Derek Clark - Wolverhampton, England
Without Getting Your Head Wet
At Easter three years ago I went to spend a couple
of days sailing with a friend. He lives aboard and
at the time his yacht was on a swinging mooring about
100 feet outside an Eire marina. I entered the marina
and made my way to the concrete pontoon nearest to
his yacht. I waited there while he collected his tender
from the public slipway and paddled over to me. The
tender was a shortened fiberglass canoe.
As he paddled over I thought that the tender didn’t
look very stable, and I noticed that there was a wind
backed swell coming in off the sea. I thought about
putting on my life jacket, but it was in my bag without
its gas cylinder because I had flown to Eire. I had
intended to get a new cylinder on arrival, but the
chandlery was shut. I was reluctant to get into the
tender so my friend paddled to his yacht to get me
a life jacket. He returned having forgotten it. Foolishly,
I handed him my bag which he put in the front of the
tender and I got in the rear. A few feet out from
the pontoon the sea flooded over the stern and the
I swam the few strokes back to the pontoon without
getting my head wet but could not hoist myself up
out of the water. Every time I tried to do so either
the shoulder bag that I was wearing across my front
caught the lip of the pontoon, or a thick paperback
book in my jacket pocket did the same. My jacket was
a waterproof nylon affair that didn’t grip the
concrete pontoon and slipped me back into the water
each time I couldn’t get out. I was in the water
on the outside of the marina and there were no ladders.
The sloping mud shore was only about 80 feet away
but I knew that I didn't have the strength to swim
to it, or to move hand over hand along the pontoon.
My efforts to get out had weakened me considerably
and I could feel the very cold water sapping my strength.
At this point I thought that I was going to die because
I realized that I couldn’t hold on for much
My friend was able to swim to inside the marina and
get out of the water. He guided me to a fitting on
the marina that I was able to hook my fingers around
and, with great difficulty, he lifted me by my belt
sufficiently that I could roll onto the pier.
I am an inexperienced sailor but I am well read,
and being a cautious man I have completed some RYA
practical and theory courses. Only a few days before
this happened I had been reading Denny Desoutters
Boat Skippers Safety Book'. He starts
chapter 10 with "Most experienced yachtsmen will
tell you that more people are drowned while trying
to get to or from their boats in the dinghy than in
any other circumstance."
I am very angry with myself for ignoring the evidence
of my own eyes and upset that I foolishly trusted
my friend’s seamanship. Although my friend then
brought his yacht to the pier I refused to board.
I found a Samaritan to dry my clothes and rent me
a bed for the night. The next day I flew home.
Lessons learnt: Always wear a good life jacket in
a tender. My friend’s jacket failed to inflate.
I could have put mine on and inflated it by mouth
but I never thought of that until a day later. Wearing
an inflated life jacket I could have got to the shore
hand over hand down the length of the pier.
Don't wear anything across your front or in your
pockets that may stop you lifting yourself over an
Have a change of warm clothing and a towel in a waterproof
bag. All of my kit was soaked but my good Samaritan,
actually an Irish-Moroccan, lent me clothes and dried
mine for me.
Keep electronic goods in a waterproof bag until
safely aboard. I wrecked my sub notebook computer,
my digital camera and my mobile phone. Only two of
the three were insured.
Trust your own judgment. Don't assume that somebody
with thousands of miles of sailing experience will
always make good decisions. I saw that there was a
swell and I thought the tender to be unstable. I was
aware of the danger and still went against my instincts
because I thought that my skipper, with his thousands
of miles of cruising experience, must know best. There
was a sort of unspoken pressure on me to follow his
wishes against my better judgment. I was angry with
myself for taking that path especially so because
in my working life I rarely conform.
For several days I had very disturbed sleep but that
quietened down until a month later I suddenly burst
into tears at work. I had post traumatic stress. The
cure turned out to be very simple: every time that
I thought about it I just reminded myself that I was
alive. Nobody nearly drowns. You are either drowned
or you are alive. I was alive. That lesson was taught
me by a psychotherapist who had survived an aircrash.
After a few days I was as right as rain and it hasn’t
bothered me since.