Michael Vitez: Sailor's bucket list did not include Lake Michigan rescue

was cited by U.S. Sailing for his role in the rescue of a crewman on Lake Michigan last year.
was cited by U.S. Sailing for his role in the rescue of a crewman on Lake Michigan last year. (Rosemont's Peter Gibbons-Neff)
Posted: March 27, 2012

"I just love being on the water," says Peter Gibbons-Neff, a lifelong sailor and past commodore of The Corinthian Yacht Club of Philadelphia. His love developed as a boy, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and he has sailed all over the world. He has raced in the biannual Newport-to-Bermuda Race 14 times, earlier with his father and recently with three of his children.

He raced across the Atlantic, from Bermuda all the way to Copenhagen, in 17 days when in college. He now keeps his boat on the Chesapeake, near Annapolis, and sails the bay as often as he can. At 66, he's still working hard as a wealth manager, and suffers from the conscientious man's curse - "I still have not gotten out of the guilt of leaving the office."

But in his mind and heart and in reality, as often as he can, he's on the water, and has the stories to prove it.

Gibbons-Neff, who resides in Rosemont, had many boats over the years. His current is a 39-footer he named Upgrade.

"Bill Read (a former co-owner) and I bought Upgrade in 2002 and since both of us were on second marriages, we told our ladies that we named the boat after them," he said. He has long been remarried, and his wife, Debbie, loves sailing as much as he does, though not ocean racing. She doesn't like the overnight watches required on long races. Locally, they race together on a 14-foot dinghy.

Gibbons-Neff has a sailing "bucket list," including the Transpac - a race from Los Angeles to Hawaii. And last summer he crossed one off the list, the Mac, the Chicago Yacht Club race to Mackinac Island. He'd never raced a big boat in fresh water, and this annual race goes 300 nautical miles, from Chicago up and across Lake Michigan, underneath the Mackinac Bridge, finishing near where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.

And now we come to the point of the column.

The date was July 11. Gibbons-Neff was on the east side of Lake Michigan, in what is known as the Manitou Channel, between Manitou Island and the sand dunes of Western Michigan. And a storm was coming, a storm so severe and with such intense squalls that later that night, for the first time in race history, a boat capsized in 80-knot gusts and two people died.

This was not Gibbons-Neff's boat. His story has a much happier ending.

A thermal was in front of the storm, which was sweeping up the lake, and this caused severe gusts and 4- to 6-foot waves. Gibbons-Neff was at the helm of the Mosquito, a Farr 395 racing sloop - much like Upgrade, but one that belonged to a friend.

The wind was coming from behind, and they had a spinnaker out, an extra sail often used when boats are heading down wind. The boat was moving fast, at 17 knots. It was time to jibe - a challenging turn in such conditions.

Gibbons-Neff was watching the spinnaker, which needed to be moved from one side of the bow to the other, trying to make sure it didn't get hung up in the rigging. The mainsail wasn't being trimmed fast enough in the heavy wind, and suddenly a gust came, pitching the boat momentarily on its side, the tips of the sails into the water.

And in this sudden gust, co-skipper Steve Laughlin was swept overboard. All Gibbons-Neff saw was a hat and shoe in the water.

"My first thought," recalled Gibbons-Neff, "was, 'at least there are no sharks!' "

His second thought was thank God it wasn't dark. The time was 5 p.m. Night would have made the rescue more difficult and treacherous.

Thankfully, the day before, the 10-person crew had spent an hour onboard going over safety measures.

The other co-skipper, Dave Radtke, shouted "man overboard," and crew member Bob King served as spotter, pointing at Laughlin and waving to him to assure him that he was not out of sight. Another crewman, Geet Sharma, had pushed the MOB (man-over-board) button on the boat's chart plotter and Radtke called Mayday over the radio.

At the helm, Gibbons-Neff brought the boat's bow into the wind - stopping the boat - and the crew doused the spinnaker, a demanding job in such conditions.

Laughlin was about 400 yards away, dipping in and out of view, but mostly visible with his orange life jacket. The engine on the Mosquito had been running to charge batteries, and Gibbons-Neff put the boat in gear and headed in the direction King was pointing.

"We picked him up in eight or nine minutes," said Gibbons-Neff. "He said the water wasn't even cold."

After making sure Laughlin was unharmed, the crew hoisted sails and continued racing for Mackinac.

On Jan. 14, U.S. Sailing awarded the crew of the Mosquito the Arthur B. Hanson Rescue Medal for its brave action.

The crew prepared for a man overboard and that contributed to Laughlin's safe recovery.

Gibbons-Neff will continue racing Wednesday evenings at The Corinthian and helping to teach adult sailing lessons on smaller boats. And he'll also keep thinking about that bucket list.

Contact columnist Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com or on Twitter @michaelvitez.

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