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Lake Michigan Sailing Trip Turns Tragic

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  • Lake Michigan Sailing Trip Turns Tragic

    When she could no longer hear her friends' voices as she struggled to stay afloat in the frigid waters of Lake Michigan, Kristin Masterson believed they were dead.

    Either she would meet the same fate, or by some miracle she would be saved.

    As the darkness nearly broke her will to live, she feared "I was going to be the only one (rescued), and I was going to wish that I had died."

    Masterson, 19, was one of four friends involved in a boating accident that turned fatal after all four wound up in the water together, leaving the 31-foot sailboat Joan's Arc unanchored and unattended.

    James Shepherd, 21, an accomplished sailor whose grandfather owns the boat, drowned. Police on Sunday continued their search for the fourth boater, Chris Gary, 21.

    Both Masterson and Irene Rogers, 21, floated in the water for about five hours before three men out for an early morning fishing trip rescued them. Before that moment — before they threw her a life preserver again and again until it was close enough that she only had to loop her failing arms through it — her thoughts had become her sole company.

    "When you're out alone and it's that quiet, your thoughts are the only things that exist," she said from her Hyde Park home Sunday, the hospital band still wrapped around her wrist.

    She remembers craving a Baconator from Wendy's. If she missed plans with her friend the next day, she worried he would think she had stood him up.

    But most of her thoughts centered on her little sister. "I thought about how much it would change her or who she is going to become as an adult if she lost me at the age of 8," she said.

    When she reflects on one life lost and another in limbo, Masterson also thinks about how she almost didn't go out on the boat late Thursday. Gary, who had finished an art show with Rogers earlier in the day, had called Masterson and urged her to come out. Shepherd and Gary graduated from Lincoln Park High School together, and Masterson, who graduated from Whitney Young High School last year, goes to school with Rogers at Beloit College.

    Although Masterson didn't know Shepherd and had plans to go to a show, she thought: "How often do you get to go out on a boat?"

    The gathering on the docked boat began around 11:30 p.m. Thursday, Masterson said. The four of them tossed around bean bags and listened to music, and Shepherd took Masterson out on a personal watercraft. There was alcohol, Masterson said, "but I wasn't intoxicated."

    Around 1:15 a.m. Friday, they decided that if they were going to go out into Lake Michigan, they had better leave soon, Masterson said. About 15 minutes after setting sail from DuSable Harbor, Gary and Rogers jumped in the water and ushered toward Masterson and Shepherd to join them, she said.

    "So I did," Masterson said.

    About a second later, so did Shepherd, she said.

    "My guess is it was a split-second lapse in judgment," Masterson said. "Before I surfaced, he was already swimming after the boat."

    That was the last time she saw him.

    She cried, "Help!" Gary responded, "Float on your back. You'll be OK."

    Gary put his arm around Rogers, who is a poor swimmer, to hold her up and encouraged her to keep her head above water, said Rogers' father, David.

    "He gave energy he could have kept," said David Rogers, whose daughter was released from the hospital Sunday and was not available for comment.

    At first, Gary and Rogers sounded about 15 feet away, said Masterson, who herself isn't a strong swimmer. But the water was choppy and the current strong, and seconds later, the distance between them doubled. Gary and Rogers were together for about 10 minutes before they could no longer hold on to each other, David Rogers said.

    The moon was small that night, but if the water caught the light, Masterson said, she could make out tiny silhouettes. For about an hour, the three called out to each other, until there was nothing.

    A few times throughout the night, Masterson would start swimming to shore, then would feel herself sinking and resort back to floating. But even as she lay on her back, there were times she choked on the waves that pounded against her face. With every wave taking its toll on her already exhausted body, Masterson told herself she just had to make it to daylight.

    If I wait for daylight … a boat will come," she said.

    When daylight broke, she spotted a red helicopter in the distance. They were coming to save her, she thought.

    Then she realized no one knew she was out there in the 65-degree water, unable to feel her fingers, barely able to move her arms. The disappointment crushed her. For the first time, she was ready to give up.

    "I thought, how much longer can I wait?" she said. "At what point am I going to be like, 'All right, a boat isn't coming'? At what point am I not going to be able to move my limbs anymore?"

    What seemed like only two minutes later, she caught sight of the three fishermen's boat and scrounged up everything she had left in her to cry out, "Help!" just as she had nearly five hours earlier.

    Her arms and legs were useless at this point, so the men pulled her in and carried her to the lower deck, piled on blankets and gave her water to sip slowly. A doctor on board, who was actually running late and caused the fishing expedition to arrive at the exact moment it did, told her she escaped death by half an hour, she said.

    "How long have you been in there?" he asked.

    "There's three others. Please go look for them," she replied.

    Moments later, she recognized Rogers' cough. She tried to climb the ladder to reach her.

    "I couldn't really move, but one of the men picked me up and brought me up to her," she said.

    The two could barely speak, their throats raw from hours of swallowing the cold water.

    "The only thing we (finally) said to each other was, 'Is Chris alive?'" Masterson said. "She said, 'I don't know.'"

    Masterson and Gary have been friends since she was 14, she said. They are so close, they swap clothes, she said with a faint smile. She wore his faded green T-shirt and paint-stained cutoffs Sunday, the day after she came home from the hospital, and the third day police returned to the lake to search for any sign of him.

    As hopeful as she wants to be about Gary's rescue, what she endured makes her fearful.

    "I was in there," she said. "It's really, really cold. … But I think that if anybody could pull off a miracle, it would be him." ~It's not the size of the website, it's how you use it! ~