October 19, 2013 • By Dennis Beaver
This is a story about a couple — Ima and Doug — who probably gave God something to smile at and he gave them their lives in return. But instead of gratitude for being alive and uninjured, Ima was one of most dramatic examples of colossal nerve and misplaced sense of responsibility that You and the Law has seen in a long time.
It began this past August on Huntington Lake, located in California’s Sierra Nevada at an elevation of 7,000 feet. Known for consistent — and often high, gusty winds — the lake attracts Olympic gold medalists to its High Sierra Regatta. But our readers weren’t exactly gold medalists, as they would soon learn after their very brief outing on the lake.
“Huntington does not tolerate unskilled sailors well,” You and the Law was told by a maritime attorney in San Francisco, “as winds there often exceed 30 miles per hour, which experienced sailors love, but can be dangerous for the inexperienced.”
Checked weather three days before going out
Our couple’s adventure “began three days before going out on the lake when I checked the weather,” Doug explained.
“You mean that you didn’t check it that day?” we asked, dumbfounded.
“Well, no, I just didn’t think of it and never expected it to get very windy,” he candidly replied, adding, “And I never saw the forecast posted at the sailboat rental office where we got the 21-foot boat.”
He also never asked about the weather forecast — gusts over 30 mph.
“How experienced were you on a sailboat? Did you take any courses in sailing?” We inquired. His answer to that question also dumfounded us, as Doug admitted to being good at water skiing, but had been out on a sailboat, “two or three times before.”
Up came one gust and then another
“The boat looked like a big bathtub,” Ima told us. “And it behaved like one also, because we had not gone out too far when up came a big gust of wind which nearly tipped it over, and I was terrified.”
There was good reason for her to be afraid, for when a sailboat is facing high winds, a competent sailor will adjust the sail, making it much less resistant to the wind, so that the boat is not at risk of being blown over on its side and capsizing.
“But I didn’t know what to do — I thought that I was competent, but realized then that I was not, and found out from a friend that I could have prevented it from happening,” Doug said.
“It” was when the next gust came up; pushing the boat over until, like a big bathtub, it filled with water, capsized and sank.
You mean we should have been wearing life vests?
“Obviously, you were prepared for that, right, wearing life vests while in the boat? We asked, never expecting the response which was to follow.
“Well, not exactly, I just didn’t think they were necessary, so we didn’t have any,” Doug replied. “We grabbed onto anything which floated and were picked up by a nearby pontoon boat with an elderly couple onboard.”
And the bill comes to …
What came next was predictable and could have been much worse. The sailboat rental company sent out a crew of scuba divers and equipment to raise the sailboat, which fortunately sunk in shallow water and was not damaged. It took several hours, but along with the boat being retrieved, all the couple’s personal possessions on board were returned as well, making them one lucky pair indeed.
The rental contract called for all recovery expenses and damage to be paid by the renters if the incident was their fault. And so how much did it come to? About $1,000, but to Ima, this, as she tearfully explained on the phone and in writing, “was a horrible injustice!”
And why? What was her reasoning?
“They should never have let us go out in that type of weather! They should have determined that we lacked the skill to handle the boat.”
You and the Law spoke with maritime law firms in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Florida and New York, and every lawyer agreed that it would have been nice for the rental company to post the day’s weather forecast. But that had nothing to do with financial responsibility for recovery of the sunken sailboat and related losses to the rental company.
A Miami attorney put it this way:
“If you rent a high-powered sports car, don’t know how to handle it and cause an accident, don’t blame the rental agency. It’s your fault.”
Doug added one more frightening element to this story:
“We were going to have our grandchildren with us that day. I guess we were lucky.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.