5 True Lost Boat Tales

Boats have a way of losing themselves

Lost Boat Woods WheatCroft
Boats have a way of losing themselves. Sometimes, they find their way back. (Photo by Woods Wheatcroft)

5 True Lost Boat Tales

Boats, like dogs, have a strange way of reuniting with their owners. Consider this summer's case of attorney Sam Dawson, who swam out of his surfski in rough seas near the Cayman Islands, losing his kayak in the process. Two weeks and 600 miles later, the wayward 'ski showed up in Key Largo, Fla. Like Dawson, plenty of paddlers have biffed and lost their boats. Following are a few more, restoring our faith in our faithful companions.

Royak Adrift

Royak Marine founder Roy Grabenauer—who invented perhaps the world's first sit-on-top kayak in 1968 from an old aluminum airplane wing tank—was scuba diving off the prototype at Salt Point in Northern California when the boat's anchor line broke. The craft drifted away, leaving him to swim through the cold, sharky water to find a place he could hike back up the jagged cliffs overlooking the ocean. Two years later, a Mexican albacore fisherman found the kayak hundreds of miles out to sea.

"It ended up on his boat at Fisherman's Warf in San Francisco," says Grabenauer's son Steve (Roy passed away earlier this year). "A passerby happened to recognize it. He paid the fisherman 25 dollars for it and then dad traded him a new boat for the original prototype."

In the two years that passed after he'd lost the boat, the elder Grabenauer began producing the kayak in fiberglass. "He was elated to get the prototype back," Steve says. "The process had truly gone full circle."  — JC

Willow Savior

Sometimes it doesn't matter if you find your boat or someone else's. Such was the case for Zach Moore on Colorado's Class V Willow Creek. After putting in for an early-season, snow-lined run, he came around a corner into a river-wide strainer. Losing his kayak and paddle downriver, he swam to the thickly wooded shore and began a long walk of shame, post-holing through waist-high April snow. After a mile of drudgery, his fortunes changed when he stumbled into an old Perception Mirage kayak, complete with a fishing pole, buried in the snow.

Meanwhile, his friend, Adam, suffered the same fate upstream, losing his kayak and paddle to the early season log. As Zach stood there on the snow-lined bank wondering what to do with his kayak find, Adam's paddle washed up at his feet. Thanking the river gods for this unexpected bounty, he then used both to paddle out the remaining four miles. Turns out a landowner upstream had lost the kayak 15 years earlier when using it to fish, unaware of the whitewater that lurked downstream.   — Eugene Buchanan

Grande Reuniting

It is a great anguish to walk away from a boat pinned in a rapid. More so if you are walking away in little more than a loincloth, up a busy trail, and hitchhiking to your car. Even more if the boat really isn't yours, but a family heirloom you've been entrusted with, as was the Grumman I had pinned on the Rio Grande.

No one at the office knew we'd gone paddling over the weekend. Nor did they know of our near-naked adventure. On Monday we called a staff meeting. We illustrated the dilemma, in all its sunburned details, on a chalkboard. We lobbied for a staff team-building extrication exercise.
Everyone was game. In an hour we collected come-alongs, ropes and Z-drag kits, and headed for Bandelier National Monument. In two hours we were riverside, hooked to the foundered family canoe, and yanking it free—crimped and crumpled, but liberated. Before dark the boat was back in the yard, and I was searching the Yellow Pages for a welder skilled with aluminum—hoping that if all went well, no one in the family would ever know.

— Alan Kesselheim

Nate's Paddle

It's late fall and the Pemigewasset River is flooding. Nate is a college freshman in Plymouth, N.H., and wants one last Class V fix before winter. He chooses a wrecked dam site near Livermore Falls. The run is pure mank and the water rises several thousand cfs overnight from the rain. He puts in and tears around the bend to find hundreds of people on shore watching the raging water. It's Parents' Weekend he remembers, and parents and college kids are there oogling at the pumping river. Maybe the distraction's to blame, or maybe the line was never there. Soon he's getting pummeled beneath a thundering 12-footer with the crowd looking on, fearing for his life. He swims and loses his paddle and boat, finally clawing his way up a steep bank to some railroad tracks. The cops—who were called by one of the fearful onlookers—threaten arrest if he re-approaches the river. The boat is lost.

He spends the winter scouting the banks for his boat—a Perception Corsica Matrix that was a high school graduation present, and a handmade Jim Snyder paddle with "Free is Fun … Fun is Free" written on the blades. He even charters a plane to search. No dice.

Fast-forward 16 years. Nate's now teaching swiftwater rescue in McCall, Idaho. One class has open spots and he gives them to buddies. A few weeks later, Snyder calls, saying the students bought him a new paddle as a tip. "It'll probably take me six weeks to build," he says.

"I've been waiting 16 years," Nate replies. "Another month or two is no problem."

— Sam Bass

Self-propelled Paddlecraft

There was little doubt that my kayak had drifted away. I had dragged it half out of the water while I stopped to take a photo. It was Day 10 of my solo source-to-sea trip down the Klamath River. The kayak had become my companion. It contained my food, shelter, everything. And it was gone.

Scolding myself for not securing it, I analyzed the situation. My side of the river was covered in thick brush. My only hope was a road on river-left. I jumped in and swam one-armed with my paddle and camera held overhead. Then I ran, scanning the river. There! Two hundred yards downstream floated a red kayak, upright and headed toward a rapid. I sprinted.

My legs rubberized and my breathing became a dizzying wheeze. I flashed back to rounding the final turn of the 400-meter dash in eighth grade, and the sickening crunch, crunch, crunch of my school’s cinder track. In another minute, I staggered through the willows to the river. Unbelievably, the boat was floating quietly in an eddy near shore. It had floated more than a quarter-mile without me, incredulous at my lollygagging behind.  — Tyler Williams

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