When I was learning to fly…way before kids…I read a magazine called Pilot. It had an article on the back page called ILAFFT or “I Learned About Flying From That”. It was the best section in the mag, and the first bit I read each month. Pilots could admit to their worst, most embarrassing, or just plain strange experiences in the air.
Well this is my ILAFFT, but on a boat.
The day started nicely with an early morning bushwalk to a castle after which we packed up Vega and headed off to our next destination, Propriano in southwest Corsica. It was a 4 hour sail in perfect conditions: 10-12 knots just behind the beam. The kids were down below and Heather was pottering. I was on “watch”. It was really chilled.
Heath and I had lunch in the cockpit, shortly after which, I adjusted course into Golfe de Valinco. Porto Propriano was 5 miles ahead. The wind was being funneled into the bay and was increasing, maybe 20 knots, but flying just the headsail, the sailing was easy.
Still cracking along about 2 NM away for our destination I busied myself with sorting out stern lines and fenders. I was just hanging out the last fender when I fumbled it and dropped it over the side.
No bid deal, we’ll treat is as a Man Overboard (MOB) drill.
I called Heather, took off the autohelm and bought Vega around to a close reached point of sail as the fender was now significantly up wind of us. So now the apparent wind was 26 knots. We were hard over but all was ok. We put the engine on, furled up the sail and headed back towards our fender.
As we approached the fender it struck us that with our boat hook we would not be able to recover it as there was nothing to get a hook onto.
We talked about putting the dinghy in to retrieve it, but it seemed a lot of hassle.
I know. I’ll just back up to the fender and Ben can scoop it up. Easy. So with Ben in position on the transom I slowly backed towards the fender, I was probably going at 2 knots. Heather went to help Ben. As she stepped down to the dive platform at the back of Vega she made sure Ben was holding on and secure. He was.
But busy looking at the fender and checking on Ben, Heather didn’t look at what she was holding onto. As she leant towards the water to pick up the fender she grabbed the swim ladder, not one of the handholds. The ladder is hinged and as soon as she leant off the back of the boat the ladder unfolded and she fell straight in.
If you are going forward when you fall off a boat there is no imminent danger (assuming the person on board knows how to get back to you and pick you up). However, if you fall off when a 12 ton yacht is backing up at nearly 5km/h well that’s quite different. Poor Heather was immediately dragged under Vega’s hull. I didn’t see her fall in as she was on the swim platform, out of my view from the cockpit. Ben was in total shock and didn’t scream out MOB. Understandable. Its not every day a 9 year old sees his mum being dragged under a boat.
So Heath was under the boat with it backing over her…I heard a shout from Heather so put the engine in neutral and ran back, all I saw was her head under the water as she was sucked under the boat, trying to grab breaths and hold onto the ladder. I panicked too. My first thought was to go put the engine in forward and get the boat off her, but her feet and legs were so near the propeller I daren’t touch the throttle. Luckily the boat slowed quickly and Heather managed to free herself and climb back on board.
What if she had not held on and gone into the prop? What if the back of the hull knocked her out as she was under it? What if it had been Ben….? it could have ended very differently and all for an 80 Euro fender.
Well, I guess the long and short of it is that we got lucky. But the moral of the story is how things can go from so good to so bad in a few minutes. What were the causes:
- Poor decision making by the skipper (Me). Putting crew on the transom while reversing was a poor call. Won’t do that again.
- The dinghy was a better option, Heather suggested it but I didn’t listen.
- Heather not taking responsibility for her own safety and grabbing the ladder instead of the hand hold.
Simple as they are these things could have cost Heather her life.
Oddly enough, our engine overheated not 5 minutes after Heather was back on deck so I had to shut it down and get the sails out. The only time the engine has had an issue in 3 years of cruising (we were low on coolant…but didn’t know that at the time). Why do things always run like that? Some days test you.