Lakeside family meal serves up salvation for sinking speedboat

BEN WALDMAN

NEAR BEACONIA — The Skinner family had just sat down for a bowl of piping hot turkey chili on Monday night when they saw Lake Winnipeg swallow a speedboat whole.

The boat, an older fibreglass model with a closed bow, had twice bobbed past their home’s lakefront window as the family — Susan and Ken Skinner, their son Matt, and his partner Kaela Tucker — ate. By the third time, Matt was watching intently, and he noticed the boat, about 70 metres away from the shore by his estimation, was much lower in the icy water than before.

“Them boys are going in the drink,” he thought.

“They’re going down,” said Susan.

The rescue mission mobilized quickly. Ken, a retired dentist in his 70s, ran outside with Matt and Kaela to pull the family’s canoe out from hibernation below the house’s deck. In about 45 seconds, the boat was in the water, and the couple began paddling.

They realized that three men who looked to be in their forties had been on the boat. One had started to swim ashore but was struggling. Ken waded into the water up to his chest to guide him to the sand, and the canoe headed out to the speedboat, which had flipped over and eventually sank.

One passenger was trying to hold on to the side of the speedboat, another was hanging on to a cooler that had become a flotation device. They weren’t wearing life-jackets, and at least one was wearing steel-toed boots.

“That’s like going swimming with bricks on your feet,” Matt said. The canoe pulled up, and both speedboat passengers grabbed hold of its sides, with Matt and Kaela trying to counterbalance the weight to ensure they didn’t tip over, too. Near the shore, Ken grabbed the third man and pulled him toward land. As the rescue happened, Susan Skinner, who had expected a relaxing Monday evening, was calling 911.

The three men all eventually made it to shore. One of the two men who were lugged in by the canoe took three of the biggest breaths Matt had ever seen.

Susan had come down with blankets and towels and was communicating with emergency responders for advice. Two of the men vomited, and they showered in hot water before sitting in front of a wood-burning stove.

Although the rescue came during the pandemic and social-distancing restrictions, Susan said the rescue took precedent and instincts took hold.

It wasn’t the first rescue in the 30 years since the Skinners bought the property located about 50 kilometres north of Winnipeg, off Highway 59, but Susan said it was the most dramatic. Soon, paramedics from Pine Falls and Selkirk arrived, and eventually, all three men were taken home.

The incident came just before North American Safe Boating Awareness Week, which starts Saturday. The Lifesaving Society of Manitoba said this year, in addition to the regular challenges of water safety, COVID-19 presents a new issue in drowning prevention.

“With supervised and safe locations for people to swim now closed, we are very concerned that with warmer weather the number of drowning deaths in the province may spike,” said Dr. Christopher Love, the organization’s Water Smart co-ordinator. “Manitobans who have been staying at home are going to want to get out in the warmer weather, and may well end up in the water in less safe locations because their normal swimming locations are closed.”

Other COVID-19 safety measures include boating with people only from your immediate household, and keeping a two-metre distance from others, or in aquatic parlance, about one fishing rod.

That’s in addition to requirements for sobriety, boating course knowledge, proper preparation, and of course, lifejacket use. Matt Skinner said it was lucky the family sat down to eat at 6 p.m., not 7 p.m., and that they happened to be looking out at the water. If not, the men on the boat could have drowned.

“I’ve been driving boats on that lake since I was eight years old,” he said Wednesday. “It will never cease to impress me, scare the crap out of me, and make me realize I’m just a tiny droplet in this massive lake.

“If you don’t respect the lake, it will swallow you.”

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

Matt Skinner and Kaela Tucker paddle ashore at Lake Winnipeg on Monday with two men they rescued from a capsized boat.

SUSAN SKINNER PHOTO

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