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Sailor swims for his life

The racer’s Laser was struck by a 102-foot tour boat at a regatta

The racer’s Laser was struck by a 102-foot tour boat at a regatta

The last thing Joel Lambinus heard as he dove off his small sailboat directly in front of a moving 102-foot tour boat on CharlestonHarbor was a woman’s screams. And as he bumped along the bottom of the South Carolina tour boat’s hull — instinctively trying to swim down and out of reach of its propellers — one thought filled his mind: All the offshore sailing I’ve done, from here to St. Thomas and up to Martha’s Vineyard in seas with 30- to 40-foot waves, and I’m going to die under a tour boat in the harbor.

Lambinus, 57, didn’t die that Sunday morning in late July, thanks to luck and, perhaps, to a friend’s suggestion a month before that he get some exercise.

The Laser from which he dove was battered by the propellers of the Spirit of Charleston, a 97-ton vessel with a 32-foot beam that was taking tourists to nearby FortSumter when the accident occurred.

The Coast Guard identified the captain of the tour boat as O.C. Polk of Mount Pleasant, S.C., who holds a Coast Guard-issued 100-gross-ton Master’s license. The agency’s investigation into the incident was continuing.

Fort Sumter Tours/Spiritline Tours, operator of the Spirit of Charleston, is withholding comment until the Coast Guard completes its investigation, says Rick Mosteller, company vice president. “We’ve done our own internal investigation,” he says. The company has exonerated Polk and returned him to work, Mosteller says, based on “testimony from people who were on the bow of the boat and people who were in the water.”

Mosteller says there was a “divergence” between published reports of the incident and statements that witnesses made in interviews with the company. He says Polk, who has worked for the tour company about eight years, has 30 years of experience as a commercial captain, including running fishing boats. “He’s quite well-known in the community as a seaman,” Mosteller says. He says Polk isn’t commenting on the incident until the Coast Guard investigation is over.

Nor are members of the Charleston Yacht Club, which organized the regatta in which Lambinus was sailing, according to Ryan Hamm, a race official. Hamm says the regatta was a two-day event, July 21 and 22, and that the accident happened eight minutes before the start of the first of two second-day races. Conditions were “beautiful if you’re a real sailor,” with 15-knot winds and choppy seas, says Hamm.

Lambinus says he had finished Saturday’s three races in the top five. On Sunday morning he was getting ready for a race in which a fleet of 15 Lasers and about 25 Sunfish were sharing the same course. He says he had sailed along the starting line, which was on one side of the race committee boat, and had then sailed the length of the finish line, on the other side of the committee boat, allowing his sail to luff as he bailed his cockpit, which had filled in the choppy harbor.

“As I was luffing and fiddling in the bottom of the boat, I had tacked, still luffing and not looking back at the race course,” recalls Lambinus, who says he began sailing at age 7 on the New Jersey shore and at one time held a Coast Guard license and operated yachts up to 73 feet. “The tour boat comes traveling through the middle of the race course,” where the Lasers and Sunfish were preparing to race, he says. “I don’t see this guy. I’m concentrating on looking down the bottom of the boat to put the plug back in. I turn around and here he is, 75 yards away, doing 10 to 12 knots. … Who the hell’s expecting that?” He says if the tour boat had blown a horn to warn him, he would have been scared. “[But] I could have sailed out of the way.”

Lambinus says that when he saw the tour boat, he tried to get his boat moving. But, drawing his sail in and working against a current, he was only able to turn the sailboat toward the tour boat. “I don’t have any way on at all. He’s now 35 feet from me. It was either dive off the boat or get run over,” Lambinus says. “My best estimation was that I would have been killed, because his propellers are still running. I don’t see him slow down.”

Lambinus says that he considered himself a good swimmer until he began a swimming regimen a month before the accident. His weight had risen in the past year by about 30 pounds from 190 pounds, he says. A friend got him to try yoga and then suggested that he start swimming to lose weight. His first time at the pool, he was tired in less than one lap, but the 6-foot, 3-inch Lambinus says he had improved to the point of swimming six laps at a time.

“I dive off the boat,” he says. “At first, my feet touched what I guess must have been the bow of the boat. The next thing that happened is I’m under water, and I’m banging along the bottom of the boat. Now [Olympic swimmer] Mark Spitz takes over. I’m swimming hell bent for leather, and I’m trying to dive down and get away from his wake. I had enough [strength] to swim and get just past the boat.”

Lambinus says his Laser went right under the tour boat’s bow. “The boat comes out from underneath his stern, upside down, and now I’m probably 5 feet, 6 feet off to his port side,” says Lambinus. “I’m choking because I’ve been underwater for about 20 seconds and I’m out of breath.”

Lambinus says he refused an offer from one of the race crash boats to take him aboard and instead swam to his Laser. “The hull was crushed down the center, and it’s all chewed up along the rail so the deck is separated from the hull,” he says. “God knows how much I missed them [the props] by. All I can do is thank God that I did.”

He says his concern now is to assure that the same thing doesn’t happen to one of the children who sail in the harbor. “There were young Sunfish sailors no more than 100 yards from me,” he says. “If it had happened to one of them, they would have been dead.”