February 28, 2007
Split-Second Decision Saved Snowmobiler
By DAVID SHARP
PORTLAND, Maine - A snowmobile operator who encountered open water while racing across a partially frozen lake saved himself from drowning by accelerating fast enough to glide over the waves for at least a mile. Another rider was missing and presumed dead.
Gary Huntley said he had never ridden a snowmobile over water - a dangerous practice known as "skimming" - but had heard it was possible.
So when the ice on one of Maine's largest lakes abruptly ended during a ride Saturday, Huntley and a companion made a split-second decision to accelerate onto the water.
"I just thought to myself that as long as the sled is moving and I'm sitting on it, I'll be able to breathe and live," he said. "If I end up in the water, I don't have a chance."
It's widely known that snowmobiles can stay afloat for short distances on open water. The trick, riders say, is to maintain speed so that the belt driving the snowmobile becomes something of a paddle wheel. Let off the throttle, riders say, and the snowmobile will sink.
State legislators outlawed skimming in 2003, but game wardens who investigated the incident credited the riders' instincts with saving their lives.
"At least two of them did what was under the circumstances the best thing to do. But what a terrible position to be in," said Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association.
Huntley, 44, of Oxford, estimated he traveled about a mile before reaching safety. Wardens said the distance was at least two miles. A companion, Jonathan Herbster of Bedford, Mass., also survived by traveling a half mile across the water.
A third rider, Paul Blanco of Carlisle, Mass., was missing and presumed drowned. Divers found his snowmobile in 30 feet of water, but there was no sign of his body.
Earlier that day, the men rode across three other frozen lakes that had no gaps in the ice.
Huntley said he was traveling about 40 mph when he spotted open water ahead. He figured he was already on thin ice and would sink if he stopped. So he gunned the throttle, hitting the water at 80 mph.