, Salem, MA

March 14, 2013

Sailor pulled from frigid water after sailboat capsizes


---- — SALEM — A waterproof marine radio may have saved the life of a Cambridge man who fell into frigid Salem Harbor when his sailboat capsized yesterday morning.

“He had a hand-held, VHF marine radio,” Salem Harbormaster Bill McHugh said. “That’s how he made the mayday call.”

David Polan, 41, was clinging to his capsized, 10-foot day sailer when McHugh and Patrick Mulligan, an assistant harbormaster who heard the call for help, reached him around 9:35 a.m.

Polan left from Winter Island around 8 a.m. for a morning of what is called “frostbite” sailing, according to the harbormaster’s office. He was found between the Haste, a rock marker, and Misery Island, more than a half-mile offshore.

He had been in 40-degree water for about 20 minutes and appeared to be suffering from hypothermia, McHugh said.

Polan was taken to Salem Hospital, where he was treated and released.

The Salem harbormaster said he is not sure what happened or how Polan wound up in the water.

“He said something about a failure of the rig,” McHugh said. “It’s a very small boat, and there’s enough wind over there to take somebody by surprise.”

The Salem News was not able to reach Polan yesterday.

The harbormaster said Polan appeared to be an experienced sailor who was well-prepared. In addition to the portable marine radio, which was tied to the boat, he was wearing a life jacket and had food, a compass and other supplies.

McHugh said it was the emergency radio that made the difference.

“We advocate for all mariners to carry them on their boats,” he said, “but everyone thinks they’re OK with a cellphone, and they’re not. ... He was in the water and the radio was getting wet, but we were still able to hear him.”

Most cellphones would not work after getting wet, he said.

Although McHugh questioned going out in such a small boat in the winter, he praised Polan’s decision-making.

“He stayed with the boat, which was advisable,” he said. “He was way too far out to swim anywhere.”

Most of the boat was underwater by the time the Salem crew arrived. The only thing visible was the centerboard.

Asked if other boaters would have spotted the capsized sailor, McHugh said it was unlikely since most of the commercial fishermen were in port.

The Beverly harbormaster heard the mayday call and also responded.

The Salem crew, which had to go to Congress Street, where their boat is kept in winter, was first on the scene. They were able to find him quickly from the radio signal.

“He’s extremely lucky that everything went his way,” McHugh said.

Tom Dalton can be reached at