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Tragic Sailing Death in South Sound

by Kurt Hoehne

Gizmo during an earlier race.

The storm that hit the Pacific Northwest last Saturday night claimed one life and has severely shaken the sailboat racing community here. Jay Berglund died after Gizmo, the Harmony 22 he was crewing on, overturned and sank. Gizmo was in Budd Inlet within a couple miles of finishing South Sound Sailing Society’s Eagle Island Race. Skipper John Thompson and crew Peter Crossman were rescued. Several boats came to assist immediately. The crew of the S2 7.9 Sugar Magnolia rescued Thompson while the crew of the Express 37 Flying Circus rescued Crossman, apparently with a Lifesling.

According to some reports, Berglund was wearing a life jacket, but Thompson has confirmed this was not the case, and in fact Berglund’s body was not found until 24 hours later in Case Inlet.

The Viper 640 Dragonflly also capsized twice but ultimately was righted and towed to safety.

Several factors contributed to the tragedy. The wind hit earlier and with greater ferocity than many expected. Gizmo‘s forehatch blew open immediately before the knockdown and, as a daggerboarder with internal (bilge) ballast, her righting moment wasn’t enough to right her immediately after the capsize. Apparently, sail handling issues onboard some rescue boats hampered their effectiveness.

Jay Berglund, sitting forward in a Star boat, along with skipper John Thompson. Photo courtesy of Thera Black.

Jay Berglund, sitting forward in a Star boat, along with skipper John Thompson. Photo courtesy of Thera Black.

Berglund was well known in sailing circles, having done ocean deliveries and a lot of local racing. According to Thompson, “Jay loved every part of the sport.”

Thompson’s gripping account of the incident (posted first on the Sailing Anarchy website and reprinted here with permission from Thompson) follows, as does a story about just what a great shipmate Berglund was.


From John Thompson: I was the skipper of Gizmo when she was lost this past Saturday.  I was sailing with Jay Berglund and Peter Crossman.  All of us have a full lifetime of experience sailing and racing.  We are all in mourning right now for Jay.  He was one of my dearest friends, and he loved little Gizmo easily as much as I did.  Harmony 22s are phenominal little boats, especially in light air.  Jay was an experienced open ocean sailor and racer.  He had his USCG Captains License, SOLAS credentials and all that.  He has sailed all sorts of boats from Thistles and Stars up to his current ride on Artemis (a 50ish foot racing yacht out of Shilshole).  He’s been my right hand man on Gizmo since I bought her in 2012.

This account of what happened is mostly my own obeservations, with a bit of second hand info to fill in the gaps.

Gizmo was participating in the South Sound Sailing Society Eagle Island Race when she was lost.  We had completed about 25 miles of the 27 mile course.  The weather forecast had called for high winds that day, but after 8:00pm and through Sunday.  We were planning on being done long before then.  As we passed Boston Harbor with the working jib up and full main in about 15 knots of wind, we could see the heavy white caps ahead in Budd Inlet.  So we cleared the 150% off the foredeck and reefed the main before getting there.  We quickly took in a second reef as the winds built to 30 knots steady with gusts probably to 35ish.  In this configuration, I was just flogging the main, so we eventually decided to douse the main completely.  With the dagger board so far forward on these boats, she actually sails OK this way.  We sailed two long boards back and forth across Budd Inlet keeping the boat at close to hull speed all the way despite the waves.  We were still racing at this point and just looking forward to reaching the finish line so we could douse the sail.  But on the third board, the waves built to 6-8′ making controlling the boat and holding her nose on the wind without the main very difficult.  Halfway across the bay, the forehatch blew open creating an instant safety situation.  At that point, both Peter and I reached the conclusion that we were in over our heads and decided to abandon the race.  But before we could act, a gust measured at over 60 knots swatted her over.  It happened so fast that there was no recovering from it.  Harmony 22s have bilge ballast rather than a ballasted keel, so when they go beyond 90 degrees, they turtle immediately.  And this is what happened.  I was actually under the boat in the cockpit when it came down on me.  I had to swim down under her to get free.  Jay and Peter rode the rail over and were free in the water when I emerged.  We swam to the transom together so I could reach the VHF radio and call for help, but Jay said it was gone.  I was still thinking that the boat would right itself, and she would have had she had bouyancy bags installed.

Jay stayed with the boat.  That’s what they always tell you to do in a situation like this.  About 2-3 feet of the stern was sticking out of the water.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t wearing his life jacket.  Jay always wears a life jacket.  I can’t for the life of me figure out why the one time he didn’t wear a life jacket, that when the shit hit the fan.  I also wasn’t wearing a life jacket, which turned out maybe to be a blessing since I had to swim out from under the boat when it came down on top of me.  I found the foam rudder floating free, so I used that to keep me up.  Peter had his life jacket on and Jay was clinging to the boat.  Peter and I were quickly washed away from Gizmo and Jay.  Four sailboats converged on the scene to assist within minutes.  The first was a single-handed San Juan 24 with a roller furled jib that would not roll up all the way in the heavy wind so he was barely in control.  He tried to pick up Peter, but didn’t have any way of getting him aboard so Peter finally gave up and waited for another boat.  The next boat in was a S2 7.9 that was also barely under control with a full main up that couldn’t be reefed.  The winds were still blowing over 40 knots with higher gusts.  I swam over to her, grabbed the backstay and hoisted myself aboard over the transom.  Somehow I ended up in control of the boat (maybe just because I was in the back of the boat and in the way I guess), so I steered over to try to pick up Peter and Jay. Gizmo was gone by this time. My intent was to park the boat to windward and drift down on them, but with the full main up and 40+ knots of wind thats no easy task.  I drifted past twice out of reach.  At that point, I noticed an Express 37 coming in under power already deploying their Lifesling, so we were just in the way.  The Express picked up Peter after a couple of passes.  At this point Jay was face down in the water and non responsive.  The rescue boats were converging on the scene at that point, so they directed them to where they last saw Jay.  I think he had sunk by that point, because it was exactly 24 hours later before he was found a long way from the scene of the sinking.

 My thoughts and prayers go out to Jay’s wife Ruth.  Jay was a great guy and a great sailor.  He was very focused on his sailing.  When he trimmed the sails, they rarely ever got cleated.  He was constantly paying attention to the boat trim and sail shape.  I’ve never met someone so focused.  He loved Gizmo as much as I do.  If I can raise her, it will be in his honor.

And here is John’s anecdote about Jay as crew:

The previous owner of Gizmo had thought it was a good idea to cover the bottom of the boat in copper foil, much like the old square riggers.  Before he sold the boat to me, he stripped off the foil and painted the bottom with anti fouling paint.  Jay and I decided that she would be much faster if we could strip the bottom and leave it nice and smooth since she is trailered (doesn’t need bottom paint).  How long could it possibly take to sand the bottom of a 22 foot boat?  We figured a few hours tops.  Wrong.  The previous owner had stripped off the foil, but left the gummy glue which instantly clogged up the sand paper.  So, we (mostly Jay) had to use heat guns and scrapers laboriously taking off about 1-2 square inches at a time.  It took at least three days.  Then we had to use paint stripper and lots of rags to remove the residue which took another couple of days.  Finally, we could sand it smooth.  I didn’t mention the weather.  It was nice in early April until the day we brought Gizmo into the yard.  Then the weather turned.  We had continuous rain, wind storms even sleet while we tried to work.  The tarps that we had rigged to catch the dust were whipping us mercilessly.  It took 9 days to get the bottom cleaned and painted.  Jay did the great bulk of the work since I had to work.  The weather turned quite pleasant after we finished.  The smooth bottom has been one of the major contributors to Gizmo‘s later racing success.  And its all testament to Jay’s tenacity.

Berglund is survived by his wife Ruth Elder. Our condolences to Ruth, John, Peter and all of those close to Jay.

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