Men in small boat rescue kayaker from rough lake

They jumped into action after one of them heard cries for help

TOM PETERSEN and John Bohn passed the Port Washington Fire Department boat as they returned to the Port Washington marina Monday in Bohn’s 10-foot dinghy (left) after rescuing a man who was clinging to his overturned kayak in Lake Michigan. Photo by Bill Schanen IV
Ozaukee Press staff

Tom Petersen was on his boat in the Port Washington marina late Monday afternoon when, above the noise of the wind and waves, he heard a faint call for help.

“It was a ‘help, help,’ but I didn’t know where it was coming from,” Petersen said.

He walked to the end of the marina’s pier four and yelled to a couple on the breakwater who told him there was a person in the water north of the harbor.

Petersen reported the unfolding incident to the marina office, which in turn called authorities, but he wasn’t content to wait for help to arrive.

John Bohn, who sails with Petersen, was also at the marina, and the men quickly decided to jump in Bohn’s 10-foot dinghy equipped with an outboard engine and set off to look for the man on a fairly rough Lake Michigan.

“There were about two-foot waves in the harbor,” Petersen said. “I had my back to them because I knew we were going to be taking water over the bow and was looking at John. From his expression I could tell he was thinking, ‘Here comes a big one (wave).’”

Once outside the harbor, where the waves were about five feet and a south wind was blowing at 15 to 20 mph, the men turned north, hooked around the breakwater and almost immediately saw a man in the water clinging to his overturned kayak.

Petersen and Bohn were able to get the man into the dinghy without incident, and aside from being cold, he seemed fine, Petersen said.

“He was wearing board shorts. That’s it,” he said. “No life jacket, no T-shirt, no nothing.”

Although the air temperature was warm, the water was 55 degrees. Petersen said it sounded like the man was in the water for about 15 minutes.

“Fortunately, he decided to hang onto his kayak instead of trying to swim to the breakwater, because in those conditions I don’t think he would have made it,” Petersen said. “He was very happy to see us.”

The man told Petersen and Bohn that he had been with a woman but there was no one else in the water. Authorities said a woman whose kayak also apparently capsized made it to the breakwater and was safe.

But with a third person now in the dinghy, Petersen, Bohn and the man they rescued wouldn’t be safe until they made it back to the harbor.

“I just kept telling John, ‘We’re not going to be victims. We’re not going to be victims,’” Petersen said.

The men made it back to the harbor and were entering the marina when they were met by the Port Washington Fire Department boat, which was heading out to search for the kayaker. After letting the fire department crew know they had the kayaker aboard the dinghy, Petersen and Bohn took him to the launch ramps where EMTs were waiting.

Fire Chief Mark Mitchell said the man and the woman who swam to the breakwater warmed up in an ambulance, then were given a ride to their vehicle, which was  parked at south beach, where they launched their kayaks.

Police identified the man as a 34-year-old from Illinois and said the woman, also 34, is from West Bend.

There was apparently a third woman — a 38-year-old from West Bend — who was with them and also had kayak troubles but made it back to south beach, Capt. Craig Czarnecki said.

Petersen and authorities noted that without life jackets and proper clothing, and paddling kayaks not designed for open water, the kayakers were completely unprepared for Lake Michigan and the rough conditions that day.

“The man kept saying the forecast only called for one-foot waves,” Petersen said. “I don’t know what forecast he was looking at because the one I saw called for three to four-foot waves and we had all of that and more. That was pretty evident from just looking at the lake.”

The Ozaukee County rescue boat, as well as the Port fire and dive team boats were out that evening, leading some to believe they were searching for missing people. Mitchell, however, said they were participating in a long-planned training exercise.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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