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Two hundred and thirty-one minutes. Three hours and 51 minutes. That’s the time Jose Gonzalez spent in the cold waters of Lake Tahoe on July 20 after falling off a jet ski.
“I didn’t think I would make it,” Jose said from his home in Santa Maria, Calif.
The 45-year-old married father of six had spent the day on Lake Tahoe after he, his wife and their youngest child went to stay with family friends in Reno. Their friend brought two jet skis to use at the lake, and they settled on the beach for a fun day in the sun and on the water.
Jose was on the lake on one of the jet skis, his wife Patty and their friend on the other.
“The ladies were riding together, then I passed them,” Jose said. He doesn’t know why he did this because he wanted to be safe because he can’t swim. It can paddle and hover but does not swim.
Yes, the man who spent nearly four hours floating in Lake Tahoe before being rescued is not a swimmer, which makes Wednesday’s rescue all the more amazing. He survived because he was wearing his friend’s life jacket.
When he got off the jet ski, Jose says he went down a few feet and it took him a few paddles to get back to the surface.
“The water was heavy,” Jose said.
The jet ski kept moving away from him. He held the life jacket and for the next 231 minutes kept his head above water using his hand to grab and hold the jacket zipper.
He was far from the jet ski when he saw a sailboat passing by. They went around and called the coordinates of the location to the Coast Guard.
Jose said he thought they would tell someone they found a driverless boat.
Turns out those on the sailboat live in Kings Beach and have experience sailing Lake Tahoe. They had heard of a missing jetskier on their radio and wanted rescuers to the scene. The couple didn’t see Jose who estimates he was about a mile from the jet ski at the time, but he saw them and it gave them some hope.
At that time, Jose and Patty’s 13-year-old daughter was on the beach. He said she remained calm throughout the ordeal. Jose said she knew the password to her phone and was able to open it and be in contact with first responders who were trying to find her father.
Jose said he felt the pressure of the big lake, the 36 cubic miles of water surrounding it.
“A lot of things went through my mind,” Jose said. “I didn’t think I would get there, but I saw the helicopters in the distance.”
He thought they were looking for him, and they were before they were dragged into a serious car crash near Round Hill Pines. He said they were much closer to shore than he was. Jose said the Coast Guard told him he was three miles from shore when he was rescued.
Jose said he was sometimes scared during the ordeal, but also felt joyful at other times. The waves of the lake came towards him from all directions. He said he tried to paddle, but as soon as he stopped the current threw him back, so he rested.
“Overall I felt very calm, but twice I felt very hopeless,” Jose said. “I lost hope once.”
During the time in the water, Jose said he was worried about his family. He and Patty’s six children are between 13 and 23 years old. His job in Santa Maria is at the city dump, weighing vehicles as they enter the dump.
Then, at 7:31 p.m., he was rescued. He was wearing his Apple Watch when he entered at 3:40 p.m., then looked at the time while standing in the water. He was too far from the phone to access any of its features.
His Coast Guard rescuers took him to the Cave Rock boat launch where paramedics were waiting. Once he was examined, he was released to his family’s care without having to go to the hospital.
Once ashore, Jose learned the characteristics of the life jacket he was wearing. He didn’t know there was a flare and a whistle, and a knife. The life jacket bore the name “Milkman”, the nickname of his friend Reno. This friend had tied him tightly with knots… and it saved his life.
“I’m very grateful to the sailors at Kings Beach,” Jose said after learning about their role in his rescue.
“Thank you for everyone’s effort, the people on the kayaks, the helicopters,” Jose said. “I can’t thank the rescuers enough, and they prayed for me.”
His family called his friends to start praying for him while he was in the lake.
So, is the jetski in Jose’s future?
“I think I will go jet skiing again but the safety measures will be different,” he said. “Team up, stay close to crowds…and always wear a life jacket!”