Flathead Lake sailboats ravaged in weekend storm

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A boat destroyed in a wind storm Saturday sits at the Dayton Yacht Harbor on Flathead Lake. Areas of the lake were hit with 60 mph wind gusts over the weekend as a potent winter storm moved into the area. (Photo provided by John Rimel)

Two sailboats fell victim to high winds that walloped the Flathead Valley with gusts of up to 50 mph and waves on Flathead Lake as high as 6 feet. The vessels sank in their slips at Dayton Yacht Harbor, despite the best efforts of local sailors who monitored the fleet throughout the night Saturday when the storm was at its worst.

John Rimel, of Missoula, owns a Ranger 33 docked in Dayton and responded to the harbor Saturday afternoon to asses the situation. A crew had been working throughout the day to fix broken lines and minimize damage to the boats in the harbor, including his, which escaped with moderate damage.

“The masts were clinking together — it was rocking and rolling,” Rimel said. “The wind was part of it, but the thing that was the killer was the swell coming in — it wasn’t coming straight into the dock, it was coming at a little bit of a 45 degree angle.”

He joined the other sailors who had assembled, but the two boats had already gone under. The first was a 28-foot boat that had crashed into the iron dock support after its rear dock line broke for a second time, punching a hole in its hull. The second boat, a Wilderness 20, sank after its nose got shoved up underneath the dock, Rimel said.

“It just got torn apart. It went pretty much straight down,” he said. “In addition to the two that sank there are probably three to five other boats that are damaged enough that they probably aren’t salvageable.”

The dock also took a significant hit.

“The whole end of the dock is pretty much destroyed,” he said. “The dock doesn’t have boards on it for probably 8 feet.”

To continue checking the boats throughout the night, they placed a beam across the span.

“It was pretty sketchy,” Rimel noted.

A few sailors stayed the night to protect as much as they could, checking the dock for boats in duress, preparing broken lines and missing fenders, every two hours.

“We were going through rope like nobody’s business,” Rimel said. “You rope something up and you come back and it would just be shredded.”

They made a rule among them that no one could go out on the deck alone, and anyone doing checks had to be wearing a life jacket. They also rigged a life preserver with a rope on the end of the dock, just in case.

Rimel and Scott Wood were assigned to checks at midnight and 4 a.m. When they went out at midnight, the wind was blowing so hard that they had to lean into the gust.

“I’m a pretty tall guy and [Scott] said, ‘Get lower John or you might get blown off the dock,’” Rimel recalled.

Rimel estimated the swells were between 3 and 4 feet at the time, and said the wave action, not the wind, is what caused the bulk of the damage. He said about half the harbor’s boats were still in the water at the time of the storm and noted that most years, the sailing is still good in the fall.

“It’s some of the nicest sailing, really, in September and October, a lot of years, but not so much this year,” Rimel said.

But tragedy also has a way of banding people together and that’s exactly what transpired within the local sailing community. Members of North Flathead Yacht Club, based in Somers, came down Saturday, loaded with spare dock lines and halyards to help tie up the boats. They also brought two big submarine sandwiches Sunday morning to fuel the sailors in Dayton.

“Looking at the damage was just sort of horrific and you felt horrible for the people who lost boats,” Rimel said. “The flip side of it was very cool … it was very rewarding to see the community pull together and really, everybody helping out.”

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.

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