MEMORIAL DAY MIRACLE - Alone in the middle of a lake in a foreign country, a man with a busted jet ski has to figure out how to get to shore ... alive!

  • Published
  • By Robert L. Spence
  • Defense Language Institute English Language Center Safety and Environmental Programs
Back in the 1999 NBA playoffs on Memorial Day, Sean Elliot of the San Antonio Spurs rose up on his tippy toes and hit a game ending three-point shot that defeated the Portland Trailblazers in a nail-biter of a game. The shot helped define Elliot's illustrious basketball career and was quickly dubbed the Memorial Day Miracle. Preparation met opportunity, and Elliot had made the most of it. Years later, I had my own Memorial Day miracle ... no three-point play but lots of alley oops ... well, oops anyway. Because, unfortunately, it was my lack of preparation that defined this moment.

I had been on a long work stretch preparing for an Operational Readiness Inspection at Misawa Air Base, Japan. The inspection was finally over, and we received an excellent rating. Time to celebrate! It was the Memorial Day holiday, the weather was beautiful, I had the jet ski, and Lake Ogarawara was only 20 minutes away. Two plus two equals a great day on the water!

I called a few friends and asked them if they were up for a day at the lake, but they had other travel plans. Then I asked some neighbors, but they just wanted to stay home and rest.

So I decided to go by myself (oops).

I would normally start the ski before taking it out just to ensure all was well -- i.e., the contacts were clean, basic tools were in the ski, license and insurance were on board, and all emergency equipment was in the proper compartment.

This day, however, I just hooked up the ski and headed out (oops).

I had been to this same spot 50 times or more and knew I didn't have anything to worry about. I arrived at the lake about 10 a.m., backed the jet ski into the water and tried to start it up. It took a few attempts to get it started, which was abnormal. But I finally got it fired up, so I figured everything must be OK (oops).

As I headed out on the lake, I noticed no one else was boating or fishing. Usually, Japanese fishermen were all over the lake fishing or harvesting fresh water clams and mussels until about noon. Perhaps that should have set off some alarm bells in my head, but instead, I thought to myself, "This is awesome; I have the lake all to myself (oops)."

Since I had Lake Ogarawara all to myself, and I didn't want to squander the opportunity. I decided to do some exploring.

I saw a landmark a few miles away and set my sights for it. It was what they call "The Elephant Cage." It comprised of a dozen communication towers in a circle on the far side of the air base. I'd always wanted to see it up close but never took the chance on going the distance.

Today was the day I would stretch the limits (oops).

I was like a kid in a candy store and wanted to explore farther. So I saw a park in the distance and decided to go check it out too.

After wandering several miles from my starting point, I figured I better head back. But then I saw some old Japanese architecture and decided to take a closer look. It was all the way on the other side of the lake, but I went anyway.

When I had finally satisfied my curiosity and started the long trip back, I decided to make the voyage more interesting by doing a couple of stunts along the way. I began doing side slides, similar to a car skidding sideways. I had done these many times before, but this time I was going faster than usual (oops) and was ejected from the ski (double oops).

I must have been thrown 30 feet!

The impact was so hard that my water socks flew off. I was rattled, but, thankfully, unhurt.

"No problem," I thought. "I lost the water socks; but I have a life vest on, and I can swim back to the ski."

I made it back to the ski and climbed on. But when I put the key into the ignition and turned it, nothing happened!

I thought the contacts must be loose. I opened up the battery compartment and discovered the contacts were corroded. I also noticed the compartment was empty -- no tools or paddle (oops). Then I remembered that a few weeks before I'd let a friend use the ski. He'd dumped it over, and it had filled up with brackish water. We'd gotten the ski out of the water and emptied the water out. I had to take out all the tools, the insurance and the license, as well as the emergency equipment to dry them out. I had forgotten to put them back in the jet ski (oops).

I was stranded several miles away from my truck in the middle of the lake with no one around for assistance and no way to call for help. Normally, I would have my cell phone with me, but I'd forgotten that, too (oops). I sat on the ski for about 45 minutes hoping someone would come by and tow me back, but no luck.

The wind started to pick up, and I was being blown farther away. I decided I had better do something. I tried to paddle with my hands, but that was useless. Thank heavens I had some rope. I tied it to the front of the ski, jumped into the water, and began to swim, with the jet ski in tow.

When I finally reached shore, I was exhausted and still more than 5 miles from my truck. A fence line that stretched for miles along the shore prevented me from making land. So, still pulling the jet ski, I began to wade through the water along the shoreline. I felt hundreds of razor-sharp clams slicing my bare feet as I walked in roughly 4 feet of water.

After about an hour of walking, I looked up at the sky and saw dark clouds moving in. I began to worry but kept trudging along. Another hour went by, and the storm got worse. The clouds were getting darker and the thunder louder. I saw lightning in the distance. Maybe this was the reason the lake had been devoid of people ... they had checked the weather report.

I was really getting worried now. I was the highest thing in the area, and if lightning struck, I was a goner. Luckily, about 15 minutes later the storm suddenly changed directions and moved away from me.

After four hours, with feet filleted by the clams, I finally saw a house past the fence line. It belonged to a Japanese fisherman. I had been told by other American jet skiers that the Japanese fishermen didn't like us because the skis interfere with their nets and scare the fish away. I also remembered I did not have my license or insurance papers with me ... still drying out at home (oops). If they called the police, it could be a $20,000 fine; and my jet ski would be confiscated.

I tried to walk past the house in the water, but I came to a deep channel. The channel forced me out of the water and onto the fisherman's private property. I pulled the jet ski to the edge and tied it to a tree.

I walked cautiously toward the house. Long knives and bone saws hung from the side of the dwelling. I wanted to believe the residents used them to clean the large fish they caught.

My imagination got the best of me, and I really wanted to find another way around.

Suddenly, a fishing boat came roaring toward me.

Perhaps someone in the house had alerted the crew. A stone-faced fisherman got out of the boat and held a fish club as he approached. Fear replaced my pain.

I bowed deeply. I could not speak Japanese very well, so I used my hands to mimic breaking a stick and pointed at the jet ski. Then I put my hands together and asked for help as best I could. Thankfully, the fisherman understood. He gave me a glass of water and a small screwdriver. I used the screwdriver to remove the corrosion from the contacts, then held my breath as I tried the key in the ignition again.

The jet ski fired right up!

I had some money in my swim trunks pocket and tried to give it to the fisherman, but he refused the offer. With a wave of gratitude, I got back on the ski, and slowly made my way back to my truck.

Along the way, I thought of all the things I should have done differently, and the list proved long. But one thing was a sure slam dunk ... it was a miracle I made it out of there OK.