I think I’m as safety-conscious as the next guy. The boat’s weighed down with the usual gear – lifejackets, harnesses/tethers, spotlight, jacklines, flares (some even in date) and smoke bombs, heaving line, Lifesling, emergency ladder. There’s a DSC VHF that, at the press of a red button, will transmit a distress message including the boat’s position. Hit the MOB button on the chart plotter and I’ve got bearing and distance to the unfortunate casualty. There’s an orange sheet, with a black blob in the middle, that I can peg out on the cabintop if all other means of attracting attention fail.
I use a block and tackle for a preventer, and if need be I can clip it one end of it to the main halyard and the other to a casualty, then take its fall to a sheet winch and crank the unfortunate MOB back aboard before you can say hypothermia. I can unclip a six-foot length of the lifelines on either side to help get a casualty back on board. There’s at least one fire extinguisher in every cabin and another in the cockpit locker. There are handheld backups for the fixed VHF and GPS. If I put my mind to it, I could probably come up with a signaling mirror and a few extra whistles.
What all this means is that I’m amply equipped gear-wise both to prevent someone from falling over board, and to hoist their dripping butts back on board if they should be foolish enough to go over the side. Over the years I’ve taken part in quite a few MOB recovery exercises, so I also think I’m well enough equipped upstairs both to get back to a person in the water and to get him or her back on deck.
They say pride goes before a fall. They are right. For some reason it had never occurred to me that I might be the person who needs to be hauled out of the water. Until…
It was stupid, really. I went over the side on a sunny day, with the boat lying at her mooring. I’d been replacing a section of lifeline that had been ripped off when I got a spinnaker guy caught around the prop – another story. A wake rocked the boat just as I bent over to thread the wire through a stanchion, and that was all it took. As I went over I instinctively (and foolishly) grabbed the lower guard rail and tore a muscle in my left shoulder.
I was lucky for two reasons; the water was unseasonably warm for New England that day, up in the 70s, and my wife was on board. She walked back to the cockpit, dropped the transom-hung boarding ladder, and then retired to the foredeck while I emerged, dripping and furious, from the depths. She didn’t say a word, but I could see her shoulders shaking. I’d probably have laughed too.
It was a hot afternoon, so I washed the salt off with the cockpit shower and sat in the cockpit to dry off. It struck me that I’d been lucky. I’ve often been messing around on the boat, alone, on those squally, rainy days when no one else is around and the launch only comes past every half hour or so. I am to swimming what Wile E. Coyote is to bird-catching; if I’d gone over the side on one of those days, with the water temperature in the usual high 50s/low 60s, the outcome might not have been so funny.
This was a lesson well taken. I’d let my guard down, and been punished for it. It’s made me rethink my safety arrangements; all the equipment in the world is no use if it’s on the boat and you’re in the water. The boarding ladder was firmly secured in the ‘up’ position and there’s no way I could have dropped it from the water. I think I’ve now worked out a way for a person in the water to deploy the ladder; more on this if it actually works.
In the meantime, I’ve become a lot more careful moving around the boat. I’ve also learned another painful but important lesson: leave your phone and wallet on the chart table if you’re working on deck.