It was 1000 and already the temperature was 80 degrees. There was no wind, and Banderas Bay looked like a glass lake. My husband, Jay, and I had just left Paradise Village Marina in Nuevo Vallarta on our Hardin 45, Cadenza. We were headed to the La Cruz anchorage. They have a marina, too, but we preferred being on the hook, even if only for a night. I am a freelance writer, and we were on our way to an interview. Ironically, it was faster to go by boat than bus. Once anchored, we had a bite to eat and then prepared to go on shore.
Cadenza has a very high freeboard with an inverted transom, so the best way to lower the dinghy and detach it is for me to get in the dinghy while it’s still on the davits, and then have Jay lower me. All went well, and I unhooked the davit lines. Meanwhile, Jay kept hold of the painter.
“I’ll pull you around, Terri. Don’t start the motor,” Jay said over the escalating wind. It was now 1330 and as predicted, the wind had picked up to 15 knots with seas of 3ft to 4ft. We usually get the dinghy around to the midships boarding ladder with Jay pulling it while I hold onto the side of the boat. It was so bumpy I thought I would have a hard time holding onto the rail, so I tried to start the motor, thinking that would assist me in getting through the wind and waves. At any rate, since I am stubborn and thought I knew what I was doing, I ignored Jay’s advice. Big mistake.
I opened the gas valve, pumped the fuel line, pulled out the choke and checked to see that the motor was in neutral. For some reason, it was not. It was in forward. That’s odd, I thought to myself, and pushed it back and forth until I was sure it was in neutral. I then proceeded to pull the starter cord. It was so bumpy that the first two times I tried I couldn’t get any leverage and I was stumbling about the dinghy.
“Let me pull you over, Terri!” Jay said again. One more try, I thought to myself, then I will give up and let Jay pull me over. I think my stubbornness comes from needing to prove (as a woman) that I can handle difficult situations. Well, I couldn’t handle what came next. The motor started, and we are not sure whether it popped into gear by itself or if I accidentally knocked it into gear. The next thing I knew I was going full throttle toward the stern of Cadenza, just 10ft away, with the bow of the dinghy in the air. Meanwhile, the painter had been ripped from Jay’s hand, and he was yelling, “Pull the kill switch!” I don’t know why, but the kill switch never crossed my mind. All I could think was that if I hit the boat I would flip over and that would be the end of me, so I quickly pushed the gear shift into reverse. That jerked the dinghy. Then I tried to get it into neutral, but ended up putting it into forward again, and then a wave hit the dinghy and I went over the side.
I landed in the water off Cadenza’s starboard quarter and immediately checked to see where the dinghy was headed. It was coming directly toward me at full throttle, and its movements were wild and jerky. I swam as fast as I could, but not fast enough, and the propeller caught my right leg as I tried frantically to push the dinghy away. When I rose out of the water again, to my relief, I could see the dinghy rounding Cadenza’s port side and heading away from me.
I swam to the swim step and held on. Again, because we have high topsides, there was no way I was getting back on the boat, even when Jay came with a boarding ladder. “I can’t climb it, Jay!” I said. “It cut my leg.”
I turned around to see what to do next. Fortunately, two men in a dinghy were passing by. I don’t know if they were after our runaway dinghy or just happened by, but I motioned them over to help. Recovery began quickly.
They pulled me up into their dinghy and with that we saw the damage: lots of cuts, two very deep and wide, but my leg was still in one piece.
“Get a cloth and something to wrap it tight!” I yelled up to Jay. “To stop the bleeding.”
Not knowing the extent of the damage, Jay said, “Just get her up here on the boat. I can take care of her up here.”
“No!” I yelled. “I can’t get on the boat.”
“She needs stitches. She needs to get to a doctor,” one of the men said, while he wrapped my leg with the make-shift tourniquet Jay had thrown down. “Call the marina on the radio, notify them we are coming, then get your wallet and some extra clothes for her.”
It was a 15-minute dinghy ride through high waves and wind. It was uncomfortable, but Jay was holding my leg up and one of the men was holding my hand while they tried to keep me calm. I was frightened, but I was conscious. I was in a lot of pain, but I wasn’t screaming. Most important of all, I could still feel my toes. All these were good signs, and I tried to hold onto that and concentrate on my breathing.
When we arrived at the La Cruz Marina there were a few people waiting for us who said an ambulance was on its way. La Cruz de Huanacaxtle is a small Mexican village with a 24-hour clinic. That seemed to be the place to go. However, when we got there the doctor said he couldn’t handle my injuries and that we should go to a hospital. The question was, which one? That’s when Jay remembered there was a good hospital by our marina in Paradise Village and asked them to take us there.
It was a long trip to the hospital, and both Jay and I were silent, reliving the accident over and over in our minds. What happened? What could have happened? How much damage had I done to my leg? What kind of care would I get? And what about the cost? Worst of all was the memory of seeing that dinghy racing toward me like a mad thing aiming to tear me to pieces. It is an image I am not likely to forget.
I am writing this from the San Javiar Marina Hospital in Nuevo Vallarta, and the care here has been excellent. I have six stitched wounds. Some bone was shaved and a tendon was damaged, but both were repairable. The worst of my injuries were the result of the propeller cutting 50 percent of my calf muscle, and I will need a skin graft. The muscle will take some time to heal. But I will walk again. And I will be able to sail.
What could I have done differently? First, listened to my husband and not started the engine. That said, this could have happened anytime, anywhere. The kill switch was the obvious answer. Ours has a very short cord. Jay thinks we should have a long strap that attaches to our ankle (like on a surfboard). That way, if we don’t have the presence of mind to pull it, if we are thrown out of the boat, it will automatically stop the engine.
We had lifejackets on board, but I was not wearing one. If I had one on and the propeller came toward my chest it might have saved my life. Or if I became unconscious, it might have given someone a chance to pull me out of the water. However, had I had a lifejacket on, I wonder if I could have swum as fast, against the waves and the wind, to get away from the propeller. This is something to consider.
Accidents don’t just happen to victims, they happen to witnesses also. Jay was standing on the boat watching everything unfold. The helplessness he felt was literally painful. He knew where the first aid kit was and got to it quickly. However, I didn’t have it organized. It was just a big box with a lot of stuff in it. In hindsight, I will re-organize it, making sure items for treating traumatic injuries are easily accessible. And from now on, everyone who comes on board will know where the first aid kit is and how to access the necessary items.
We are deeply grateful for the cruising community that always seems to be willing to help: especially the two men in the dinghy from Priority, and for a man we only know as “T-Sarge” who captured and returned our dinghy. Thanks also to whoever turned on our anchor light. We left the boat in the La Cruz anchorage overnight, wide open, and all was intact the following morning. Remember this when you hear negative reviews citing the danger in Mexico. Think of our experience here—excellent care, kindness, and no theft.
There are lessons to be learned, and gratefully I am here (whole) to share them with you. If you take nothing else from my experience, please, keep the kill switch handy.
Terri Potts-Chattaway is a freelance writer who currently spends summers on Martha’s Vineyard with her husband where she enjoys sailing their 18ft Herreshoff catboat. In the fall of 2013, she and her husband left California on their 45ft Hardin ketch and now spend winters cruising Mexico