Second Time's the Charm

(The Fremont Island Expedition)

Part 1: It Seemed Like Such a Good Idea

A broken anchor rode and 87 mph winds can leave a DXpedition boat in a less than favorable position.
(Photo by Ron Jones, K7RJ) (Click on image for the KA7OEI-enhanced version.)

The rumors of our deaths (not to mention divorce, incarceration, and, worst of all, out-of-band operation) have been greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, we had a couple of very colorful weekends on Fremont Island in late August, so it is time we let the UARC members in on the story.

In ham radio we can work a person for years but totally miss an important aspect of the person's life. Many of us have come to know UARC President Brett Sutherland, N7KG, but may have missed that he is a weekend sailor, running a 24-foot sailboat, Allegro, on the Great Salt Lake.

Some months back Brett and Executive Vice-President Lauri (“Mac”) McCreary, K7LMM, hatched the idea of combining sailing with ham radio and doing a DXpedition to one of the Great Salt Lake islands. After all, we read about folks going off on DXpeditions to the south Pacific islands and spending a week operating on the beach while having scantily-clad native girls bring them food and drink. Maybe some of the fun could be had on a tighter budget by going to a closer island.

One problem was how to get pileups rivaling the DXpedition to Bouvet when we would still be in the middle of the adjacent 48 states. It was the “US Islands Award” program that came to the rescue. This program, whose web site is at, encourages people to collect U.S. Island contacts. It has many of the country's workable islands already cataloged, including eight of the Great Salt Lake's thirteen named islands. It offers awards to people who work a large number of U.S. Islands. The easiest is the award for working 100 of them.

Our choice of island was ultimately Fremont Island, which sits about five miles north of Antelope Island where Brett keeps his boat. There were a number of considerations in choosing an island. There had to be some hope of landing there without drawing shotgun fire or the wrath of the rangers. There had to be some hope of a workable anchorage. It would help if there were some area that was pleasant to operate from. And we would have the best chance of pileups if the island had never been on the air before. Fremont Island seemed to meet all these requirements, particularly since Brett knew how to contact the owners and had a good chance of getting permission to land there.

The Island was originally surveyed by a party led by explorer John C. Fremont in 1843. He named it “Disappointment Island” because of his disappointment at not finding game there. In the years that followed the island was used by cattle ranchers, served as a home for a judge and his family, and even became the exile ground for a convicted grave robber. At various times it was called Castle Rock Island and Miller Island. It was another government surveyer, Howard Stansbury, who in the 1850's gave it officially the “Fremont” name after its discoverer.
It looks like a great day for sailing as Kelly and Ron shuttle gear at the marina. (Photo by Ron Jones, K7RJ)

After months of planning, a three-day operation was envisioned. In addition to Brett and Mac, the party had now grown to include Clint Turner, KA7OEI; Ron Jones, K7RJ; Kelly Anderson, KV7V; Mike Collett, K7DOU; and the author, Gordon Smith, K7HFV. The group set out on Friday morning, August 22nd. At least the departure was supposed to be in the morning. There was so much gear that it took over two and a half hours to load the boat. Departure was, in fact, still before noon, but not by a wide margin.

The lake is low. At the time of our trip it sat at an elevation of 4196 feet, the lowest it had been since the early 1970's. However, this posed no serious problem due to the shallow draft of Brett's boat and the fact that the main channel we needed to travel had a depth of about ten feet.

The trip to Fremont was pleasant and uneventful and took about an hour and a half. The weather forecast included a chance of afternoon and evening thunderstorms, but a little darkening in the west did not seem like a serious threat, especially with Utah in the midst of a four-year drought.

The next challenge was to find reasonable places to anchor and to land. We moved along the western shoreline of the island. Some of the party took a dinghy and began to explore the shoreline while Brett checked the anchorage. Initial checks of what the anchor brought up were not encouraging. We seemed to be sitting over rock rather than mud. The shore party seemed not to be moving and after trying to shout back and forth, we began to wish we had a better way to communicate. Maybe if there were some kind of code that could be exchanged by people at a distance, or better still, if there were some kind of magic box one could talk into and have one's words heard some distance away? Probably not practical.

We weren't quite sure whether to keep our attention to the east where the shore party was, or to the west where a rapidly darkening sky seemed to be gaining importance. Over the next few minutes Brett's attention seemed to concentrate more and more strongly on the west. He turned us back to the south and began moving as quickly as possible to where we knew there was a better anchorage. We were racing against a distant white line on the water that suddenly seemed not so distant any more. We dropped anchor and Kelly, Ron, and Mike started a second trip to shore in a dinghy loaded heavily with equipment.

Brett's concern seemed to be growing. Some clues included his passing out the foul weather gear, passing out the personal flotation devices, and suggesting that we go below. I think it was the instructions on how to abandon ship that really got our attention.

And then the storm arrived with a flourish. In less than five minutes we went from a placid lake to six-foot waves, fierce winds, and visibility of only a few tens of feet. The boat tipped wildly to one side and then the other, its mast tracing an arc near 70 degrees. (We've been informed that the proper terms for the boat's motion are healing and broaching, although at the time we thought of more colorful words. The webmaster has assured us, though, that they are not appropriate for a family-oriented site.) Following Clint's lead, we tried to keep our weight as low as possible and move to the high side as the boat kept changing its mind on which way it wanted to lean. The view to the outside was memorable as it alternated (rapidly!) between water and sky. We got to wonder what would happen next. Would water come pouring in from an unexpected direction? Would we find ourselves crushed under generator number 2? Or would we just wake up and find out the whole thing was a dream? I'm sure the Lagoon amusement park can't beat the ride we had.

A “scrunch” sound that echoed through the hull sounded particularly ominous, but Clint assured us it wasn't the boat scraping bottom; it was merely the three 100-amp-hour batteries making their way from one side of the cockpit to the other.

Brett, who later had a few words to say about those batteries, was having his own adventure in the cockpit. Not only did he have to keep his wits about him through the wildly changing attitudes of the boat, but also had to endure being soaked from waves that were breaking all the way over the boat from the bow. He had practically no control over the boat. The five horsepower motor couldn't begin to buck the waves, and hoisting sails would have been unthinkable.

Just when we thought things couldn't get any worse, they did. Brett sensed a change in the boat's behavior and realized the anchor line (which is called a "rode") had broken and we were adrift. This was a potentially life-threatening situation. Many people have been killed or injured by abandoning ship and then being crushed by the vessel they had just left. So Brett gave the word to get ready, but held off further action until things stabilized.

It wasn't long before things felt entirely too stable. We had been blown ashore and, though surrounded by water, were completely beached. Brett saw that each of us made it off into the water and finally left the boat himself.

While our ride had been a bit, ahhh..., unstable, at least we had managed to stay warm and dry. Our friends ashore in the dinghy had not been so fortunate. Ron writes:

By the time we had found suitable landing for the dinghy and had unloaded one small load of gear, the rain started and the wind built. As the dinghy came back for more gear, we were deciding if we should haul everyone off the boat to ride out the storm or if we should haul more gear out since the storm should soon pass. We decided to take one more person to shore along with more equipment.

We had three people on shore and four in the boat when the storm hit. The wind suddenly built to a giant furry with sand and small rocks pelting us. I was on shore helping move the gear to higher ground as the lake was literally devouring the beach. Visibility dropped to nil and the lake that was so peaceful and placid only minutes before now had giant breakers crashing over the sailboat. Those of us on land grabbed what we could and headed for higher ground.

Kelly writes:

Mike and Ron were hauling gear further inland while I pulled the boat out of the water. I was setting the anchor for additional security when the storm hit the shoreline. I started for higher ground, the wind nearly pushing me over. Then the force of the wind began driving sand and pebbles horizontally through the air, striking my exposed calves, arms, and head with bee sting like pricks. I instinctively began running toward the rocks rising from the beach, about 150 yards from the waterline. This decreased the impact velocity of the airborne projectiles, but I was slowed by trying to slough through a field of briny mud.

I joined Ron and Mike and we scratched around for a tarp amongst the few items of gear that had been brought from the beach. This we managed to drag over us, and thus we sat against the rock, soaked to the bone and pelted with rain and pebbles.

The violent swirl limited visibility but by and by we were able to make out the shape of the sailboat. It was being tossed relentlessly in 6 foot rollers. The bare mast was swinging rapidly in a near 90-degree arc as the boat seemed to be dangerously pushed toward the shore.

Then our motorboat was seen rolling before the wind, making its way down the beach, and into a wide ribbon of water formed along the beach by the storm surge. A couple of us left our shelter to run after the boat, wading into the water and dragging the boat, once again, onto the shore and away from the ever-advancing waterline. We removed the motor and turned the boat over in an attempt to prevent the wind from carrying it away again.

Turning back to the sailboat, we were horrified to see that it had been hove onto the beach. It was hard aground, resting at a steep angle between its hull and keel, mast tilted toward the island.

Those of us newly ashore found a strange situation. We thought we were on the shore when we no longer had to wade, but there in front of us was a water channel nearly three feet deep. We looked around at the position of equipment that had once been on shore but now was sitting in water and realized the lake level had risen more than two feet. I had never heard the term “storm surge” before, but now began to understand. Massive amounts of water had moved into our part of the lake from points south. We later found out that at one point the level back at the Antelope Island marina had dropped nearly eighteen inches.

Trying to get to the newly receded shore line wasn't entirely trivial. The new channel had a very slippery, irregular bottom, and a wind force that one could barely stand up against didn't help to maintain one's balance. I tried looking back toward the sailboat, but the wind-driven salt spray, which was still coming at us almost horizontally, stung my eyes so badly that I could not keep them open.

The next concern was to make sure no one went into hypothermia. Ron explains,

“All we could do was sit there, wait it out, and try to stay warm. The wind was not cold and the lake temperature was nearly 80 degrees, but the effects of wind chill are real and I started to chill. I had plenty of extra clothes in the boat and was not in immediate danger, but I was very uncomfortable.”

Brett had likely gotten the worst of the storm, being exposed to the entire event, but was cheerily discussing our next move. Our situation was this: We could not easily get back to the mainland without assistance. The sailboat might or might not still be floatable. The weather forecast for the rest of the weekend had degraded. It might or might not stop raining sometime soon.

Most of our gear was still intact, so, theoretically, we could go ahead with our operation (possibly in the rain, wind, and lightning). Perhaps we could tell the rangers, “We need desperately to be rescued, but not until Sunday.” All things considered, though, it was decided to get the people off the island as soon as practical and worry about the sailboat and the gear later. The state rangers were contacted on the marine band and they agreed to come for us as soon as the storm died down enough to make navigation practical.

We had one further challenge to deal with: getting all of us out to the rangers' boat. The rescuers, not wanting to get themselves in need of rescuing, could only get within about 200 yards of the shore. The wind had now reversed and was blowing strongly away from shore. The dinghy was still floatable and its oars, once lost, had again been found, but its motor was no longer functioning, and the dinghy certainly couldn't carry seven of us at once. Another important consideration was that one of our party was a non-swimmer. Getting out to the ranger boat would be easy enough, but getting back for the second load was a different story. Even the strongest of us was unlikely to be able to row against the current.

Fortunately, Brett had plenty of line, so the solution was to tie a line to the dinghy from shore, and let the shore party assist in getting the dinghy back for the second load. All went as planned. The first party waded out far enough to float the dinghy and get in. They made the trip out, unloaded, and then Kelly brought the dinghy back with some towing assistance from Brett, Mac, and me. In a short time we were all aboard the ranger's craft and headed back to Antelope Island, being pushed by 400 horsepower.

We learned that it hadn't been our imagination that the storm had been a bad one. Three trucks on I-80 had been blown over and a remote weather station on Hat Island, just a few miles away from us, recorded peak winds of 87 miles per hour.

The day's adventure ended with dinner at the Layton Crownburger. We were joined there by Hall and Anne Blankenship, KC7RAF and KC7RAG. Hall had been wonderfully helpful in taking messages on two meters and relaying them to families.

The death toll at this point came to one cell phone, one handheld, and one SWR bridge that had succumbed to salt water, along with several parts of the dinghy, including the motor.

Clint summarized the day's activities by suggesting that Fremont knew what he was doing all along when he gave the island its original name. Kelly ended his account with simply “And this is why you didn't hear us on the radio!”

Part 2 -- The fools return

For more information...

The first exploration of Fremont Island
Map of the Great Salt Lake
Satellite view of Great Salt Lake (In some browsers, click on image to expand.)
Chart of recent lake levels
USGS Great Salt Lake home page
A Grave Robber is Exiled
A Couple Homesteads on Fremont Island