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.
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.”
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.
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Illustration by Jan Adkins