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Group rescues men from Lake Pepin

Jan and Jerry Nelson along with friends Arlin Albrecht and Chuck Curt all were on the Nelsons' boat Sunday when they came across a tipped catamaran. The group soon came across the boat's occupants who had been in the water for more than two hours. Jen Cullen/RiverTowns

LAKE PEPIN -- Wacouta residents Jerry and Jan Nelson and a group of friends feared the worst Sunday evening when they came across an overturned catamaran on Lake Pepin's choppy waters.

Even the couple's large ocean-going vessel had been hard to navigate through sustained 40 mph winds and occasional squalls and gusts produced by a storm that quickly moved through the area.

Members of a national boating safety club, the Nelsons knew attempting such unforgiving waters during bad weather in a small boat could be potentially deadly.

The group - including Wacouta residents Arlin and Marilyn Albrecht and Chuck and Julie Curt - slowly approached the wreckage. Nobody was nearby. Everyone on the boat began scanning the water with binoculars.

"Nobody said anything but I know we were all thinking the worst scenario was that they were lost," Jan Nelson said Monday.

Stunned by the potential gravity of the situation, the group was silent.

That's when they heard yelling and saw two men bobbing in the water about 300 yards from shore below Frontenac State Park near Point No Point.

Using what they learned in boating safety and rescue classes, the Nelsons and their passengers were able to pluck two Austin, Minn., men from the 64 degree water.

Steven Harrison, 62, and Robert Silbaugh, 61 - who were both wearing lifejackets - told their rescuers they had been in the water for at least two hours. Silbaugh had been wearing a wetsuit but Harrison was not and was showing signs of fatigue and hypothermia.

Jan Nelson and Julie Curt brought Harrison into the boat's salon, wrapped him in towels and fed him with hot tea as a Lake City fire and rescue boat rushed to the scene to transfer him to Lake City Medical Center.

"We were really worried about him," Jan Nelson said.

Harrison's wife, Diane, said Monday evening her husband was tired and "pretty whipped" but otherwise OK. He was given fluids at the hospital, then allowed to go home.

"To hear the story all come together it kind of chokes me up thinking about what could have happened," Diane Harrison said, noting that her husband and Silbaugh planned on returning to Lake Pepin this week to try and recover the boat.

Harrison and Silbaugh had taken part earlier Sunday in a Lake City sailing regatta. Thrilled by a victory in the last race of the day, the men told the Nelsons they wanted "have some fun" and set out on their catamaran.

The weather turned vicious quickly. The small boat capsized and the men tried for at least an hour to upright it. Then they swam for shore.

"I think we were very fortunate to be there for them at that point," Jan Nelson said, noting there was little boat traffic due to the weather. "It made us feel good that we were there because the outcome could have been very different."

The Nelsons are longtime members of Hiawatha Valley Sail and Power Squadron, a national organization that tries to educate the public on safe boating and other issues.

The couple said the lifejackets helped save Harrison and Silbaugh. But the situation could have been avoided had the men checked the weather forecast and taken a marine radio with them.

Chuck Curt said people also don't realize how unforgiving Lake Pepin can be.

"I think people can underestimate this lake," he said. "It can blow up on you so fast."