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Persons in Distress

Updated: Apr 29

In a 1927 instruction manual to “Employees of the United States Lighthouse Service,” General Instructions to All Employees, Section 23. Assistance to vessels and persons in distress it states, “It shall be the duty of light keepers and their assistants…to give or summon aid…and to assist in saving life and property from perils of the sea whenever it is practicable to do so.

 

Today, almost 100 years after that was written, the duty to assist in saving life is still part of the responsibility of a light keeper.  While I’m not an employee of the US Lighthouse Service (now the US Coast Guard), being an owner of a lighthouse inherently comes with that continuing obligation.

 

Three times since I have owned Fairport Harbor West, I have been in a situation to “give or summon aid to assist in saving life.”  The most recent was in 2021, when sadly, a teenager who jumped off the north break wall lost his life by drowning.  You can read the details of that horrible day here.

 

Another time I was inside the lighthouse on a warm summer day and, again, teenagers were jumping off the north break wall. I suddenly heard a young woman scream “I can’t touch the bottom!” I ran to the north side of the lighthouse to see a woman in the water to the east of the north break wall. Generally, teenagers who go to the break wall to jump off do so to the west side.

 

I have surmised they jump to the west for several reasons.  First, the wind often comes from the west, so jumping in that direction will keep them from drifting quickly down the east side of the lake as the break wall blocks that from happening. Also, the east side is the main channel from Lake Erie into Fairport Harbor and on down the Grand River. It is the only passage for freighters, passenger and recreational boats, and jet skis to return to town or wherever they dock their watercraft. This young woman being on the east side was definitely a red flag.

 

As I peered north, the woman was treading water, but clearly in distress.  Again she screamed, “I can’t touch the bottom.” Apparently, she had been under the illusion that Lake Erie was like a giant pool and with just a few strokes, you could touch bottom. Where she was treading water was approximately 29’ deep.  Suddenly a young man who had seemingly just gotten himself out of the water from the east side and onto the break wall, turned around and jumped back in after the woman. Another male friend stayed behind on the break wall.

 

The young man reached the woman and stayed with her, but due to the current and her frantic state, he was unable to move her closer to the break wall. Fortunately, a nearby boater also heard the screaming, stopped, and turned back toward the pair in the water. The boat slowed to a crawl and closed in on the couple.

 

With the boat in place, the boy was contemplating how to get the girl up and out of the water just as one of the boat passengers maneuvered to the bow, dropped a life ring, and reached for the girl. The boy was somehow able to push the scared and panicked girl onto the bow while the passenger pulled her up. Once the girl was safely onboard, the boy turned and swam the short distance back to the break wall where his friend helped him out of the water. Everyone was safe.

 

As I stood there watching the boat idling, it was obvious the boat captain didn’t know what to do next. He saw me and pulled up alongside the lighthouse. He yelled to me “What should I do with her?” Since she was out of immediate danger, he wasn’t sure where to take her. If he took her to the Fairport dock, she would be far away from Headlands State Park where her friends were, and they’d likely parked their car. And because she seemed okay, there was no need to take her to the Coast Guard Station for medical treatment. So I yelled back, “Bring her here,” and pointed to the staircase on the east side of the lighthouse platform.

 

As the boat maneuvered closer, I opened the gate to the dilapidated and uneven staircase and carefully climbed down each uneven step. The platform base and stairs of the lighthouse are solid rock and crashing into either with a fiberglass boat would do some serious damage. When the boat was just touching the stairs, the passenger on the bow helped move the girl across and over to me on the staircase, while the captain kept the boat steady.

 

Despite being scared and likely exhausted from the ordeal, the girl made it safely onto the steps. I then helped her up each step to the top of the platform. As we ascended, her two male friends came running around the lighthouse and up the main staircase. The three were finally reunited and were very eager to leave – either from relief or embarrassment. But I made them sit and rest for a few minutes. When they seemed recovered and got up to go, I had them promise they would not go back to the beach or jump off the break wall again. They agreed and walked slowly down the path back to the parking lot. I watched them as far as I could to ensure they didn’t return.

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Another warm, cloudy, windy summer day, I was working on my laptop at the lighthouse.  Because it was overcast and a weekday, the beach was relatively quiet. I enjoyed those days as I could watch the boats go by and get some work done, and relish the solitude.

 

About mid-day, I heard some voices outside.  I looked out to see five teenage boys walking down the path toward the north break wall. They made their way around the lighthouse and up onto the rocks.  Despite being cloudy and windy, it was warm, and the boys wanted to cool off by jumping into the lake.  The lake was rough as the wind was coming from the west at a good clip.  The choppy waves didn’t deter the boys. They made their way to the very end of the break wall and “splash.” All five jumped in.

 

Their plan was to jump in on the west side at the north end and swim south toward the lighthouse where they could hoist themselves out in the corner where the rocks butt up against the break wall.  One by one, each boy swam south to their designated exit point, but the lake was rough as they battled the wind and waves.

 

The first boy swam strongly and made it to the designated exit spot. He got himself up and out and turned to assist the next one coming behind. The second boy also swam strongly, reached the corner, and climbed out assisted by Boy #1. Over the next few minutes, Boys #3 and #4 battled the choppy lake, beat the wind and waves, and made it to the exit point.  Four boys were now out of the water and standing on the break wall watching Boy #5. However, Boy #5 was not as strong of a swimmer as the first four. He was making slow progress and was being pushed around by the lake. I watched as the other boys yelled encouragement, directions, and offered the one towel they had between them as some kind of life rope extending in the water. Boy #5 was struggling. He was bobbing around like a forlorn and lonely buoy, sometimes face down. Clearly, he was exhausted, in distress, and in serious likelihood of drowning.

 

Not wanting to watch someone drown, I ran to the basement of the lighthouse and grabbed all the lifesaving gear I had – a boat hook, rope, and a life ring. Because time was of the essence and I didn’t think I could make it quickly down the front steps and around to where the boys were, I ran to the north end of the platform and yelled to the boys, “Do you need help?”  Surprisingly, they yelled back “yes,” fully aware of the danger the last boy was in. 

 

I tossed everything in my arms over the fence and down to them. While one boy was collecting the gear, another was miraculously able to grab the limp and suffering boy. Somehow, the other boys also grabbed on and were able to pull him up the rocks. I was afraid to look not knowing whether he was dead or alive. But God intervened and he was alive, alert, and very happy to be out of the pounding water.

 

The five rested a few minutes, recovering and processing what had happened.  Shortly thereafter, they all rose, grabbed the singular towel among them and my gear, and began walking around the lighthouse. They returned the gear to me with a quick “Thank you.”  I asked if they were all okay, and they sheepishly said, “Yes,” knowing that they’d made a huge mistake, and everyone was very lucky to have survived Mighty Lake Erie. That warm and windy day at the lake will be one those five friends – nor I – will ever forgot.


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