How a father and daughter survived hours clinging to capsized boat in Lake Ontario

Alun Phillips and his teenage daughter Morgan told jokes, sang songs and worked to keep each other's spirits up for close to six hours, after a routine afternoon boat trip out of Burlington went sour and his 18-foot catamaran sailboat capsized.

The two spent six hours in the water after their boat capsized

Alun Phillips and his 13-year-old daughter spend a soggy, cold evening in Lake Ontario after their catamaran capsized Tuesday. (Phillips family)

With a couple of soggy $20 bills in his pocket, all Alun Phillips wanted was a floating Tim Hortons to buy his daughter dinner as they clung shivering to their capsized boat in Lake Ontario Tuesday night.

He and his daughter Morgan had been in there for close to six hours, after a routine afternoon boat trip went sour and his 18-foot catamaran sailboat capsized off Stoney Creek.

I'm never going to complain about paying my income tax ever again.- Alun Phillips, rescued father

"We were overdue for hours," the Oakville man told CBC Hamilton. "I was making her laugh by saying, 'Mom's not going to be too happy with me about this one.'"

Phillips — who says he is an experienced sailor and catamaran racer — left the Burlington Beach Catamaran Club with his 13-year-old daughter early Tuesday afternoon and sailed down past the lift bridge to Baranga's on the Beach restaurant where they had lunch.

But the wind was a little stronger than he'd anticipated, and in the couple of hours they were ashore, it picked up even more. Once they left to head back to Burlington, the combination of a strong wind and an ill-timed manoeuvre capsized them.

No phone, no radio

It shouldn't have been a big deal. The 400-pound, small, twin pontoon boats can capsize pretty easily – Phillips even calls it fun. But when a catamaran capsizes, the sail usually hits the water and stays buoyant. Then it's only a couple of minutes of work to right the boat and be on your way.

But Phillips's boat totally turtled, with the mast pointing straight down in the water. He figures it was because of a leak on a seal on the mast. But whatever the case — once that style of boat flips, there's no getting it back up, he says. "I was just in complete disbelief. It had never happened to me before," he said. Neither of them had a phone or radio on them.

The Phillips's catamaran split when rescue crews tried to pull it to the water Tuesday. "I had this thought of 'hmm, maybe this wasn't as secure as I thought it was,'" he said. (Phillips family)

The two spent hours perched on the upside down boat, singing songs, telling jokes, and generally working to keep their spirits high. "She was just a superstar," Phillips said. He wasn't worried that they'd never be found — but some fear did start to creep in about shipping traffic in the water. If the father and daughter were still out there when darkness fell, a larger ship would never see them, and could run them over.

"We had prepared ourselves for a cold, uncomfortable night on Lake Ontario," Phillips said. "Thankfully it didn't come to that — seeing as he "married a worrier."

By this time, his wife Carolyn had realized something was wrong. She went to the sailing club and saw his vehicle, but not him. She called police, and a search was started.

Found on radar

It didn't take long for the coast guard to find Phillips's boat on radar and track them down – though what turned out to be rescue at first seemed ominous. "I see this light come out of the darkness and that's my worst fear," he said. "I was afraid I was going to get hit."

Instead, it was a coast guard crew, who found them around 10 p.m. They hoisted the pair aboard, gave them warm clothes and got them into the hands of Halton police, who brought them ashore. The search also included a C-130 Hercules airplane from CFB Trenton.

Phillips says he's eternally grateful for the fantastic work done both by the coast guard and police to help his family. "I'm never going to complain about paying my income tax ever again," he laughed. While he and his daughter got home safe, the boat wasn't so lucky – it split in two when coast guard tried to hoist it out of the water.

As for his wife? "She was just in pieces," Phillips said. "You know how wives are. She's been hugging my daughter and me ever since."

"But it was her being exceptionally worried that got us out of this mess."


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