It happened in an instant.
One moment, Niklas Hache was scrambling across the deck of his 22-foot Santana sailboat and the next he was underwater. Fighting the shock from the cold winter water, watching his boat sail away unmanned, Hache found himself adrift in the San Francisco bay.
It was Nov. 22, a sunny afternoon. Hache, a 32-year-old German, had been out for a solo Sunday sail, his third time going out by himself. He spent most of the afternoon in the waters outside the Berkeley Marina, sailing back and forth in mild winter winds. But as the afternoon progressed, clouds gathered in the sky. Around 3 p.m., Hache decided to go back home.
To return to shore, Hache took down the triangular sail at the very front of the boat known as the jib. As he was walking carefully back to the cockpit, the boom swung across the boat, throwing him off balance, and he slipped, going overboard.
“Suddenly, I was in the water,” said Hache. “I just knew — I’m in serious trouble.’”
Hache was living a boater’s worst nightmare: he was separated from his boat, alone in the icy winter water, subject to the bay’s strong currents and tidal changes.
On an average November day in the bay, the water is well below 60F, probably between 52 and 55 degrees according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Swimming is considered dangerous at 55 degrees. Early-stage hypothermia can set in in just a few minutes of exposure. An hour of exposure leads to unconsciousness and, from there, the outlook does not improve.
Each year, numerous boaters are knocked into the bay and some die. In 2020, the U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Francisco rescued 97 people from the waters of the bay and delta, said Lt. Stephanie Cardenas, the region’s public affairs officer. In 2019, the Coast Guard picked up 107 people.
Every minute in the water counted against him
The initial shock of immersion was intense, Hache said. But at least he was uninjured. Hache fought to hold his breath until his inflatable Personal Flotation Device (PFD) was activated. As he moved his arms to tread water, dread began to set in. Well aware of the risks of hypothermia, he knew that every minute in the water counted against him.
“It was a pretty bad moment. I wasn’t thinking logically — I started trying to swim, shouting, waving my arms. There were several boats and I thought for sure they could see me, but after 10-15 minutes I realized it’s actually really tough to see a person in the water.”
His thinking slowed by hypothermia setting in, Hache then realized he had a VHF radio on his life jacket and sent out a mayday alert.
Within minutes, crews on four boats began looking for Hache, followed shortly by the Coast Guard. But finding someone bobbing in the water is difficult, even if a search comes shortly after a mayday call.
Ryan Alder was out in his own boat when he heard the call.
“On our way back into the Berkeley Marina, we heard a panicked ‘mayday, mayday, I’m in the water just off the Berkeley pier’ on channel 16,” said Alder, who spotted Hache’s drifting sailboat and steered his boat in its direction.
This reporter was on the water too, putting our jib away and sailing homeward to the Marina, watching the Santana 22 bob suspiciously close to the hazardous abandoned pier. I knew something wasn’t right. I went below-deck to check channel 16 — there was a report of a man overboard in our vicinity, but no further information.
Fifteen minutes after the mayday radio call, a U.S. Coast Guard vessel arrived, and another 15 minutes brought a helicopter to the scene, searching from the air.
“We were pretty sure we’d just heard someone’s last words over the radio.” — Ryan Alder
Alder’s boat circled and ran sweeps for 30 minutes without sighting Hache. “We were pretty sure we’d just heard someone’s last words over the radio,” Alder said. “I thought, ‘I hope this isn’t yet another story we hear too often that ends with, if only they’d just been wearing a PFD.”
Sonia Fava, her husband Hugo and their 14-year-old daughter Carla were also out for a sail when they saw the run-away boat, positioned fairly close to their boat.
Their Express 37, the Frequent Flyer, motored over to the unmanned boat. They maneuvered next to Hache’s boat at midship and Hugo jumped into the cockpit to investigate. Hugo, a strong sailor, saw that the boat was neat and tidy, no evident damage, and sailed her back into the Berkeley Marina. “Carla drove their boat into the slip for the first time too,” said Fava.
But Hache was still missing.
After 30 minutes in the water, hypothermia was setting in
After 30 minutes in the water, Hache already felt the early stages of hypothermia setting in and there was no help on the horizon.
Until, it was.
Suddenly, the Emerald Sea, affectionately called Emmy, appeared — heading straight at him.
Samantha Aper’s sharp eye spotted Hache first.
“I kind of hesitated to call it out. I just wasn’t really sure it was a person. It’s hard to see people in the water like that,” she said. The crew sprang into action — lookout for Hache, douse the mainsail, start the motor, and initiate a proper crew overboard maneuver. Just like they had practiced.
“If we were there five minutes earlier or five minutes later, we would never have found him,” said Paul Vawter, one of the crew aboard Emmy. “If it wasn’t for the other boats that had started circling, we probably would have turned around to search but ultimately would have missed finding Niklas in the water. We were just in the right place at the exact right time.”
The Emmy was on a run that would take them straight through the infamous “gap in the pier” as local sailors know. Or, in landlubber’s terms, Emmy continued on the best route passing through the only safe passage through the derelict pier towards the Berkeley Marina.
Rescuing Hache was tense as it took precision, skill and timing.
“It was nerve racking, heading straight at him, which you have to do, then turn off at just the right moment, throwing the life ring with perfect timing so he could grab it,” said Vawter. You feel like you’re going to crash into the person.”
But their practice paid off, and the maneuver and timing was just right. They approached Hache safely.
Hache saw the Emmy approaching, but he wondered if it would it be like the other times when he watched boats pass him by.
“I saw a boat coming toward me, and started waving my arms again,” said Hache. “I was beyond relieved that this was someone who could save me.” This time, Hache would not be disappointed.
He caught the throwable life ring and hung on for dear life as they pulled him inside. He had been in the cold water for 45 minutes.
Joey Verdian, a part-owner in the boat, ran to assist Vawter to bring Hache inside the boat.
“It took the full three of us guys to lift him. Paul tried on his own first, but was like, we need help — help me lift him in! It was very difficult to pull him up. The bay looks open, and calm especially on that day, but you don’t realize how hard it is to see a person, and then actually pulling Niklas into the boat soaking wet and heavy was another challenge.”
Once Hache was inside, Aper and the other crew, Jessica Seville, Lisa McCaskill and Martina Binti, took care of Hache, who was shivering. At first, he had trouble talking. The women took off his wet clothing and gave him blankets, a beanie hat and warm socks. They held his hand and lay on his feet to start warming him. “If we didn’t have everyone on hand, there wouldn’t have been any way we could have rescued him,” said Patrick Williams. “The ladies were awesome to address the hypothermia immediately.”
Williams and Verdian have been sailing in the bay for five years, and, with a third partner, own the Emerald Sea. Their third partner taught them how to sail and various safety protocols, including man overboard drills.
“I’ll never sail alone. Scares the shit out of me.” — Patrick Williams
There are many hazards in the bay — from rapid currents to submerged rocks and reefs, high winds and cold water temperatures. Williams is no stranger to taking precautions and sailing smart. But after seeing what happened to Hache, Williams is convinced: “I’ll never sail alone. Scares the shit out of me.”
The story gets blurry for Hache after his rescue. He arrived at the dock where responders from the Coast Guard, police department and fire department were waiting. Hache was rushed to the hospital and he spent 6.5 hours in the emergency room due to an elevated heart rate and the need for a slow return of his internal body temperature to normal.
“I didn’t even think of my boat until the next morning when the Marina called to tell me it had been safely recovered and was waiting at the Marina for me,” said Hache. “It’s nothing short of miraculous — to be here telling the story today, completely fine and to get my boat back completely fine, too.”
In the end, Hache did everything right — he wore a yellow, very visible, personal flotation device and had a working radio on his person which no doubt saved his life. But he gives all the credit to those who helped him.
“These guys who picked me up are absolute rock stars, everyone working together as they did. I wouldn’t have lasted much longer.”
Williams and Verdian shared a beer with Hache the day after the rescue. I asked if they were hoping to sail together one day. The sailors of the Emmy laughed. “I think Niklas wants to race us actually!”
Hache is ready to go back out. “I’m fine — I’m not scared to go back out. I’m just extremely lucky. I [had] so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.”