A race, a sailor and a community’s loss

Thecla “Teddy” Emmerich was in the kitchen on a Sunday afternoon in October when her son, Chris, asked her to step out onto the deck.

That usually meant he had spotted wildlife, perhaps a seal, she said.

Emmerich recently moved to a home in Lakebay from Kentucky with her husband, David. They had always wanted to live on the water. They live across from Herron Island on Case Inlet.

Emmerich peered through a pair of binoculars and saw something bobbing in the water. She handed the binoculars back to her son, and he took another look.

“Mom, I think it’s a body,” said Chris, 35.

And so it was on that Sunday afternoon, Oct. 26.

It was the body of Jay Berglund, an Olympia man and longtime sailor whose life came to a tragic end during a sailboat race the day before. The boat he was on was hit by a storm packing strong winds that stirred up Budd Inlet near Olympia. He was 46.

It is thought to be the first fatality in the 45 years since the South Sound Sailing Society’s racing program began, according to Commodore Webb Sprague.

Sprague was not on the water that day and would not comment on the decisions made about continuing the race, saying it was up to the race committee and the individual sailors. “Sailors know their boundaries,” Sprague said.

Berglund was one of three people aboard a 22-foot Harmony sailboat named Gizmo that capsized near the end of the race. All three were thrown into the water, including boat owner and skipper John Thompson, 55, and crewman Peter Crossman, 54. Both are from Olympia.

Thompson and Crossman, the only person aboard Gizmo wearing a life jacket that day, were rescued by other boats in the area.

Berglund ultimately was lost to the stormy conditions and drowned, according to the Pierce County Medical Examiner. The sailboat went down in about 70 feet of water.

The Sheriff’s Office, Coast Guard, Olympia Harbor Patrol and Port of Olympia staff searched for him Saturday evening and resumed their search Sunday morning. Meanwhile, Berglund’s body floated 11 miles north until it was spotted about 3 p.m. Sunday.

Berglund’s death stunned South Sound’s sailing community. For some it is still too hard to talk about.

Berglund’s wife, Ruth Elder, and the Berglund family asked for privacy regarding this story. Gizmo owner Thompson declined to speak at length about the incident, although he agreed to share his written comments.

Sprague, head of the group that organized the sailboat race, replied to questions by email.

“We are deeply saddened by the death of Jay Berglund during the Eagle Island race,” he said. “The South Sound Sailing Society is a tight group, and we all know the respondents and the people involved in the capsize.

“There have been multiple meetings to grieve, discuss the course of events and to review the club’s ability to respond to a crisis on the water,” he said.

But they kept racing. Boaters gathered for the Squaxin Island race Nov. 8.

“We all agreed he (Berglund) would have wanted us to keep sailing,” Sprague said. “Several boaters did scatter flowers on the water near the starting line, and we are talking about having a bigger ceremony during the start of next year’s Eagle Island race.”

The race

The Eagle Island race starts and ends about halfway between downtown Olympia and Boston Harbor on Budd Inlet. The 27-mile jaunt takes sailors north and northeast to tiny Eagle Island, just off Anderson Island, and then back to Olympia.

There were three start times that Saturday morning, each for a different class of boats, said Joe Downing, who was racing that morning in his 38-foot sailboat. His wife, Myra, is commodore of the Olympia Yacht Club. Most of the racers finished before the wind arrived, according to accounts of people on the water that day.

Gizmo had a later start and raced in a high performance fleet, he said.

The weather that morning was cloudy to partly sunny, with light winds of 4 to 5 knots, according to Downing. The tide was in their favor.

“It was a pleasant day,” he said.

But the National Weather Service had a wind advisory in place for Southwest Washington, including Olympia, that was set to take effect at 3 p.m.

As soon as Downing finished the race about 3:30 p.m., the wind began to pipe up out of the south, he said. Combine a southerly wind with an incoming tide, and the water turned choppy.

Downing said he was aware of the bad-weather forecast but didn’t know the exact time it would land. Gizmo owner Thompson and crewman Crossman thought the bad weather was set to arrive at 8 p.m., long after the race was complete.

“I’m shocked and totally saddened,” Downing said about what happened that day, adding that the wind came up quickly and made for tough conditions.

Meanwhile, Gizmo was nearing the end of its race when things got dicey, according to owner Thompson.

Thompson posted his recollections in an online forum for the Sailing Anarchy website.

The wind picked up, resulting in the decision to drop the mainsail and sail with only a smaller sail called a jib. Soon the waves grew to 6 to 8 feet, making it harder to control the boat. They decided to abandon the race.

Thompson writes:

“But before we could act, a gust measured at over 60 knots swatted her over. It happened so fast that there was no recovering from it. Harmony 22s have bilge ballast rather than a ballasted keel, so when they go beyond 90 degrees, they turtle immediately. And that is what happened. I was actually under the boat in the cockpit when it came down on me. I had to swim down under her to get free. Jay (Berglund) and Peter (Crossman) rode the rail over and were free in the water when I emerged. We swam to the transom together so I could reach the VHF radio and call for help, but Jay said it was gone.”

He continues:

“Jay stayed with the boat. That’s what they always tell you to do in a situation like this. About two to three feet of the stern was sticking out of the water. Unfortunately, he (Jay) wasn’t wearing his life jacket. Jay always wears a life jacket. I can’t for the life of me figure out why the one time he didn’t wear a life jacket, that’s when the s**t hit the fan.”

Thompson acknowledged that he wasn’t wearing a life jacket either, so he supported himself with a foam rudder.

“Peter had his life jacket on and Jay was clinging to the boat,” Thompson wrote. “Peter and I were quickly washed away from Gizmo and Jay.”

Thompson was rescued by another boat, Sugar Magnolia, and Crossman by the Flying Circus, according to the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office report.

The report includes testimony from Douglas McClanahan, 49, of Olympia, who was watching the race from his boat Pegasus, a 24-foot sailboat. He was alone on his boat but responded to assist Gizmo when he saw it roll over.

“When Douglas got over to the Gizmo, it had already sunk. He located a male, which (was) identified as Jay, in the water. Jay grabbed Douglas’ hand with a strong grip. Douglas could not get Jay into his vessel, and Jay eventually let go of Douglas’ hand. Douglas observed two other vessels in the area so he assumed they would rescue Jay,” according to the initial report.

Except the man in the water wasn’t Berglund, McClanahan and Crossman said Thursday.

It turns out McClanahan had tried to rescue Crossman, but he didn’t know that at the time. The next day, he met Crossman and recognized his face. That brought some sense of relief to McClanahan, who felt guilty about not rescuing the man he thought was Berglund.

“I wish Jay could still be here,” he said.

Crossman remained in the water after McClanahan couldn’t help him, looking for a boat with a device known as a lifesling to hoist him out of the water. He eventually was picked up by the Flying Circus.

Crossman said Berglund was well loved and that 350 to 400 people attended his memorial.

“It’s sad and tragic, and it breaks me up, but that’s the way it is,” he said.

Weather conditions at the time of the accident, according to the report: Rain, wind over 25 mph, rough waves over 6 feet, a strong current and poor visibility.

No state or federal regulations govern such races, according to Dan Shipman, recreational boating safety specialist for the U.S. Coast Guard in Seattle. “It’s the responsibility of the race committee,” to continue or cancel a race, Shipman said.

However, Shipman said, even if an event is canceled, boats can’t always get to safe water immediately when weather changes quickly.

The South Sound Sailing Society race committee chairman did not reply to requests for comment.

Flotation devices

Longtime Thurston County Sheriff’s Office marine services Deputy Jeff Norton was one of the emergency responders the day Berglund drowned. He said all boats are required to have wearable life jackets for everybody on board the boat, and children younger than 12 on a boat 19 feet or smaller generally are required to wear one.

The exception might be if the boat has a cabin area.

In addition to life jackets, a boat 16 feet or larger also needs to have at least one life ring or seat cushion that floats.

“They do save lives,” said Norton.

Debris found on the water after Gizmo went down included a half-filled gasoline can and a horseshoe life ring.

The Gizmo had all required Coast Guard gear, plus more, Thompson said.

South Sound Sailing Society takes safety seriously, Commodore Sprague said.

“The SSSS has regular safety discussions and hosts an annual lifesling rescue course where sailors have the opportunity to practice man overboard drills with a crew member in the water wearing a drysuit,” he said. “The SSSS plans to host a series of safety-related educational opportunities in response to this tragedy.”

Calm and serene

The Emmerich family headed down to the beach and found Berglund’s body. The tide was coming in, so they held on to him and waited for emergency responders to arrive.

Whey they turned him over, Berglund looked calm and serene, Teddy Emmerich said.

“He had a peaceful look on his face,” she said.

She was glad they found him, and she hopes it brings some closure to the family.

Since then, though, she keeps flashing back to that moment, remembering his blue clothes or his boots.

“Little things like that,” she said. “It stays with you for a long time.”

Berglund, a graduate of Marysville-Pilchuck High School, was raised in the beach community of Spee Bi-Dah on the Tulalip Tribal Reservation, according to his obituary.

“He was an avid sailor, fisherman and hunter,” the obituary noted. “He was a good man that lived life with a kind and gentle heart toward all people.”