Two men are thankful to be alive after a Sunday night sail on Lake Winnipeg turned horribly wrong.

The lake was calm and the wind was still as 39-year-old John Jonker was wrapping up his first sailing lesson near Arnes, north of Gimli.

"The instructor said we should take a quick little tear back and forth on the lake," he said.

The men climbed into the sailboat, a tiny, open bow, two seater. But just minutes off shore, about a half-mile out, trouble started whipping up.

"The wind picked up — the wind speed doubled. The wind got faster and hard and stronger," Jonker said.

John Jonker

John Jonker said he's lucky to be alive after his sailboat capsized on Lake Winnipeg Sunday evening. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

As they tried to turn the vessel around, it capsized.

"I was sitting on the starboard side and I watched the port side come up and I remember being really calm, just kind of thinking, 'here we go,'" Jonker said.

Amid whitecaps and swirling frigid waters, the men clung to the boat, trying to right it. It wasn't an easy task in the waves and what made it worse — Jonker, ​a husband and father of three, can't swim. 

"I'm stopping and I'm saying, 'well Lord, am I in trouble? Is this it?'" he said.

'Gasping for air'

Jonker said the water temperature was only 3 C. His teeth were chattering, he could think but couldn't speak well. Eventually everything went numb.  

"I could not catch my breath, it was so unexpectedly cold I was gasping for air," he said.

Jonker managed to climb on top of the boat but his 70-year-old instructor could only cling to the side.

"I'm on this boat and it's like a ride at the Ex. It's going up and down and left and right and it's completely unpredictable because the sail's hitting the bottom at random spots when you're on the waves," Jonker said.

Sailboat

John Jonker and his instructor clung to their boat, identical to this one, after it capsized in the rocky water of Lake Winnipeg on Sunday. Their boat, named Doar, is still drifting somewhere in the lake. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

Just then two female canoeists showed up to save the men. They had been on shore when they saw the boat capsize.

Also on shore was Jonker's 13-year-old daughter, who called 911 and had an ambulance sent out.

It took 30 minutes for the canoeists to reach the men. They had to circle several times amid the whitecaps to get close to the men.

Jonker slid down from the boat into one of the canoes but the instructor was out of energy. He couldn't pull himself into the canoe, so one of the women grabbed him by the belt and pulled him in.

Once they reached shore, Jonker and his instructor were taken to Gimli hospital and treated for hypothermia.

They are now doing fine, but the incident has heightened their respect for the water. Jonker is warning others to think twice about the power of the lake and be prepared.

"This lake is not like this shore, [it] has it's own life. When you get out on the lake it's a different weather pattern," he said.

"I'm disappointed in myself for not seeing the hazard. It's only by God's grace that I've made it here."

He said he will sail again, but he might wear two life jackets next time.