders had left their car. The Spaniard hustled up to see if his friend had made it back to the beach. The car was still there. His friend wasn't.
He had last seen his friend about a mile-and-a-half off the beach. The tide was ebbing, the wind blowing offshore. The lost kiteboarder had been in the water for six hours. Wright figured he might have drifted as far as six or seven miles off the beach - about as far as he felt he could go safely at night in a small boat in big Pacific swells. The moon was close to full, but the sky was partly cloudy. When the moon appeared, visibility was one to one-and-a-half miles. When it slipped behind the clouds, the oceanscape fell into darkness, he says, and the swells undulating across their field of vision were like mountains. They couldn't see past them.
"The odds were really stacked against us," Wright says.
Using lights on the beach to orient himself, he motored out about seven miles, then began a search pattern perpendicular to the beach. He would run at full throttle for two minutes (about a half-mile), then turn off the engine and "holler," hoping for a response. Finishing one pass, he'd motor down the beach a mile and a half and make another pass perpendicular to the beach, again stopping every two minutes to yell. After three or four passes - about 90 minutes - fuel was perilously low. About 2:30 a.m., Wright broke from his search pattern and started running diagonally to the beach toward the marina from about five miles out.
Suddenly his lookout cried, "I see a kite! I see a kite! I see a kite!"
The black kite wasn't more than 50 yards away. "I almost ran over him," Wright says. The kiteboarder was sitting inside the kite, using its bladder for flotation. "He'd made himself a little raft and was just waiting it out," Wright says.
The veteran kiteboarder was very cold and a little embarrassed at his predicament, but all in all he was pretty laid back, Wright recalls. "He told me, ‘Well, I made my peace. If I'm done, I'm done.' But he was very happy to be pulled out."
Wright says they were very lucky to find him. They were just one boat at night in swells with a flashlight - albeit a big one. "A plan helps in anything," he says. "The reality was the odds were against him, but by not searching randomly we are able to cover a lot of ground."
Though Wright insists he just did "what you're expected to do," the rescue did not go unnoticed. All of the sailors were waiting for him when he got back that morning and gave him high-fives. The kiteboarder turned up at the marina later that afternoon and personally thanked him. And International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, informed of the rescue, sent Wright an e-mail saluting him for his heroism.
This article originally apperaed in the July 2010 issue.