today i saved a man's life...

we tacked and jibed our way from the ominously foggy base of golden gate's south tower, past the palace of fine arts, coit, and the embarcadero, to a calm sunny spot beneath the bay bridge. we passed underneath the bridge east of the concrete anchorage and dropped our sails. we were ready to chill, take it easy, bask in the sun and perhaps take a swim.

just then we saw an empty plastic soda bottle float by. we all wanted to yank that trash out of the bay. our captain, mike, 50 years old, decided it was as good a time as any to take that swim. he tied a line onto the stern and tossed it out so he would have a guide to swim back to. my job was to keep my eye on the bottle and not take 'em off. it wasn't easy. the currents near that anchorage were swift and unpredictable and the bottle was carried off our stern quickly.

mike dove in and headed for the bottle which was about 30 yards off stern, veering east of the anchorage. as he swam further and further out, i asked my crew of friends, "um, is mike a really good swimmer?" mike was off course and i was getting nervous. he looked back to me for what i thought was guidance to the bottle. i pointed and he continued on. but a moment later he turned around and started swimming back. he was about 40 yards away and too damn close to that anchorage. he paused for a breath, then started dog paddling, still a long ways off. i saw his head disappearing and reappearing with the bobbing of the waves.

then a distant, muffled "start the engine!" ... did i hear him correctly? i thought to myself, "is he telling me he's in trouble?" he yelled something again i couldn't make out, but i decided that's it, he's in trouble.

sarah and patty pulled in the line mike had thrown off stern, otherwise it would wrap around the propeller when the engine was started. i yelled at patty to jump off the rear seat so i could get to the engine compartment. thankfully mike had shown us once, yesterday, how to start it. i cranked it over at a low throttle. suddenly patty reached over and turned it on full throttle. i screamed "no!" and for a few tense seconds we battled over who was going to take control of the situation. (i'd say that was one of the most dangerous moments.) she thought it best to get to him in a hurry. i thought it best to go slow so we, a fairly inexperienced crew, could keep that 32 foot beast under control, get him on the first pass, and not run him over. i took over knowing that a debate might get him killed.

i turned the boat 180 degrees pointing back towards the anchorage and our drowning captain 60 yards away. believe me, driving a sailboat is far different from driving a car: the rudder is sluggish and not very accurate, and the water is not pavement. with the bow pointed the right direction i increased the throttle slightly. i didn't want to miss him and risk a second pass, not to mention the nearby concrete anchorage that served as a backdrop to this drama. we approached him on our starboard side. quickly calculating in my head the options of throwing the engine into reverse for a slowdown or neutral, i chose neutral. that intuition was exactly right. we gently cruised right next to him on starboard. sarah tied the life preserver to a line and tossed it out, mike swam a few strokes and caught it. they pulled him aboard and i throttled the engine forward to steer clear of the approaching anchorage.

after mike was aboard, begining to calm down and warm up, i asked him if he consciously called for help knowing how much strength he had left to remain afloat. he said that he did have just a little bit left, but that he'd forgotten an important thing about swimming in the bay: hypothermia starts setting in after only a few minutes. he was out there for almost 10. i'm sure this'll be his last macho move. funny thing is, we were planning all weekend to do a "man overboard" drill. we did it, but it was no drill.

this was my first sailing trip. and as i write this, i'm still swaying.