Couple rescue boaters stranded in Lake Erie

CONNEAUT – John Spak stood aboard his 20-foot vessel about noon Sunday when he noticed something odd on the waters of Lake Erie just north of his position.

“I spotted something but I couldn’t make out exactly what it was,” Spak, of Leckrone, Pa., said during an interview Monday.

Spak’s wife, Debbie, handed over his binoculars and as he raised them to his eyes, he realized something wasn’t right.

“I saw someone raise their arms and jump in the water,” Spak said.

Believing something may be wrong, Spak began covering the half-mile that separated him from the unusual activity between the waves of the lake.

As he approached, Spak realized a boat had capsized, leaving three men stranded in the water.

“They told me they had been stuck out there since yesterday,” Spak said. “I hurried up and called the fuel dock to tell them there were three people stuck out here and we needed the ambulance and rescue.”

The three Wadsworth men later told Conneaut police they left the docks about 10 a.m. Saturday to go fishing. By about 5 p.m. they were ready to turn the boat around and head back inland when their boat flipped.

Spak said the men were exhausted from hanging on to the capsized boat for 19 hours in 74-degree water.

“They looked out of it and they were starting to turn purple,” Spak said. “That’s 24 degrees below your body temperature.”

After contacting authorities, the Spaks began working to get the men aboard their vessel.

“My wife was on the radio giving the dock the exact coordinates while I pulled the first guy into the boat,” Spak said. “He tried to swim over to us but he really couldn’t so we maneuvered as close to their boat as possible and I pulled them in.”

Authorities cleared the way for Spak as he transported the three men to the shore, where a rescue team was waiting. Spak then went back to the scene of the wreckage to make it easier to find for the Coast Guard.

“I knew where the boat was, but you really couldn’t see it,” Spak said. “If a boat came along and hit it, we’d have another incident to deal with. So, I headed back to the boat, tied an orange life jacket to it and stayed there until the Coast Guard arrived.”

According to Capt. John Chapin of the Conneaut Police Department, the boat capsizing may have been the result of the men either not tightening the drain plug or forgetting to put the drain plug in. Because of this, over the course of the seven-hour fishing trip, the boat took on water.

When the men changed direction to head back to shore, all of the water shifted to one side and flipped the boat.

Chapin said 200 boats launched Sunday morning and no one noticed them until noon.

“We got the call around 12:30,” he said. “We were expecting to get some hypothermic people in here, but they were all very lucky. Only their legs and feet were in the water.”

The men were transported to University Hospitals in Conneaut and treated for mild hypothermia, reports said.

Spak said he received an ovation when he returned to the dock.

“The people all along clapping and cheering,” Spak said. “Giving me the thumbs up and ‘way to go.’ We’re happy no one was seriously hurt.”

The Star Beacon in Ashtabula contributed to this story.