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by Derek Clark - Wolverhampton, England


Nearly Drowning
Without Getting Your Head Wet

At Easter three years ago I went to spend a couple of days sailing with a friend. He lives aboard and at the time his yacht was on a swinging mooring about 100 feet outside an Eire marina. I entered the marina and made my way to the concrete pontoon nearest to his yacht. I waited there while he collected his tender from the public slipway and paddled over to me. The tender was a shortened fiberglass canoe.

As he paddled over I thought that the tender didn’t look very stable, and I noticed that there was a wind backed swell coming in off the sea. I thought about putting on my life jacket, but it was in my bag without its gas cylinder because I had flown to Eire. I had intended to get a new cylinder on arrival, but the chandlery was shut. I was reluctant to get into the tender so my friend paddled to his yacht to get me a life jacket. He returned having forgotten it. Foolishly, I handed him my bag which he put in the front of the tender and I got in the rear. A few feet out from the pontoon the sea flooded over the stern and the tender sank.

I swam the few strokes back to the pontoon without getting my head wet but could not hoist myself up out of the water. Every time I tried to do so either the shoulder bag that I was wearing across my front caught the lip of the pontoon, or a thick paperback book in my jacket pocket did the same. My jacket was a waterproof nylon affair that didn’t grip the concrete pontoon and slipped me back into the water each time I couldn’t get out. I was in the water on the outside of the marina and there were no ladders. The sloping mud shore was only about 80 feet away but I knew that I didn't have the strength to swim to it, or to move hand over hand along the pontoon. My efforts to get out had weakened me considerably and I could feel the very cold water sapping my strength. At this point I thought that I was going to die because I realized that I couldn’t hold on for much longer.
My friend was able to swim to inside the marina and get out of the water. He guided me to a fitting on the marina that I was able to hook my fingers around and, with great difficulty, he lifted me by my belt sufficiently that I could roll onto the pier.

I am an inexperienced sailor but I am well read, and being a cautious man I have completed some RYA practical and theory courses. Only a few days before this happened I had been reading Denny Desoutters 'Small Boat Skippers Safety Book'. He starts chapter 10 with "Most experienced yachtsmen will tell you that more people are drowned while trying to get to or from their boats in the dinghy than in any other circumstance."

I am very angry with myself for ignoring the evidence of my own eyes and upset that I foolishly trusted my friend’s seamanship. Although my friend then brought his yacht to the pier I refused to board. I found a Samaritan to dry my clothes and rent me a bed for the night. The next day I flew home.

Lessons learnt: Always wear a good life jacket in a tender. My friend’s jacket failed to inflate. I could have put mine on and inflated it by mouth but I never thought of that until a day later. Wearing an inflated life jacket I could have got to the shore hand over hand down the length of the pier.

Don't wear anything across your front or in your pockets that may stop you lifting yourself over an edge.

Have a change of warm clothing and a towel in a waterproof bag. All of my kit was soaked but my good Samaritan, actually an Irish-Moroccan, lent me clothes and dried mine for me.

Keep electronic goods in a waterproof bag until safely aboard. I wrecked my sub notebook computer, my digital camera and my mobile phone. Only two of the three were insured.

Trust your own judgment. Don't assume that somebody with thousands of miles of sailing experience will always make good decisions. I saw that there was a swell and I thought the tender to be unstable. I was aware of the danger and still went against my instincts because I thought that my skipper, with his thousands of miles of cruising experience, must know best. There was a sort of unspoken pressure on me to follow his wishes against my better judgment. I was angry with myself for taking that path especially so because in my working life I rarely conform.

For several days I had very disturbed sleep but that quietened down until a month later I suddenly burst into tears at work. I had post traumatic stress. The cure turned out to be very simple: every time that I thought about it I just reminded myself that I was alive. Nobody nearly drowns. You are either drowned or you are alive. I was alive. That lesson was taught me by a psychotherapist who had survived an aircrash.

After a few days I was as right as rain and it hasn’t bothered me since.