Western students master
Newswriting in College Hall

Eleven Western Washington University students survived Kathy Sheehan's newswriting class during the 1996 spring quarter.

Only one, however, was brave enough to submit the news profile assignment for publication in The Sheehan World. Here is Ryan Hooser's profile of windsurfer Gene Gerner, who ran into trouble this spring on Bellingham Bay.

Rescue only part of ordeal
for windsurfer Gene Gerner

By Ryan Hooser

BELLINGHAM, WA -- People watched from the shore as Gene Gerner sped out into Bellingham Bay on his sailboard, occasionally disappearing behind whitecaps and huge waves. Then he was gone.

Winds of 35 knots and 8-foot swells made the search for Gerner difficult. Firefighters stood atop ladders, scanning the bay with binoculars. A Coast Guard boat battled the waves, while a rescue helicopter flew overhead.

An hour went by before the Coast Guard found Gerner near the mouth of the Nooksack River. He was more than four miles away from where he launched, clinging to his broken board.

A Coast Guard boat delivered Gerner to the safety of Marine Park, where fire trucks, police cars and paramedic units waited.

Once on shore, Gerner, who was unharmed but shaken, thought the incident was over. The rescue, however, was just the beginning of his ordeal.

Brett Bonner of KGMI radio and an editorial in The Bellingham Herald criticized his recklessness and complained about the cost and danger of the rescue.

There was even talk of making Gerner pay $16,600, the estimated cost of his deliverance from the bay.

Gerner 35, a longtime Bellingham resident who owns Gerner Construction, a general contracting service, has been windsurfing since the fall of 1992.

The 5-foot-10 balding man is in excellent shape. He keeps fit by the physical nature of his occupation, riding mountain bikes and windsurfing.

Gerner is single and spends most of his free time windsurfing, often traveling to Hood River, Ore. The town is known throughout the world as a windsurfing Mecca, and it is a favorite spot for Gerner.

The Columbia River Gorge channels wind through the town of Hood River. The wind blows almost constantly and often violently over the wide Columbia River, creating a prime environment for the sport.

Gerner, a Sehome High School graduate, is concerned with the bad publicity he's getting because he doesn't want people to get the wrong idea about the sport. He doesn't want windsurfers to be thought of as wild, reckless people who drain the taxpayers' money.

He said some people are trying to get legislation passed that will hold the rescued person accountable for the cost of the rescue operation. Gerner calls this "extreme."

Dave Doran of Washington Wind Sports, who has known Gerner for four years, called him "an expert windsurfer who knew what he was doing." The equipment Gerner was using was made to withstand wind up to 50 knots, according to Doran.

Two years ago, the Coast Guard rescued Gerner off the Oregon Coast when his mast broke. But Gerner said official rescue operations of windsurfers are rare. When windsurfers get into trouble, they usually get help from nearby board sailors he said.

"Equipment failure is a rare thing. It's something that you hope only happens to you once in a lifetime. I guess I'm just lucky," Gerner said. "The Coast Guard guys treat it like it's just part of their job, not like it's an inconvenience."

Still, Gerner admitted, "I did do a couple of things wrong.

"I was alone, and out in the bay a little too far," he said. However he insisted that the act of going out on the bay during high winds wasn't reckless even though there was a small craft advisory that day.

"I wouldn't have gone out there in a boat in winds like that, but I didn't hesitate to go out there on my sailboard," Gerner said. "People don't realize that the sport requires wind."

The Sheehan World