Broken Sea-Doo Leads To 5-Hour Keystone Lake Ordeal For Man, Son

Wednesday, June 3rd 2015, 11:54 pm
By: Tess Maune

What was supposed to be a short trip on a jet ski ended with a father and his 10-year-old son stranded in the middle of Lake Keystone for hours in the dark.

The two went to Cowskin Bay a few weeks ago - before the severe flooding - to test out a new motor on their Sea-Doo.

It was supposed to a quick trip, so they just threw on their life jackets and left their phones in the pickup.

“He was born here, he's lived here all his life,” John Leonard said.

Keystone Lake is the place where John and his son, Cole, share their best memories.

“We'd jump up on the Sea-Doo. That was our deal, let's go make a memory, watch the sun go down,” John said.

Keystone is also where they created their most unexpected memory when their Sea-Doo broke down in the middle of the lake.

“We only had about an hour, hour-and-a-half of daylight left,” John said. “I was worried about snakes and worried about just getting him out of there.”

With no cell phone or flashlight, and with daylight fading fast, swimming was the only option.

Cole stayed on the jet ski while his dad jumped in the water to tow them both to shore.

“You can take the back of the Sea-Doo and pull it toward you and push it forward a little ways and swim to it,” John said. “Then it turned into some sort of side stroke hanging on to the back step.”

It was a long, slow ride for Cole.

“I kept looking up and I saw the exact same thing and it was like two feet closer,” the Cole said. “I was like 'This isn't fun, I'm hungry and I'm bored.'”

John wasn't worried at first. He's in good shape and thought pulling the two would be fairly easy, but then the current came.

“It's not a current that would take you under, but it's current that would completely wear you out if you didn't have a life jacket on. It's pretty dangerous,” John said.

To add to the problem, they were surrounded by bluff banks - places too dangerous to climb with a 10-year-old boy.

And then, day turned to dark.

“I never thought we wouldn't make it through it, I just thought we might be on the lake all night,” John said.

He pulled his son and the Sea-Doo for about five hours and never saw a boat or another person, but neither John nor Cole ever panicked.

“You need to take a deep breath, calm your breathing and relax. And if I stay relaxed, he stays relaxed,” John said.

It was pitch black outside when the two, somehow, spotted a low spot with a clearing of grass.

“We were both just like, ‘oh my gosh,'” John said. “I said, ‘Cole we can get up these rocks.'”

The two were also barefoot, so John ripped Cole's t-shirt in half and wrapped the pieces around his son's feet to protect them from debris on dry land.

“Made some shirt moccasins for a minute, they didn't last very long, but they got us out of the jam,” John said.

Although they had no idea, at the time, they were in the Westport neighborhood.

They knocked on at least five doors to get help, with no answer.

“It was midnight when we got someone to answer the door,” said John.

The person who came to the door was someone who knows about helping others.

“I got up and, of course, I carry my gun to the door with me,” Tim McDaniel said.

McDaniel is the police chief in Mounds but lives on the lake.

“He answered the door as a chief of police would answer the door,” John said laughing.

The chief let his guard down and put his gun down quickly when he heard their story.

“When I shook his hand it was just ice cold,” McDaniel said. “He was really concerned about his son and just keeping his boy going, and he did it, and I think he's a hero for that.”

But for the father and son, it's just a lesson and another memory for the books.

“It's hard not to [think], 'Well what if this would have happened? What if that would have happened?' It didn't happen, ya know? It worked out ok, we made it back,” John said. “And if anything, I made a new friend.”

McDaniel gave the Leonards a ride back to their truck, which was less than a mile down the road.

John said he'll never go out on the water again without a phone and a flashlight.