Days before Christmas a scene unfolded in Howe Sound that “was quite dramatic, like a movie,” said Kelly Kurik, 58, who is still coming to terms with the real-life ordeal.
Kurik and a friend, who asked not to be named, were planning to spend the night at Gambier Island on Dec. 23. At about noon they set out in separate sailboats from Keats Island. Kurik’s friend was ahead, his engine engaged and sails catching wind.
As the wind calmed, Kurik caught up. He saw his friend’s engine had stopped, and he was trying to fix it from his skiff, which was attached to the sailboat.
That decision proved nearly fatal.
Kurik kept going while keeping an eye on his friend. With about 300 metres between them, Kurik watched as suddenly, the sailboat took off. The skiff with his friend on board trailed behind, still attached by a line.
His friend had accidentally put the motor into gear as he started the engine with the throttle wide open.
Kurik opened up his own throttle, fighting to stay close as his friend tried to pull himself back within reach of the runaway sailboat’s engine.
As Kurik approached he watched, helpless, as the bow of the fibreglass skiff was pulled underwater, causing the line his friend had been hauling to wrap around his foot.
In a blink the bad situation turned disastrous – the sailboat dragged his friend under the surface.
Kurik took an inside corner to catch up with the boat. He could hear his friend’s screams as he surfaced, still tangled in the line. “I didn’t think I would save his life,” Kurik told Coast Reporter.
He estimates the chase lasted 30 minutes.
Finally, for a second time he caught up and in desperation tried to use his boat as a battering ram, bashing the sailboat to slow it down. Then, he swung his boat back around, stretched out to reach the motor and yanked the spark plug wires.
The engine died for a second. He looked back and saw his friend pop up above the surface. The rope, finally, let go.
But Kurik hadn’t been able to pull the wires completely away, and the engine started up again. The boat sliced through the water in corkscrew formations.
Kurik’s friend, meanwhile, floated facedown in the water.
Kurik spun his boat around, jumped into his own skiff and pulled his friend out of the ocean and into the boat.
“I just started pumping on his chest,” he said. “He puked up a bunch of water and gasped for a breath of air.”
But now, the runaway boat was set on a collision course for them. Kurik scrambled back onto the sailboat, named Impatience, just in time. He pushed the oncoming vessel away, but it knocked his anchor loose. “Somehow I got the power to stop the anchor by pulling it around a cleat,” he said.
Kurik looked back at his friend. He wasn’t moving.
He pulled his friend on board and lay him by the woodstove, only to see that once again, the runaway boat was heading towards them. Again, they avoided collision.
Somehow, amidst the frenzy, Kurik had managed to call Coast Guard.
As directed he headed to a dock at Langdale.
That’s when a crew from RCMSAR 14 arrived. “That was the nicest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Kurik.
“Coast Guard should be patted on the back,” he said. “[They] did a beautiful job.” And RCMSAR, “they’re my heroes.”
RCMSAR transferred his friend, with suspected hypothermia, to their boat and back to Langdale, where he was picked up by ambulance and taken to Sechelt Hospital.
The four-person crew tracked down the sailboat. By then it was heading towards Horseshoe Bay at a speed of about four knots, and in the BC Ferries lane.
Coxswain Tess Huntly managed the crew to pace alongside. A member boarded the sailboat, shut off the engine, took down the sail and they towed it to the government wharf in Gibsons.
It was 4:25 p.m. when all was said and done. RCMSAR helmsman David Croal told Coast Reporter the crew still don’t know how Kurik managed to single-handedly pull his friend from the water.
The calm weather, daylight and the fact that Kurik’s friend wore a PDF all worked in favour of the rescue and just like a movie the ordeal ended happily, said Croal, adding: “Sometimes they don’t.”
As for Kurik’s friend, he was discharged from the hospital and was able to take possession of his boat. He’s shaken, said Kurik. “But he’s alive.”