Head over heels
Learning from experience: Peter Stone takes a tumble off a quay
Having always considered one of the riskier parts of sailing getting to and from my yacht, the idea was reinforced a couple of years ago when I helped rescue four middle-aged gentlemen whose dinghy had capsized returning from a pub in south Devon.
One man was trapped between two yachts, slowly being pushed under the water by the increasing tide. Thankfully, the incident had a happy outcome and was covered in a yachting magazine letter from the crew of a nearby yacht, which had been unable to offer any effective assistance from their elevated position on the deck of their boat.
Consequently, when paddling back and forth to my own boat, I consider the conditions and risks, aiming to make best use of the weather and tide for each journey and allow for any potential dangers that might arise.
On one particularly memorable occasion, anchored in Strangford Lough in County Down, I had to get Bob – my departing crew – ashore to catch a bus to the airport. He had to return back to normality after a week sailing from Wales to Northern Ireland. I then had a week of single-handed sailing before my next crew joined me in Scotland.
Having said goodbye to Bob, I did some shopping for perishable foods that I needed for the following week. Heading back to the dinghy pontoon, I took a few photographs before climbing down the wall ladder which started just below the level of the quay. Luckily, there was a rope tied around two bollards on the quay, which had proved useful as a handhold during the earlier ascent.
However, as I grabbed the rope, the quay started to fall away from me and I realised the rope was no longer secured to the bollards. Time seemed to slow as I realised that the ladder was out of my reach, and I looked down to assess where I was going to hit the pontoon, 10ft below. There was an 18in space between the pontoon and the quay supports, which I decided was a better option to fall into. I twisted my body, turning so my right leg would impact the pontoon rather than my infirm left one, which tends to break when I fall on it. I reached up towards the fixed end of the rope with my left hand, trying to pull myself as high as possible, keeping the shopping aloft while trying to angle towards the gap and make a water entry.
Tom Daley would not have been impressed with the way I hit the water,
making a glancing blow on the pontoon with my right thigh. Still holding on to the rope, I managed to limit my immersion to about 3ft. There was a convenient cross member between the quay supports which I used to climb out of the water and, still holding on to the rope, I swung across to the safety of the pontoon that only a few seconds earlier had been such a threat to my wellbeing.
Like a cat that’s fallen off a roof, I looked around to see if anyone had noticed my performance – but there was nobody around that I needed to reassure of my health. Unlike a cat, though, I did not start cleaning myself, my first thought being to climb back up the ladder and re-secure the rope. After a few seconds further thought, I decided that would be tempting fate. And so, realising I was actually in a fair bit of shock, I sat down to let my heart rate slow and my head clear while I carried out a damage assessment.
The water had only come up to the lower pockets of my jacket, and as I was wearing shorts and sandals, my clothes would rinse out easily. I had sensibly put my mobile phone in a waterproof cover so that would be okay, and as my VHF radio was splashproof, it also looked fine. Luckily, the water had only touched the bottom of my lifejacket, so the auto-inflate had remained dry and not initiated. The bag of supplies looked mainly undamaged, but the cabbage, looking a little bruised, prompted me to check my thigh.
The cold water had slightly numbed my leg but as my hand couldn’t feel any cuts and didn’t come away red, I guessed that I hadn’t broken the skin – although, from the tenderness,
I was pretty certain my thigh would hurt come the morning.
I decided the hanging rope wasn’t going to be a hazard and the best thing would be to get back to my boat and make like a cat, rinsing myself (and my immersed clothes) in the shower. Carefully untying the dinghy, I motored back and stripped off in the cockpit, seeing an impact mark on the sleeve of my jacket that set off a pain in my left arm. It seemed funny how my mind could ignore pain until prompted.
Using the miracle of the mobile phone, I took some pictures of the damage on the back of my leg – I’ll spare you those – which proved I was going to hurt for a few days, but at least there were no wounds that required attention. After a shower, I had a hot sweet tea and opted for a snooze to let the adrenalin work its way out of my system. Two hours later, I awoke feeling a whole lot better but rather foolish about making such an error. At least there was no permanent damage, other than to my previous feeling of invincibility.
I had boiled cabbage that night, otherwise it would have been off the following morning. Shame the bruising on my leg took a lot longer to remedy.