Jeff Sayre does not consider himself a hero. He considers himself a very lucky father who managed to save his seven-year-old daughter after she fell into Vineyard Haven outer harbor and who very nearly ran out of luck as the cold water sapped the remaining strength he needed to climb out of the water.
After days of on-and-off rain, Jeff Sayre welcomed Monday’s sunny but still chilly weather. His daughter Julia’s friend, Sophia Alexander, 8, had spent the weekend. The girls, second graders at the Oak Bluffs School, had spent much of the holiday weekend indoors.
Jeff and the two girls decided to spend the morning at the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club beach. It was a quiet morning with little of the activity that could be expected in a few weeks. Boats remained stored in the parking lot and there were no other people around.
“We didn’t want to be in the house on a sunny day, finally,” Jeff told The Times in a telephone call.
The girls were throwing rocks off the yacht club dock into the water. Jeff stood on the dock looking at boats off East Chop and thought about what the fishing might be like.
As the girls continued to play on the beach, Jeff sat down at a picnic table. The girls picked up some more rocks from the beach and then walked out on the dock to throw the rocks in the water.
“And of course, I’ve warned them a million times, do not get too close to the edge,” Jeff said.
Jeff is an avid fisherman and boater. He is used to being around the water. Julia often fishes with her dad and has the Derby pins to attest to her skills. For many Island kids, docks are as familiar as a sidewalk.
“She’s been on my boat multiple times, so I didn’t think there was any danger with them walking up the dock by themselves,” Jeff said.
As Julia explained it later, “Me and my friend Sophia, we were bringing these big rocks over here to see how big the splash would be and then I was talking to her and I wasn’t paying attention, and then it was like walking on air.”
Jeff was seated at the picnic table. “And all of a sudden I hear her friend Sophia say, ‘Julia fell in the water.’”
The impact of the words took a second to register. Jeff jumped up and ran down to the end of the dock. His daughter was wearing a heavy coat and was still afloat in the 50-degree water.
“Luckily, she had had swimming lessons,” he said, “so she knew how to tread water.”
Jeff, wearing sneakers, blue jeans and a T-shirt jumped into the water. He told his daughter to hold onto his back as he struggled in his clothing to reach the dock.
“I get her on my back and I’m trying to swim and of course, we’re not panicking, but at this point she’s crying, ‘Daddy, Daddy.’ And I told her, ‘I’m all right, don’t worry.’”
But he was not all right. The ladders and stairs that had been removed from the dock for the winter had not yet been replaced. There was no way Jeff could see to climb up out of the water to the dock and the cold water was sapping his strength.
He made his way to the left side of the dock where there was a lower platform. His only thought was how to get his daughter out of the water
“I swim over there and I grab onto one of the pylons with my arm, just to hold onto it, and I was able to get her up with my left arm onto that lower ledge,” he said. “I got her out of the water, that was the main thing, she was safe.”
Jeff tried to pull himself out of the water. To his surprise, he did not have the strength it took.
“You’re in the water all the time, you swim all the time, and I’m trying to lift myself up onto the dock and I can’t do it,” he said. “I’ve got two kids that can’t help me. I didn’t want to panic, but I started to worry that I’m not going to be able to get up.”
Jeff knew hypothermia was taking a toll on his body. He decided that if he could climb up on one of the trusses under the dock he would be out of the water and would regain some strength.
He managed to get one leg over a truss. As Julia called to him he reassured her that he was fine and just resting.
A woman who had noticed the commotion wrapped a blanket around Julia. She asked Jeff what she could do. Jeff assured her he was fine.
Using the trusses, Jeff made his way under the dock and managed to climb up and around the edge. He emerged cut up from barnacles, drenched and weary to the bone — and wiser.
“Now I know how people die,” he said.
Jeff said he has often heard about the effects of cold water on the human body but never thought he would experience it in such dramatic fashion. He doubts he would have been able to swim, carrying his daughter and weighted down with clothes, from the end of the dock to the beach.
The fact that he did not have a way to climb out of the water has left a lasting impression. “I have a little ladder that I never take on my boat,” he said. “I am putting that sucker in the boat, because if I ever fall out, or somebody else falls out of the boat at least somebody else can get that ladder and lay it out.”