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Wind undoes Surfin' Santa; 'When the mast snapped ... I knew I was in trouble. I was in the middle of the river with five-foot high surf'

An angry gust of wind snapped Surfin' Santa's mast on his wind surfing board in the middle of the Niagara River on Friday, but Santa says his spirit remains unbroken.

"When the mast snapped, it really sounded like a gun going off. I knew what was going on, and I knew I was in trouble. I was in the middle of the river with five-foot high surf," said John R. Fulton, a Fort Erie, Ont., resident who has become a fixture on the river at this time every year.

Dressed in a Santa outfit, he puts on the surfing spectacle not far from the Peace Bridge in hopes of inspiring people to surf the Web over to his home page, which serves as a link to donate to charities.

"At this time of year, the feelings of hopelessness can be exacerbated for the homeless as communities and friends and family come together to celebrate. Donations are dearly needed," Fulton said during a phone interview back on dry land.

The nautical mishap occurred at around 11 a.m.

When Fulton struggled to paddle back to his Canadian homeland, the U.S. Border Patrol arrived and scooped Santa from the 41-degree water.

"They offered me a lift, and I'm not going to turn down a free ride," said the 51-year-old Fulton, who began his annual Dec. 23 jaunts across the river in 1985.

"I've gone out in snowstorms, on one of the coldest days ever recorded here, and in rain squalls and windstorms," said Fulton, who wears a waterproof dry suit beneath his Santa garb. "I've experienced everything."

In fact, a brutal wind snapped his mast on the very year he first surfed across the Mighty Niagara.

"I did make it safely to the American side and wound up getting international press. Ever since then I've been donating the exposure of this event to charity."

The stunt, he says, works.

"I've had feedback from people as far away as China and Mexico who have been inspired and made donations."

His website, www.surfingsanta.com, features links to a number of charities where online donations can be made.

And while Surfin' Santa is all about helping others, he's hoping for a bit of help himself this year in locating his $2,500 mast and sail, which collapsed into the river.

"I had to ditch them to begin paddling back in the surf," he said.

But if it doesn't turn up, he'll happily settle for the kindness he received from the Border Patrol.

"One of the Border Patrol agents told me that he may give me an escort across the river next year," said Fulton, who welcomed the offer. " 'Cause I ain't getting any younger."

Border Patrol officials said they were happy to provide Fulton with assistance.

Of seeing a stranded Santa in the Niagara River, Assistant Patrol Agent in Charge Steven Oldman said, "It's something you don't expect to see during a normal patrol "

email: lmichel@buffnews.com