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Experience: A Near-Drowning at Dockside


I walked up to the bathroom and the couple was just getting out of their boat. The man appeared to be in surprisingly good shape. He was well tanned, trim and muscular, not exactly what you would expect for a guy in his 70s. He appeared to be moving without any stiffness. The boat was backed into the slip, a powerboat, white with red trim, maybe 28ft or so in length. The transom and aft deck faced me as I walked by. He and I made eye contact.

“Good morning,” I said, and then, “You look fine this morning.”

“Yes,” he responded. “No problem. I had someone help me get out of the drink last night.”

Clearly he did not know I was that person.

As these things do, they run through your mind, over and over again.

For the most part, mid-October marks the end of sailing season along the south shore of Lake Erie. A progression of fast-moving cold fronts disrupts short spells of beautiful clear fall days. During the good spells, strong, steady southwest winds push warm air across the lake creating perfect, flat sailing conditions. Over the years I have waited for these conditions to make my last crossing of the season aboard my 43-year-old Cape Dory 30 ketch, Valhalla, from Lorain, Ohio, to the Lake Erie Islands, about 40 miles northwest. The State Park marina on Middle Bass Island closes on October 15. This past year on October 8, a friend and I sailed there aboard our respective boats to enjoy one last visit before winter took hold.

We docked at the end of the floating dock system, the only boats there except for a 28ft powerboat about eight docks closer in to the marina office from where we were. Dark comes early this time of the year. It was around 2130, and I was doing the dishes when I heard a woman’s voice calling out, frantically. “Help, anyone! I need help!”

My first thought, since the marina was empty, was, “What the hell is that?” Looking around the only boat that appeared to be occupied was the powerboat I had noticed earlier. Sure enough, running toward the sound of the voice I had just heard, I saw a woman next to the boat reaching down into the water, screaming for help. “My husband fell in,” she said. “I can’t get him out!”

As I drew closer, I could see she was not just kneeling down, but grasping a hand coming up from between the boat and the dock. Instinctively, I grabbed the same hand and secured a good hold of his wrist. The man in the water appeared to have already reached the point where he was unable to make any further effort to help himself. The thought of grasping the hand of a person no longer alive entered my mind as I reached down, but I felt a return grasp. Knowing he was still with us I resolved I would not let go, no matter what.

At this point the man’s wife finally managed to get his head above water again, and for the first time I heard a gasp for air. I could see he was in a state of panic and close to giving up. He was terrified, eyes wide open, unable to speak. I gave his arm a strong tug to see if I could get to his other arm and pull the rest of him up out of the water as well. This proved a waste of time and effort, as I now realized the true nature of the problem: he was pinned between his boat and the dock.

Looking around from where I was still holding onto the man slightly aft of amidships, I could see there was a spring line set fore and aft about 2ft away. Still holding onto the man’s arm with one hand I reached for the cleat with the other. The line was braided white nylon about half an inch thick. There were a number of wraps around the cleat, and the line was secure and tight. Finally, I managed to get the first wrap off. The rest followed.

With the line removed, I tried pushing against the boat to try and move it out of the way. No luck. The stern and bow were still cleated tight. He remained pressed between the two.

With the water temperature in the mid-50s, I could feel from the man’s grip he was slipping away. I kept telling myself to hold on for all I was worth. His wife told me their boat had a swim platform. If we could get him to the back of the boat, she said, we would stand a better chance of pulling him to safety.

We slid the man along the dock until we ran into the tightly cleated stern line. As we did so, I frantically did my best to untie it so we could access the swim platform. Finally, the boat began moving away from the dock. This was a huge help as I was also now able to get hold of the man’s other arm and work his head and shoulders up to dock level. Unfortunately, he was a big guy and completely unable to offer any kind of assistance. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to pull him out of the water.

It was then that out of the darkness another couple appeared, having also heard the woman’s cries for help. With their assistance we were finally able to pull the man’s upper body up out of the water and roll him onto his side. After that, the weight of the man’s torso helped us pull his legs close enough that we were able to get him completely up onto the dock. The couple explained they were residents of the island and had just returned in their powerboat from nearby South Bass Island on a grocery run.

The man who had been in the water was now lying on his back. As he tried to speak, I could see he was beginning to regain his senses. He was breathing, and for the first time he moved, grabbing my arm with a strong but shaking hand. His entire body was shaking as well, and I asked his wife to get some blankets. She returned with a large heavy blanket and some kind of towel that I rolled up and placed under the man’s head. The other couple suggested calling 911, which prompted the man lying on the dock to go on a brief tirade, saying he did not need that kind of help and that he was OK. I told him I was an experienced first responder and felt he needed emergency care. He argued some more. Finally, I suggested a compromise. If he could sit up we would help him onto his boat. If he couldn’t, we would call 911.

Interesting how that worked out. Try as he might, he couldn’t even lift his head. I looked at the other man standing there with the cell phone and nodded. As he walked off into the darkness I talked some more with the victim and his wife. By now he had began to calm down. I sensed he was beginning to warm up and regain some mobility. The man with the cell phone returned and nodded. As we waited, he explained how emergency services work on Middle Bass Island. Apparently, the initial call and response is without charge. ear-round islanders staff the local fire and emergency response teams. Police and a professional EMT services are dispatched from nearby South Bass Island by boat.

In about the time it took to explain all this, out of the darkness appeared three young casually dressed men who immediately took over. It happened so fast and with so little fuss, the victim never had a chance to resist. Their appearance was followed about 10 minutes later by the arrival of the police boat from Put-In-Bay. Shaken, I returned to Valhalla.

So what happened?

As the man’s wife had explained while we were waiting, earlier that evening the two of them had walked to the general store about a half-mile away to get a pizza. While they were there, they did each have a drink, but walked back to the boat in complete darkness, no problem. When they arrived at their boat, the husband handed the pizza to the wife before stepping aboard. As he was doing so he fell into the drink.

According to the man’s wife, they both regularly swim off their boat. At first, she did not consider the situation a serious one. She soon realized, though, that not only was he pinned but the chilly water was quickly taking the life out of him. She didn’t know how long he had been in the water when I arrived. I’m guessing it was a good 15 to 20 minutes.

Fast forward to the next morning. As I was continuing on my way after the aforementioned pleasantries, I heard the man’s wife saying from within their boat: “That’s the man who saved your life last night.”

A few minutes later, back aboard Valhalla, I heard a voice out on the dock. I stepped outside to see the man holding two large bags of ice. “I hear you are the guy that saved my life,” he said.

“A number of people saved your life last night,” I said, “beginning with your wife.”

He thanked me and said, “We’re returning home now. I have a doctor’s visit this afternoon to make sure everything is OK, and we won’t be needing this ice, we just bought it yesterday.”

I smiled. Ice can be hard to get out on the islands that time of the year. “I think two bags of ice makes us even,” I said. “Thank you.”

With that we shook hands, and I took the ice below. A few minutes later I heard the boat start up, and then watched as they cast off and left the marina.

The following morning it was time to set sail for Lorain. Casting off lines, I sheeted in the jib, and the bow spun round till it was pointing toward the harbor entrance. Silently, I sailed out of the marina, cleared Ballast Island and set a course for Long Point on Kelleys 10 miles away.

A reefed main, mizzen and the small club-footed jib pushed me at hull speed as I sailed over the open water east of Kelleys. An hour later I could see the stacks of the Avon Lake power plant. The entire 40 miles took about six hours. A perfect crossing. The events of that evening, though, continued to haunt me. They do, still. You never know, even doing the many things that seem second nature—like stepping from your dock to your boat—when one false move could put you in great peril. 

What we did wrong:

• I responded to a call for help totally alone without bringing my cell phone, a flashlight, a rope, a life jacket or any kind of floatation device. All of these items were easily accessible on my boat

• My friend’s boat was 20ft from mine. As I left my boat I could see his cabin lights were turned off and I assumed he had already turned in for the night. A 10-second detour on my way to the scene to alert him and ask for his help would have been the wiser course

• All the time the wife had been trying to get her husband out of the water it had never occurred to her to untie their boat. She was trying to pull him out, or move him to the swim platform, and the boat was making this impossible

What we did right:

• We called 911. No one, including the man who fell into the water, criticized our decision to call for help after the professionals showed up

• As soon as we got the man on the dock, we provided basic first aid, covered him with warm blankets and provided head support

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