Trapped Under a Dinghy

Author:
Publish date:
Updated on
water_bkgd_12_16

The lifejacket was an afterthought.

The visitor had motored his way up the river, and I’d waved him over toward a vacant club mooring nearby. Sitting in my cockpit sipping coffee in the morning sunlight, I’d watched him, solo, make two failed attempts to hook the pickup. There was no wind, a slack tide, but even stopped alongside he seemed unable to manage. He was clearly very tired.

I called that I’d row across and help pass a line, and went to pull my dinghy up alongside. My old lifejacket lay on the cockpit seat so, rather than step on it—and remembering the promise I’d made to my wife—I slipped it on and fastened the clips.

The dinghy, a tippy plywood pram I’d borrowed, had lifting strops attached to the floor and my outboard clamped on the transom. The motor was awkward to start and stop, so I disentangled the oars and rowed the few yards across.

The visiting boat was stationary alongside the orange mooring buoy. Calling to her skipper to arrange a line, I started to row around the bow. Suddenly, there was a loud engine-roar, and I looked up to see the boat’s bow surging toward me. She struck hard amidships, the dinghy reared up, and I was pitched headlong into the water.

As I went down, fragments of training from decades past kicked in and thinking “cold shock reflex” I clamped a hand firmly over my mouth and nostrils, while tugging on the old lifejacket’s pull cord…

There was a reassuringly loud hiss, and I bobbed up quickly—beneath the now-inverted dinghy.

Assess, assess! spoke a voice in my head from decades past, and I looked around inside my upturned “lid.” Daylight filtered up through the water. I was afloat and I could see, with perhaps six inches of breathing space. That won’t last long, I thought. It’ll escape if there’s any wake or waves. But I’m OK, for now.

I grasped the dinghy’s gunwale, pushed up hard and ducked my head down to clear the wooden edge.

Nothing happened!

There was resistance. Unexpected. I couldn’t lift the dinghy side, and I couldn’t push my head down. Consternation. I’d done sea-survival training. It should have been easy to get out.

Stop. Reassess. There was less airspace now. Think. I could feel that one or two of the rope lifting strops had wound themselves around my right leg. I could see them now, still secured to the floor, trapping me.

OK. Reach down and unwind them.

My fingers traced the ropes down past my knee. I could feel at least two loops, but I couldn’t stretch my fingers far enough down to peel them over my heel. Arthritic knee? Stiff back? Lobes of the lifejacket? They were all conspiring against me now. Panting, the airspace reduced by half, I was very aware of the weight of the outboard sticking up in the air. If the air bubble goes and the dinghy sinks, I go down with it.

I ducked my head under again, wriggling and struggling with the rope around my ankle, holding me down under the darkness of the dinghy. Another attempt to lift the upturned side. No success. The ropes just pulled tighter. The first surge of fear—Is this how it ends?

I couldn’t kick the boot off. A third desperate attempt to reach my heel, each hand, in turn, left me gasping for breath. There wasn’t much airspace left now. Pushing back at the growing sense of panic, heart pumping, I wriggled and writhed the other way.

My foot came free. I bobbed my head down, pushed, then came up into clear space between the cruiser’s hull and the dinghy. Panting for air, I stared up, to see a face staring back at me.

“Throw me a line!” I yelled. “Quick!”

He did—a coiled-up one.

I somehow still held the dinghy’s painter in my hand. Unwilling to lose my outboard and the borrowed dinghy, I handed the cord up to the fellow. “Here! Hang onto that,” I called and paddled my way along the side, looking for something to grab onto. Down by the stern, there was a boarding ladder, and I clung to that. Suddenly aware the engine was still running, I found myself screaming at him “Neutral! Neutral!” while drawing my legs up tight.

I couldn’t get a foot onto the ladder, but my new-found friend pointed to a fabric satchel dangling there. A rescue sling? I pulled the handle and a little rope ladder tumbled down. I was able to hook a foot into this. Great! I thought. Things are getting better, and I stood up on the rung, shoulders clear. Relieved, but now really feeling the cold seeping through, I stepped my weight up onto the next rung.

“Bang!” went the plastic securing clips, one piece hitting me hard in the eye. “Splash!” went I, back down into the river.

This boat’s out to get me, I thought as I dog-paddled clear. I really do need some help now. At that, a couple of dinghies manned by friends from some other boats arrived. The cold was now seriously limiting me, I could only cling hook-fingered onto the transom of one, but it was just a couple of minutes to the club pontoon and the safety ladder—that and nearly an hour of standing under a hot shower until the shaking stopped…

Wil Bailey has survived decades of sailing , rock climbing and military flying. He’s sailed “everything from old luggers to carbon tris.”

Reflections

1. Dinghy means lifejacket, every time. It’s no good in the locker.

2. You do your engine pre-departure inspection every trip? So do an aircrew inspection on your jacket, too. “Bottle – straps – clips – damage.”

3. Things happen fast. A small investment in survival training pays off. Even an occasional session of “What If...”

4. Train your hands. Close your eyes, don your lifejacket, find the pull cord. Where’s the sprayhood?

5. Cold Shock Reflex kills. Learn how to combat it.

6. Don’t panic. Keep thinking. Never, ever, ever give up.

7. Examine critically all parts of your safety gear. Is it really up to the job? Don’t assume—check.

Got a good story to share? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com

Illustration by Jan Adkins

 December 2016

Related

101218BTSC-9887

Just Launched: Little Big Boat

Peter Nielsen looks at Beneteau’s latest entry-level boat and a new cruiser from Tartan Group Beneteau’s commitment to entry-level boats has been reaffirmed over the last year with the assimilation of the sporty Seascape line of pocket cruisers and the ...read more

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell. Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com No chafe, safe stay  If you’re leaving the boat unattended for a longish period, there’s a lot to be said for cow-hitching the shorelines, as this sailor did. They’ll never let go, and so long as the ...read more

belize600x

Charter Special: Belize

It would be hard to imagine a more secure spot than the Sunsail base on the outskirts of the beachside community of Placencia, Belize. The entire marina is protected by a robust seawall with a channel scarcely a few boatlengths across. It’s also located far enough up Placencia ...read more

DSC00247

DIY: a Top-to-Bottom Refit

I found my sailing “dream boat” in the spring of 1979 while racing on Lake St. Clair in Michigan. Everyone had heard about the hot new boat in town, and we were anxiously awaiting the appearance of this new Pearson 40. She made it to the starting line just before the race ...read more

01-oysteryachts-regattas-loropiana2016_063

Light-air Sails and How to Handle Them

In the second of a two-part series on light-air sails, Rupert Holmes looks at how today’s furling gear has revolutionized sail handling off the wind. Read part 1 here. It’s easy to look at long-distance racing yachts of 60ft and above with multiple downwind sails set on roller ...read more

HanseCharles

Video Tour: Hanse 348

“It’s a smaller-size Hanse cruiser, but with some big-boat features,” says SAIL’s Cruising Editor, Charles J. Doane. At last fall’s Annapolis Boat Show, Doane had a chance to take a close look at the new Hanse 348. Some of the boat’s highlights include under-deck galleries for ...read more

amalfitown

Charter Destination: Amalfi Coast

Prego! Weeks after returning from our Italian flotilla trip last summer, I was still feeling the relaxed atmosphere of the Amalfi Coast. It’s a Mediterranean paradise, with crystal-clear waters, charming hillside towns and cliffside villages, plenty of delicious food and wine, ...read more

image005

Inside or Outside When Sailing the ICW

Last April, my wife, Marjorie, and I decided to take our Tartan 4100, Meri, north to Maryland from her winter home in Hobe Sound, Florida. This, in turn, meant deciding whether to stay in the “Ditch” for the duration or go offshore part of the way. Although we had both been ...read more