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THE DUCK, THE CADILLAC, AND THE REVERSE-ACTION FLARE

Copyright (C) 1994, Luigi Semenzato

I have a difficult relationship with the swell. I want to dominate it, control it, understand it in its smallest detail. Which, of course, is impossible. I know that but I can't help it. When I sail in the swell, my eyes furiously scan the water surface, and my brain integrates and interpolates in its fruitless attempt to predict its shape at tee sub zero, the instant of board contact. I would probably enjoy it more if I could relax and take it as it comes. I do the same thing with life.

It's no surprise then that I lost Ken---the swell at Third is mind-boggling. I turned back and he wasn't there. I looked around and thought I saw him downwind and ahead of me, the vile, he was trading upwindness for speed. But he was right to do that. The tide was ebbing strong in the channel; no point in staying upwind, we were already higher up than everybody else. OK then, a hint of pressure on the tail and I was launched in a powerful broad reach, so fast that even the swell slowed down and I could almost compute it.

But as I got closer, I realized it wasn't Ken. A typical mistake. I looked around a little more but couldn't spot him. I remembered he had been thinking of switching to a larger board. Time for a break anyhow. I sailed to shore, left my board on a muddy patch uncovered by the receding tide, went up to the rigging area and mingled with the other sailors. No sign of Ken.

As I went out again, I had no clue that there could be something wrong. It wasn't the first time I lost track of a sailing buddy. I sailed for another forty-five minutes, then noticed that the wind was getting light on the inside, and most sailors were slogging back. I joined them, pretty sure that Ken would do the same. Once ashore I still couldn't find him. I saw a small group of people on a mound near the shore, searching for something with binoculars. I joined them. `Do you perchance happen to know anything about my friend Ken?' I asked.

`Yeah, he's somewhere out there. The Coast Guard is here' said the fellow (Bjorn, as I learned later), pointing to the next guy. The Coast Guard man wore a jacket with insignia, carried a VHF radio, and had the best binoculars of the group, but no boat. `What happened?' I asked, my guilt level sharply on the rise.

`He broke his mast.' Jerry joined the group. Jerry had found Ken half hour after the accident, just happening to sail far upwind. He reported that Ken still had his boom and a fragment of the mast. The sail had been lost as they tried to roll it up, but I don't know the details. As I understand it, Ken is well aware of the strength of American institutions, and of his inalienable right to rescue, and he had told Jerry: `I don't want to mess with this. Here is my car key. Please sail to shore and call the Coast Guard with my cellular phone.' And the machine had been set in motion: the Coast Guard was fully committed, and was sending two boats.

I borrowed someone's binoculars and looked for a while, but Ken's yellow helmet was nowhere in sight. The Coast Guard got a very precise description of him: a yellow helmet with a blinking strobe light on it, a white board, and a black and pink (purple?) wetsuit. I was able to give a detailed description of the wetsuit: it was the same model and colors of mine, only brand new. It's a serious wetsuit, almost overkill for Third in the summer, and I didn't think he would have trouble keeping warm.

The boats arrived, two of them, and started looking around, but could not find Ken. Two windsurfers were also out looking for him in the channel, where the wind was still strong. The Coast Guard fellow went to his car to use the phone. He had the best information, so I followed. The car was a brand new, large, shiny black Cadillac with alloy wheels. Obviously a VIP car, with bulletproof glasses, and two cellular phones. The fellow dialed and spoke for a minute. He looked at me and asked for Ken's home phone number. Then changed his mind. `Why don't you talk to them.' He handed me the receiver.

`Hello?'

`Hi. We need to make sure that Ken has not made it to shore on his own. Would he contact someone if he did?'

`Yes, probably his wife.'

`OK, can you give me their number... actually, why don't you call her and tell her to call the Coast Guard immediately if he shows up.'

`Sure, I'll do that.' Great. I didn't want to call Kate and have her worry for nothing. To the best of my knowledge, Ken was just taking a prolonged dip. Probably a bit lonely and bored and frustrated to miss the good wind, but in no danger whatsoever. Yet I had to call. I prepared to convey these feelings. I dialed. `Hello?'

`Hi Kate, this is Luigi.'

`Oh hi Luigi, is Ken around?'

To the point. `Uhm, well, er, sort of. He is somewhere in the middle of the bay. He broke his mast.'

`Oh.'

`There really is no problem, the Coast Guard is looking for him, they'll find him any time now.'

`Oh, good.' If she was worried she was good at not showing it. I explained the situation, said I would call as soon as they picked him
up.

`Okay. Thanks Luigi, talk to you later then.' I hung up. I was curious about the car. `This is a nice Coast Guard car' I said. A sign behind the windshield said `Coast Guard Auxiliary Service.'

`Oh, it's not the Coast Guard's' the fellow said. `I wish it were. It's mine.'

`Oh! I am Luigi, and you are ...?'

`Rich.' I knew that. We shook hands.

We went back to the lookout point. The boats were now searching far from our estimate for Ken's location. One of them was looking south of the San Mateo bridge: there was zero chance that Ken could be there, with the tide ebbing. They must be used to sloppy reporting. We windsurfers didn't have enough authority to straighten them out.

It was going to get dark soon, and they sent the helicopter. A large, brightly colored Coast Guard helicopter, with flashing lights and everything. I changed into my land clothes and went to watch. Finally the chopper stopped searching and started hovering on the same spot. They had found him, and they confirmed it by radio. The chopper just sat there, waiting for the boat to arrive. We stared and stared through the binoculars, but never saw him. The helicopter just hovered there, an expensive marker.

Rich told me that the boat was going to take him to the Coyote Point launch ramp. I called Kate, then started Ken's van, but couldn't find the parking brake. I searched and fumbled for a minute. I opened the door and yelled at some nearby sailors: `Does anybody know where they put the parking brake in a Previa? Ah! Never mind.' Oh oh oh oh, what a feeling, I saw it when I opened the door. It was on the wrong side of the seat.

It was almost dark when I drove into Coyote. The park appeared to be closed, so I rehearsed my very good excuse. I arrived at the launch ramp just as Ken was unloading from a boat with blue flashing lights. He thanked profusely the rescuers, who enjoyed that. I helped him carry the boom and a fragment of the mast. `That's a two-hundred dollar hunk of trash' he told me. The mast was under warranty. It had snapped for no reason. Ken had replaced his old one for safety reasons, he thought it was getting unsafe.

As we loaded the van, a Park Service truck drove over. The Ranger was a woman. I walked to her. `Blah blah duck blah blah?' she said. What? But my excuse was loaded and ready to fire. `My friend has just been rescued by the Coast Guard. I am picking him up.'

Now she seemed puzzled. Ken came over. `I am looking for a duck who got lost. Have you seen it?' she repeated.

Ah, another minor language problem. I am used to them. `No, we are very sorry, we didn't see any duck.' And then Ken jokingly added: `Wait... could it be the one we ran over earlier? He, he, he.' He had been in the water for three and a half hours, and he was keen to show that he still had a sense of humor. The Ranger laughed with us.

Ken drove me back to my car at Third. On the way we discussed the event. He wasn't too happy. In those three and a half hours he'd had plenty of time to think what would happen if they didn't find him before dark, and had not liked it. He was actually evaluating his chances of taking the Big Plunge. I never thought he was in serious danger, but I wasn't there. He was getting cold, although not hypothermic. I suggested that paddling might have helped, but he didn't want to paddle for two reasons. He wanted to make his position more predictable (that didn't really help), and he wanted to conserve energies.

Ken is well prepared for these circumstances. He had the strobe light and two flares. He fired the first flare when a powerboat passed by a quarter mile away, but they didn't notice it. When he saw the helicopter he prepared to fire the second flare. He pulled on the string and looked up, where did it go? Then he heard gurgle-gurgle-gurgle, saw the bubbles. It had gone the wrong way.

We got to Third. The full moon was painting a broad swath of glittering silver on the dark water surface. What a poet I am! I thanked Ken for giving me something to write on Internet, said good night, went to the car. Through the windshield I saw Ken enter the fiberglass outhouse in the parking lot. I now know that if I ever need to borrow a wetsuit from him, I'll be perfectly comfortable
wearing it.

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