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Lake Superior boat-watcher helps sailor in distress

DULUTH - Curt Bush describes himself as an "armchair sailor."

But on Sunday afternoon, as he scanned the rough Lake Superior waters from a friend's deck high above the Duluth harbor, Bush became a sailor's savior.

Bush, who lives near Cloquet, was visiting Marna Banks of Duluth. As a budding sailor himself, Bush said he likes to check out the sailboat traffic on the lake.

The couple was enjoying the warm, windy day outdoors, and Bush, as usual, was scanning the sailboat traffic. Using a pair of binoculars, he saw a few large sailboats far out in the lake, and a lot of chop closer to shore.

And then, about a half-mile off Minnesota Point, he spotted something tiny and unusual.

"It looked like a sailboat with the mast down," Bush said. He couldn't see anyone on board, but he noticed the small boat was stuck broadside to oncoming waves.

"It just looked like a white sailboat that kept getting lost in the troughs," Bush said. "I said to Marna: 'I could be wrong, but let's call the Coast Guard and tell them.' "

Bush called to report a boat in distress, and left his name and number. He got a call back immediately. The Coast Guard had had another report of a sailboat in distress about 2½ hours earlier, said First Class Petty Officer Derek Franklin. A crew had been searching for the boat but was unable to locate it in the rough waters, he said.

The crew headed back out again, this time in cell phone contact with Bush. Keeping an eye on the sailboat and one ear to his phone, Bush was able to direct the rescue crew -- "a little to the east, a little to the south" -- to the foundering sailboat.

The rescue crew located a single person on the boat, which had its mast strapped down, Franklin said. The sailor had first- and second-degree burns on his legs and hands, and apparently had extinguished a small fire on his boat, he said. Franklin was not sure what had caused the fire.

The Coast Guard crew took the sailor aboard the rescue boat and towed the disabled sailboat into the harbor.

The sailor was then transported to Miller-Dwan Medical Center, Franklin said, where he was treated and released. The sailor's name was not available.

The Coast Guard frequently makes use of help from the public, Franklin said, whether it's to report a boat or swimmer in trouble or to offer more eyes on the water.

As for Bush, he said his role in the successful rescue "made me feel really good." And he certainly isn't done watching the lake.

Next summer, Bush plans to trade in that armchair and the blueberry farm he has nurtured for the last 15 years for a full-time sailing gig. He plans to spend as much time as possible on Lake Superior aboard his newly acquired 26-foot sailboat. A summer on the big lake "should tell me if I want to spend my life on a boat," Bush said.