Lost on the Lake


Alone among the waves, he was beyond reach of human help. Hypothermia was setting in. He had some decisions to make. Now!

High wind warnings for northern Utah were making a lot of people nervous, but not Matt Hansen, 17, and his dad Barry. To them, it sounded like perfect weather. They shared a love of windsurfing, and the news that high winds were coming was like music to their ears.

“When a windsurfer hears that the wind is going to be blowing hard, that’s when you drop everything and go. In Utah, the wind rarely blows over 40 miles per hour. So when we heard the wind would be blowing, we packed up and went.”

Barry called his brother Drew, and they made plans to go to Utah Lake. Barry also took his two daughters, Nicole and Natalie, because they liked to play on the beach.

When they arrived at the lake, it was disappointing. “We got there and the water was almost glassy,” said Matt. “I wasn’t even going to rig up my sail or put on my wetsuit.”

Barry decided to go out because he is not quite as good a windsurfer as his son and his brother. He has fun with the winds blowing between 10 and 15 mph. “It finally started blowing hard enough for Matt. He’s quite a bit better than I am, so he likes to be out in 20 to 40 mile-per-hour winds. I was tired, so I went in and was lifting my board up onto the beach. By then Drew and Matt were about three-quarters of a mile out. In a matter of two or three minutes, the wind shifted, going from 20 mph to what I estimate was about 60 mph. I knew they were in trouble. There was no way they could sail in that kind of wind. The waves went from three-foot swells to so high I couldn’t see over the tops. It was blowing hard and kept building and building. I could occasionally see my brother, but I couldn’t see Matt.”

In the water, Matt felt the wind shift. When the high winds hit, he saw his uncle heading in. “I was in the water waiting for a gust so I could water start. That’s where your sail pulls you up. Then the wind started picking up. I tried to hold on, but it was too strong. I thought it was a microburst, and I could wait a minute for it to pass. Usually the wind won’t blow that hard that long. I looked at the clouds coming from the mountains. I knew it wasn’t a microburst, and it wasn’t going to stop.”

Matt was right. The wind was not going to stop for several hours. In fact, the wind wreaked havoc, blowing down dozens of trees, toppling trucks, shearing power poles, and ripping apart roofs throughout northern Utah. The wind would be clocked as high as 86 mph in places, hurricane velocity.

On the lake, Matt was just a speck on the water. “Quick as I could, I tried to save my boom; that’s what you hold onto on your sail. I got it off and detached my sail from my board and let my sail take off. I went to grab my boom to put it on top of my board to swim it in. The wind caught my board, and it took off. I dropped my boom and went after my board. It’s my best flotation device besides my life jacket. I looked back and my boom and sail were gone, so I started swimming with one hand on my board. I would get glimpses of the shore, but it was blowing so hard that if I tried to look at the shore, the spray off the waves would hit me in the eyes and face.

“I had been swimming for half an hour, and I felt like I wasn’t making any progress at all. I thought to myself, Any decisions I have to make, I have to make them right now before hypothermia kicks in. After a while I won’t be able to make the decisions very well or very wisely. I told myself everything I was going to do, over and over.”

The situation was similar to what Matt had been taught in church. Make your decisions before the moment of crisis. Make your decisions when you can think clearly. Then when faced with the critical moment, the right decision to carry you through will already be made.

“After an hour of swimming, I felt I was a little closer to shore. It never crossed my mind to stop. I had a life jacket and board. I was not stopping. Wherever I ended up, it was not going to be in the water. I was starting to get cold. I knew hypothermia was coming. It was getting harder to think. I had to concentrate and keep swimming. Then I felt ground underneath me. I thanked the Lord and thought, Now all I have to do is walk.”

In the meantime, Drew had gone to a marina to get a boat, but the high waves swamped the boat when they attempted a rescue. They had to turn back. The sheriff’s office could not send a helicopter up because of the high winds. At home, Matt’s mother, Barbara, was trying desperately to stay calm: “I kept saying, ‘Matt, hang onto the board. Hang onto the board. Keep your strength.’” Then she felt the comfort of the Spirit.

There was nothing to do but wait. Barry drove down the beach and stared at the most horrifying sight he had seen, waves crashing and no trace of Matt. “That’s when I felt absolute despair,” said Barry. “I knew Matt was in very good condition. I knew he knew the rules of safety. But it was getting dark. I knew he couldn’t last too much longer in the cold water. I pleaded with the Lord to temper the elements and bring my son back.”

Just when darkness was about to set in, Barry saw a figure walking toward him. It was Matt. He ran to his son, hugging him. Matt, his face purple with cold, said, “Dad, I love you.” Barry was crying on his son’s shoulder.

That evening, after Matt was reunited with his sisters and mother, the Hansens knelt in family prayer. Matt’s father is his bishop in the Parkview Ward, South Jordan Utah Stake, and rarely had the prayers of thanksgiving been so sincere and given with so much joy by the Hansens and other ward members as those that night.

The Hansens still enjoy windsurfing, but needless to say they are very cautious about weather conditions, particularly on Utah Lake. And Matt knows what it means to make decisions ahead of time, then to keep his eye on his goal and never ever stop until he reaches it.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Scott Snow

[photos] Photography by Steve Bunderson