Sarah Pederson was participating in the annual HOOK sailing race on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin when the weather took a turn for the worse. The 65-year-old lifelong sailor has completed this race 23 times previously, and on July 18, she embarked on a 36-foot sailboat as part of an experienced eight-person crew.
They were prepared for the storm to strike overnight, and each member clipped themselves to the boat with six-foot lines attached to safety harnesses. When the storm finally struck, however, the wind suddenly shifted, causing the boat to broach. Pederson and the other crew on the high side of the boat were flung backwards. That’s when the clip holding her safety harness failed and she was swept away into the water.
One crew member took note of the coordinates where she had fallen, but Pederson and crew quickly lost sight of each other in the night. She drifted alone through the storm for an hour. She kept herself oriented as best as possible using distant lights on signal towers, and when she saw scanning search lights, she blew her whistle.
Pederson was ultimately able to survive because of her preparedness. She was wearing a full life jacket that allowed her to stay upright and tread water. She also had a strobe light attached to the life jacket, which she used as a signal beam, and a whistle that allowed her to catch the attention of searching boats.
Pederson’s crew finally spotted her when the weather began to clear, and she was then transferred to a Coast Guard boat. Afterwards, she was taken to the hospital to be treated for hypothermia. According to Petty Officer German Bahena Cardozo, who was in charge of the U.S. Coast Guard rescue boat, nighttime water rescues during storms are rare, but Pederson’s preparedness helped keep her alive.