WEST SISTER ISLAND — Findlay resident Forrest Frank, his son Alex of Maumee, and Alex’s 4-year-old son Ben were ready to put the amen on a day of walleye fishing. They were about seven miles out in the lake when they heard shouting from the only other boat in that section of the open water.
“There was nobody else anywhere around and with the wind picking up, it was getting rougher and rougher,” the elder Mr. Frank said, describing that Saturday about two weeks ago. “At first we thought they were celebrating catching a big fish, but then they just kept hollering and yelling.”
Alex, who estimated the second boat was at least a half-mile away at that point, said the tenor of the scene changed rapidly.
“As soon as it was clear that more than one of them kept shouting, it didn’t sound like cheering anymore,” he said. “We started pulling in our trolling lines as fast as we could and once we had everything in the boat, my dad gunned it and headed straight for them.”
Operating his 21-foot, closed-bow boat through the frothy four to five-foot waves, Forrest pushed toward the trio of anglers and their bass boat as fast as the conditions allowed.
“They were a long ways away and with the wave action, it was difficult to see them,” he said. “It seemed like they were standing one moment, and then the next moment we couldn’t see them — they were in the water. The wind was blowing something fierce.”
The 18-foot bass boat, which belonged to a fisherman from Canton, had taken a wave over its open bow, and then after the next wave rolled into the boat, a third wave filled the craft with water and subsequent waves flipped it over.
“They didn’t have time to do anything,” Forrest said.
Alex, a 32-year-old former Eagle Scout who had taken lifeguard training at age 14, tied a line to a flotation cushion while en route to the trio of fishermen who were now clinging to their nearly submerged craft. He secured the line to his dad’s boat and tossed the cushion towards the men, who were struggling in their now saturated heavy coverall suits and boots.
“The wind caught the cushion and it took off like a Frisbee and went way past them,” Alex said. One of the fishermen had his arm through a life jacket, while the other two had no flotation devices at all as they struggled in the 47-degree water.
“They were able to move, but they were getting stiff,” Forrest said. He brought his boat within 15 feet of two of the anglers and they quickly reached the swim platform. The third fisherman had drifted a little farther away.
“I don’t think they were in the water long enough to lock up yet, but that was probably coming very soon,” Alex said. “We concentrated on getting them into our boat and out of that cold water.”
Forrest said the physical rescue was helped by the fact his boat had a swim platform so the soaked anglers did not have to be pulled up over the side or gunwale. “And my son is about 6-5 and 250 pounds of mostly muscle, so once we got them on the platform, we just yanked them into the boat.”
That trio of fishermen were likely minutes from death. “When we got close, they weren’t treading water too well,” Alex said.
“I don’t know how much longer they could have lasted with those heavy boots and coveralls on,” Forrest added. “They were in danger of hypothermic shock.”
The U.S. Coast Guard data on cold water immersion deaths indicates that people not wearing a life jacket often succumb to exhaustion and drown before they become hypothermic. Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Levorchick, whose staff has been involved in many rescue and recovery operations on Lake Erie, said that while spring can bring some warm and pleasant days on the lake, the water takes much longer to warm up and people often misjudge the dangers cold water presents.
“With the water so cold, your survival window is minimal, probably a matter of minutes,” Sheriff Levorchick said. “Hypothermia takes over, regardless of your age or what kind of shape you are in.”
Forrest Frank called 911 and reached the sheriff’s office, but the wind and the distance from shore broke the connection. He then went to a handheld radio he had onboard and broadcast a distress call, and the Coast Guard answered immediately. South Shore Towing also picked up the call and dispatched a towboat to the site.
While waiting on the towboat, the Franks circled the overturned boat and used a net to retrieve gloves, cushions, tackle and other items from the bass boat. Missing was a yellow tackle box that contained the men’s wallets and the keys to the truck that had trailered the boat to Lake Erie.
After a couple of failed attempts at flipping the boat in the roily lake, the tow operator decided to drag it to the marina as it bobbed, belly up.
“Dragging that thing in, the ride seemed like it took forever,” Alex said, adding that since the three wet anglers seemed to be doing OK, the group had decided to trail the towboat so they could pick up anything, including that critical yellow tackle box, that might pop out from under the partially submerged bass boat. Along the way in, a salvage boat took over the tow while the towboat departed to answer another call. Forrest estimated it was about a four-hour trip back to the marina.
“There was a lot of relief once we got back in,” Alex said. “It was all such a blur. I think they were exhausted, maybe embarrassed a little, and it was definitely different talking with them once we were back on land. They were obviously very thankful that we were there to help out.”
Captain Mike McCroskey, who has chased Lake Erie walleye for more than 40 years and currently fishes out of a 27-foot Sportcraft, one of the most seaworthy Great Lakes fishing boats, said he is troubled by the number of boats he encounters on the open lake that are not fit for Erie’s frequent temper tantrums.
“We see all kinds of small boats way too far out there, with guys standing up in a three-foot chop,” he said. “They don’t respect this lake and if you go in the water in the spring, you’ve got maybe 10 to 15 minutes to live.”
Alex Frank said if he and his father had not been fishing nearby, it is hard to imagine this incident having a positive outcome. “It’s just that at this time of year, one mistake can make a big difference,” he said.
Forrest Frank said that a fear of the lake is a smart companion for boaters and anglers on Erie.
“When I got a boat, the first thing I did was take the Power Squadron safety course, and I learned that this lake is not very forgiving,” he said. “We did what I hope any other fisherman out there would do, and that is help someone in distress. We’re not looking for any glory — the next time it might be us that needs to be rescued.”
And did this dramatic life-and-death incident traumatize 4-year-old Benjamin, who witnessed the ordeal?
“He did surprisingly well,” Alex said. “I picked him up and put him in his seat when this whole thing started, and he sat there and took it all in, and then fell asleep in the long ride back in.”