Nicole Level was in deep, deep, trouble. The 19-year old sail board competitor broke a critical part of her sail rig as she was leading an international race off the shore of Cozumel, Mexico on Saturday, February 19.
Her board was moving in one direction with the force of the wind and six-foot waves, and she was moving in the opposite direction in a fierce current. She had no life jacket. She was nearly exhausted from trying to swim to the safety of her board. She was more than a half-mile from shore. Below her was more than a mile of Gulf of Mexico water. The current was sweeping her toward the Florida Keys, more than 400 miles away. She had already been struggling in the water for 20 minutes.
“I couldn’t swim anymore,” Nicole told a television interviewer after the race. “I saw sails coming. I was screaming and waving for them to see me. Somebody passed and they didn’t see me. I was panicking a lot.”
Rasmus Sayre of Vineyard Haven was very likely her last chance to survive.
The Tisbury School 8th grader, who competes at a world-class level among board sailors 15 and under, was leading his division of the competition. Ripping along at a speed of nearly 20 knots, he saw a hand over one of the waves. For a few seconds, he thought through what he needed to do.
“Her situation,” Rasmus said, “seeing someone with nothing, just their harness, it’s 6,000 feet deep there, and she was swimming alone. I would be so scared if I was in that situation. I can’t even think of doing it for 20 minutes, I’d just get so petrified. There was five seconds where I thought about it, and then I thought about how petrified I’d be, I knew she couldn’t wait any longer.”
Rasmus abandoned his race, bearing off course to the spot where Nicole was struggling. When he got close, he realized the severity of the situation. “She was really tired, and in shock,” he said. “She hauled herself onto my board, we took a couple seconds to think it through.”
But the danger was far from done. Now both teenagers were being swept out to sea. It is difficult to maneuver a competition board, with an oversized sail, in any conditions. These conditions were extreme, and with two people on the board, Rasmus struggled to get his sail up and start toward shore.
“The current was taking us out,” Rasmus said. “I wanted to get up pretty quickly. I had her sit on the back of the board, me trying to up-haul the rig. We tried probably six times, and all of them ended up with one of us in the water and the sail back down again. I really wasn’t thinking how deep of trouble we were in. I was just trying to calm her down, I said ‘we’re fine.’ I hadn’t thought about the danger, but afterwards…” He shuddered at the thought.
Nicole and Rasmus had another stroke of luck. Over the waves, they spotted the very top of a sport fishing boat’s superstructure, with a fisherman sitting way up there relaxing. They both knew the mariner’s distress signal, waving arms slowly over their heads.
“We saw it in the distance, but it was going a little away from us,” Rasmus said. “They turned back a little more towards us. They just happen to see us. They reeled their reels it. It took five minutes but it felt like forever.”
When the boat came alongside, Nicole scrambled aboard, and the fishermen took her back to shore. Rasmus sailed back on his own.
“He’s my hero,” Nicole said later. “I thought I was going to die.”
Fame and friends
Rasmus seems to be taking all this in stride, even the good-natured ribbing he gets from his friends at the Tisbury School. They have all seen a video of the competition posted on line. Nicole Lever is quite a striking young athlete, and his pals have asked if he only rescues cute girls.
“I would rescue anyone,” he said sheepishly. “It’s been big news, a little too much attention.”
The rosy-cheeked, tow-headed 13-year-old grew up in a sailing family. His older sister Solvig, who graduated last year from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, is working toward a goal of representing the United States in the 2016 Olympic board sailing events. The Sayre children start young.
“My dad was a very big windsufer, and still is, and kite surfer,” Rasmus said. “He got me into it when I was really, really little, 18 months. I was on a big board, in knee-deep water, a big barge of a board with a tiny sail and my parents chasing after me.”
At the age of 7, Rasmus began in low-key regional competition, and progressed quickly. “It grew into me gong to Florida for race camps, Cozumel, San Francisco, Weymouth, England.” In July, he will compete in the world championships in San Francisco.
Rasmus said he learned much of what he knows about racing, and safety, at the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club.
“There’s a day where you practice capsizing, what to do,” Rasmus said. “They explain what you should do if you’re out there, if you flip the boat over, or there is a lightning storm.” But the instruction didn’t include a scenario like the one he encountered off the coast of Cozumel.
“I wasn’t surprised, but clearly very proud of him,” said Nevin Sayre, his father. “He did the right thing immediately, without hesitation. He put himself into great risk, didn’t think twice about it.”