Rescue on Lake Champlain
By Rich & Lynn Clough

This is a reprint of an article from the August/September 1997 Jibsheet. Parts of the article are in the June/July 2000 Boat/US Trailering Magazine

Lynn and I had just spent an idyllic week on Burton Island(Lake Champlain ) with 13 members of her family. They camped in lean-to's on the waters edge and we stayed on Sea Luff our Mac 26C. The weather had been consistently gorgeous and the winds had been wonderful. It was Monday, August 11,1997 and it was our 30th wedding anniversary. The week had been good, but we were tired and anxious to get home.

We pulled our boat at the Kilkare State Park ramp and headed off at approximately 1:30pm toward I-89 and home, which was 3.5 hours away. One of Lynn's sisters and her family (Karen and Larry Nummy) were following right behind us. Kilkare S.P. is on a long peninsula and you follow the waters edge for several miles passing another state launch ramp along the way. This launch area has two ramps, one perpendicular to the road and one parallel to the road, in that order as we were driving past them.  We had caught up to another car which abruptly stopped as it passed the second ramp. The driver came flying out of her car frantically pointing at the water. A car was half submerged, floating 20 feet past the end of the launch ramp dock and it was full of small children.

I slammed my van into park and ran to the dock hitting the water at the same time as my sister-in-law. My wife and Larry stayed on shore to prepare to receive the babies once and if they could be brought ashore. We swam to the car. The water was almost up to window level and the children were frantic with no adult inside. There were four kids under the age of three in the back seat and a small baby strapped in a car seat in the front.

The door was stuck from all the water pressure, but didn't appear to be locked. I grabbed the door handle and pulled, but nothing happened. I put my foot on the door frame and pulled. It opened just a little, which allowed Karen to grab the door edge and pull with me. The door opened, but now the water was rushing in. The children in back were okay momentarily, but the baby in front was receiving the full force of the water coming in the drivers door. Suddenly, the passenger door opened and there was the frantic mother - she had been trying to gain access from the passenger side and succeeded only when the pressure was released by the opening of the drivers door. We were in six to seven feet of water and now with both doors open, the car was sinking very rapidly.

I crawled toward the baby, whose head was about to go under water. I heard Karen coaxing one child in the back to come  forward to swim to shore with and it sounded like she had succeeded. ( Karen had been a collegiate swimmer and lifeguard.) My first reaction was to try and pull the baby from its seat but she was firmly secured. Her head was now under water and something had to be done very quickly. I felt for the seat belt clasp among all of the floating debris and it finally released. The mother lifted the baby's head above water as I tried to release the seat belt strap from the contours of the plastic seat. The mother and baby were free and they were gone from my view.

I now focused on the three remaining hysterical kids in the back seat. Karen was returning from her first run but hadn't arrived yet. The water was rapidly rising. I had two kids in my arms but the third was out of reach. I couldn't coax her to come to me and my anxiety was building because I needed the three kids in my grasp to leave the car at the last possible moment if need be. Karen arrived back and took the second child and that allowed me to maneuver and coax this panic stricken child into my arms.

Karen was on her way back but had quite a way to go. There wasn't much more time left before I needed to leave the car interior. Could I handle two kids in the water? Had the baby and mother made it to shore? At the point I couldn't wait any longer, the mother swam around the drivers door ( She had deposited the baby in its seat on shore and returned to help out.) and the next to last child was placed in adult hands for the swim to shore. I left the vehicle with the last child, after calling to the mother to make sure we had them all.

The hysteria continued on shore but there were plenty of towels and clothing to wrap the kids in (thanks to Lynn and Larry) as well as five adults (counting the mother) to hold, comfort and reassure all of the children. We needed someone to hold too because by the time it was over, we were as traumatized as the children.

As things sorted themselves out over the next few minutes, we learned what had happened. The mother had stepped out of the car. Two of the three children were hers. A three year old moved into the drivers seat and took the car out of gear. The car was parked at the top of an incline above the launch ramp. It accelerated down the hill, down the ramp and launched itself into the water drifting and sinking some thirty feet past the launch ramp dock in 6 to 7 feet of water. 

If the woman in the red car had not seen the car floating and stopped us. If we had been seconds later. The ifs are too painful to think about but the ifs are the hardest thoughts to keep out of your mind. The reality is that the children are safe and will forget over time the terror they experienced. This was our 30th Wedding Anniversary and we needed to get home, but the 3.5 hour ride will stretch to 10 hours before our day is through. This part of the ride felt like an eternity but took a little more than an hour. 

Read on to hear about the rest of the trip home.

Breakdown in Vermont

Rich Clough

(Continued from Rescue on Lake Champlain.)

On the way to Lake Champlain, we lost a Bearing Buddy on the right side of our trailer axle. (A Bearing Buddy keeps grease in your wheel bearings under constant pressure.) I monitored the bearing temperature periodically (as is my habit) all the way to Kilkare State Park and all was well with the bearings (apparently) upon our arrival. We launched and rendezvoused with Lynn's family on Burton Island. I returned the next day to St.Albans to purchase a bearing cap at an automotive parts store. I packed the cap with the last of my grease and felt we could make it home without difficulty. I told Lynn we needed to purchase more grease before heading home but that was, I thought, just a precaution.

You've already read about the rescue of the 5 children and the excitement (and trauma) of the experience lead us to forget about purchasing the bearing grease. The adrenaline rush also kept us from checking the bearing temperature for well over 2 hours. The first I sensed a problem was when I noticed a strange sound coming from the trailer. I pulled over during the next straight stretch to find my right hub blistering hot.

I travel well prepared and can rebuild both hubs if necessary (except for extra grease). I jacked the trailer and removed the wheel and hub assembly. The inner bearing outer race was disintegrated and the roller bearings were loose and scattered in the hub. I quickly rebuilt the hub only to notice that the inner race of the inner bearing was still attached to the axle. No prying, tapping or heating with propane lighters would free that race from the axle. I had been beaten!

A Vermont State Trooper arrived at this point to ask if we had AAA or ALA roadside service. I sheepishly said no (They wouldn't help repair a trailer anyway.) but I did have BOAT/U.S. Trailer Club coverage. He gave the 1-800 number to his dispatcher and within minutes (after a few questions from BOAT/U.S.), help was on the way. The Trooper couldn't stay but gave me some flares (to supplement my own) and promised to check back later.

We secured our tools and vehicle, lit a flare and moved to the edge of the woods to await our rescue. This was our 30th Wedding Anniversary and our planned dinner out was not to be. We raided the cooler in the boat to find slimy cold cuts (We fed those to the dog.), some small blocks of cheese, ginger snaps and apple sauce. (Happy Anniversary - Dear!) We settled back to eat our dinner ,share the glow of the red flares and wait.

Our rescuer came in a converted ambulance with every conceivable tool on board. It took him 1.5 hours to arrive but we were in the middle of no where - 25 miles north of Brattleboro, VT on I-91 and he came from Claremont, NH.  He torched off the inner race without leaving a mark on my axle. He next took an air grinder and cleaned the residue off of the axle. One hour later we were back on the road.

Boat/U.S. paid the entire bill, I just signed the service man's invoice. My coverage is $150.00 per incident per year and I only paid $10.00 for the Trailer Club Membership! I always wondered if this policy would come through if I needed it. We live in Western Massachusetts and have to travel 2-4 hours to reach our chosen cruising grounds. We were stuck a long way from anywhere and BOAT/U.S. came through. I highly recommend the Trailer Club. Don't leave home without it - sign up today! I guarantee you won't regret it.