By Michael Argyelan
Whether at the dock or on the water, tricky things happen on boats. Safety, right next to fun, should always be a sailor’s top priority. I was reminded of this simple fact yesterday when I helped rescue an older gentleman who went in the drink.
Yep, right at the dock. Someone accidentally fell in. All I heard was a splash and then a single word, “Help!” I immediately ran over to assist another gentleman who was on the scene helping out. How did this all happen? Well, let me tell you.
An ‘older’ couple was out for a day sail and heading back into DuSable harbor for a port side tie up on G dock. I was on F dock with my wife rigging the boat (ie: stocking rum) for yet another brutally slow Wednesday Night Beer Can Race, when I noticed the couple having a hard time tying up.
The woman grabbed the bow line, which was on one of those dock line hook thingies fastened to the dock, and made it fast to the starboard side bow cleat. However, the gentleman didn’t get off the boat in time and the stern swung to port way off the dock almost making contact with another boat. I assumed they’d figure it out eventually. They seemed to be self sufficient with at least one line tied on and a working engine.
Just moments later the splash and a call for help rang out. Without a second passing I yelled for the dock code, ran down F dock and over to G. When I bent down over the dock a gentleman was holding onto the skipper’s hand keeping him steady. The skipper’s auto inflating PFD had gone off properly and was keeping him afloat. He’s very lucky that someone was there to help him. The 3 layers of clothing on his body may just have taken him under if he hadn’t been wearing a properly functioning PFD.
Now, I’m not sure what happened, I can only assume that he made a foolish attempt to jump to the dock and make the stern line. He was so concerned about the boat getting tied up even when floating in the water with his hand latched to his rescuer’s. “Will you grab the stern line and pull the boat in?” I kindly told him that not only would the boat crush him as he was between the boat and a fixed object but that our only concern for the moment was getting him out of the water quickly and safely.
We let him go and he swam, or awkwardly floated, to the swim ladder on the stern. It took him 3 full minutes to get on the boat. Once he was on the ladder, barely standing, he realized mobility was extremely limited due to the PFD that may have just saved his life. With much needed assistance the PFD was off and he slowly made it into the cockpit. Needless to say everyone was happy that he was safely on the boat, especially his wife.
There are some key lessons to be learned here:
One, wearing a PFD when sailing is always a good idea. I also noticed his wife was wearing a foam type PFD. Good on you both. Well done.
Two, never, ever, jump onto the dock. Fiberglass is cheaper to repair than bones and much less painful. It’s better to ask for a hand from a nearby boater. In this case, there was a guy two boats down who was ready to lend a hand.
Three, know how to get back on the boat, alone. Physically, his wife would not have been able to pull him out of the water. The boat was so far off the dock that she couldn’t get off the boat either. Have an exit strategy, or in this case, a boarding strategy.
Four, swim ladders aren’t just for swimming. Without a swim ladder, the gentleman in the water was going to have to suffer through me yanking on his arms and gear to hoist him out of the water. A dislocated shoulder or bruises and scrapes are all possibilities when bringing a victim out of the water.
He’s lucky someone was on board to lower the ladder. There wasn’t a leash or the like to lower the ladder from the water. A ladder is only useful if you can get to it. I learned this lesson the hard way in my most embarrassing moment on the water a few years ago.
I was waxing the smooth sections of the deck giving my old Catalina 36 a mid season shine. At the time I had ‘Westwind’ on a mooring in Monroe Harbor and wanted to have access to a dock so I pulled her up to the finger pier, aka pump out dock, due East of the Chicago Yacht Club docks. Dry wax dust covered the boat. I slipped a few times walking on deck in flip flops. Flip flops were mistake number one.
The rail at the lifeline gate was an aluminum track with adjustable cars and attachment points. This was covered in wax dust. As were my flip flops. You guessed it, I slipped getting back onto the boat.
My right shin took the first hit ripping the skin right off. My hip bones next leaving a mighty bruise and then my chest and arms. I made a desperate attempt to latch on to the rail with the tips of my fingers to no avail.
My bruised and battered body, and ego, was now in the water trapped between the boat and the pier. Somehow I pulled it together quickly enough to swim away and head towards the stern and the swim ladder; my quickest way out of the water. The only problem now was the swim ladder was out of reach. I made every attempt to reach it. Every effort failed.
Realizing not a soul noticed I landed in the wet stuff, I gave a quick call for help? Embarrassingly, a captain that I was about to interview for my charter company was the one who answered. He looked down at me and asked if I needed help. I swallowed my initial anger at his sarcasm and agreed to his assistance. He lowered the swim ladder and I proceeded to pull out the first aid kit.
This is the one and only time I fell in the water. You’ll now find my flip flops at the end of the dock. I don’t even bring them on board anymore.
I now have a leash or line or whatever you want to call it on my ladder. The nerd in me uses 3mm dyneema but any line will do. Even a sail tie will work and your local sail maker will appreciate the advertising. It needs to be low enough that you can reach it if you wind up in the drink.
Let’s recap. Flip flops bad. PFD’s good. Have a way to get back on the boat, alone. When you need help, yell and someone will hear you eventually. Don’t jump from the boat to the dock, always step onto the dock.
Want to chime in? Tips? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sail on, friends.