Alone, unconscious and overboard

Author:
Publish date:

, 58, home-ports his 30-foot O’Day in South Portland, Maine. He’s been a sailor for 33 years. While sailing solo Aug. 6, he fell overboard while under way (“Man unconscious, dragged by boat,” Soundings, November, Home Waters, Page 5). This is his account of the incident.

, 58, home-ports his 30-foot O’Day in South Portland, Maine. He’s been a sailor for 33 years. While sailing solo Aug. 6, he fell overboard while under way (“Man unconscious, dragged by boat,” Soundings, November, Home Waters, Page 5). This is his account of the incident.

I set sail from Sebasco Harbor Resort on my 30-foot sloop, Soroki, at about 8:30 in the morning on a crystal-clear day in August with a crisp north wind at my back. This was the beginning of my annual solo vacation cruise and I was brimming with anticipation of the adventure. My plan was to head as far Down East as I could get, and return to Portland in 10 to 12 days.

I hadn’t had an opportunity to sail that area since the 1980s and fond memories of the area around Penobscot Bay. Places like Pulpit Harbor, McGlathery’s and Hurricane Island, and the Fox Islands Thoroughfare beckoned me east, and the north wind was working in my favor.

Before leaving my mooring I packed myself a bag lunch of peanut-buttered bagel, grapes, a granola bar, a banana and drinking water. I stowed it handy to the helm in the cockpit, not wanting to have to go below unless there was an emergency situation. I was wearing a auto-inflating life vest, the kind detonated by a water-soluble tablet and containing an integral safety harness. I was tethered by a 40-foot length of nylon rope connected from harness to the binnacle on Soroki. This was my second season using the vest-and-tether system, having made a pact with my wife the year before that if I were going to sail solo, it would be as safely as possible.

Wing-and-wing, I passed east of Jamison Ledge, and headed toward the bell off Wood Island, planning to turn east and round the tip of Small Point. I glanced at the GPS and saw I was making almost 5 knots. Because it had been a bit chilly when I left, I hadn’t opened the plastic windscreen flap of the dodger. I don’t like to sail with it closed because it obstructs what’s ahead, especially the myriad lobster pot buoys that can easily foul a rudder or prop.

I locked the helm of Soroki and went forward, first to port, unzipped and unsnapped the flap, then climbed back through the cockpit to starboard side to do the same thing. The zipper was jammed, and in hindsight — which is always valuable — I struggled trying to free it much too long. I could feel Soroki beginning to turn and immediately made for the cockpit to take the helm, leaving the dodger closed.

What happened next is not completely clear to me. I surmise by the events that followed that I was slammed in the forehead by the boom as the wind caught the backside of the mainsail and swung it across the boat. I was knocked off Soroki by the impact, and I think I must have been knocked unconscious for a short time. My first recollection in the aftermath was feeling cold water rushing around me, the firmly inflated life jacket tightly gripping my upper body, and feeling forward motion as Soroki sailed on, dragging her captain behind.

From my vantage point Soroki appeared as a towering fiberglass cliff above me. While I chastised myself for not being more attentive to the position of the boom, my mission now became clear. I had to get myself back on board as quickly as possible, for my own survival and for the survival of my boat. As I pulled the tether, I was drawn closer to the stern and grabbed one of the rungs of the boarding ladder, which was folded in the raised position. I looked around the port side of Soroki and saw we were on a collision course for Wood Island. I could see the dark brown, sharp, rocky shoreline ahead and got a shiver down my back envisioning imminent doom. I tried to move the rudder but couldn’t because I had locked the wheel.

Soroki was moving forward at a steady speed. I tried over and over again to pull myself up the boarding ladder. I reached up and pulled the folding portion of the ladder downward. One of the slotted attachment clips slipped out of the track, so the ladder was now hanging at an angle held by one screw. The ladder isn’t designed as a swim ladder so it only projects a few inches below the surface of the water — very difficult to grab with your foot.

My upper body and arms are quite strong from contracting work, but the forward motion of the boat and the associated flow of water past the stern prevented me from pulling myself up the ladder. I don’t know how many times I tried but the closest I came in my struggles was to get one knee onto the lowest rung. Panic set in as I came to the realization that I wasn’t going to be able to get myself on deck. I struggled to keep a grip on the boarding ladder and my arms ached as the muscles had become saturated with lactic acid from straining.

My struggle at the stern must have changed the flow of water around the rudder, because when I next looked around the side of Soroki I saw our heading had changed 180 degrees, and Mark Island was now directly in front of the bow. I breathed a small sigh of relief now that the likelihood of a collision with Wood Island had passed. The cold water began to have more effect on me as time wore on. I had been in the water about 30 minutes, although it seemed like hours. I saw a lobster boat off the starboard beam, and as I drew closer I yelled over and over again, “Help! Help!” Evidently no one heard me, as they continued pulling their traps and motored off. I tried and tried to get up the ladder without success, and my strength continued to ebb. My hopes rose when I saw a sailboat that was going to cross my path, but I soon realized it was too far ahead to hear my cries.

I then saw another lobster boat ahead, this one with a tuna harpoon bowsprit. My hopes rose that they might hear me. If they didn’t, I knew my chances of seeing another boat were dwindling as Soroki headed out to sea. I never thought of succumbing to hypothermia and wasn’t thinking of what injuries I might have suffered in the accident. I started yelling, “Help! Help!” at the top of my lungs. They didn’t hear me. I kept yelling as I passed abeam of them and almost lost hope when I heard their engine rev and saw the boat turn towards me.

As they drew closer I realized that my strength was quickly giving out and I was struggling just to hold the ladder.

The sight of the approaching lobster boat was one of the happiest moments of my life. As they came near I could hear two men on board, shouting at me and to each other about what to do. The younger man, Ben Yeaton of Phippsburg, Maine, jumped into my trailing dinghy and pulled the painter, drawing himself to Soroki’s stern. He asked me how I was, climbed aboard, quickly dropped the sails, and pulled me aboard. Herbie Yeaton, his father, remained aboard the lobster boat.

I was so weak I couldn’t have gotten aboard without help. I remember the overwhelming feeling of thankfulness for being out of the ocean and aboard Soroki. Although bathed in full sunshine in the cockpit, I immediately began shaking uncontrollably from the cold. I was sure I was going to be all right and imagined continuing the voyage after a short rest.

I noticed that Ben and Herbie were looking at my head. Then Ben said, “We’re going to call ahead on the radio for an ambulance to meet us at the dock and get you to a hospital.”

I asked, “What do you mean? I’ll be OK.”

To which Ben replied, “You haven’t seen the nasty gash on your forehead and you’ve got hypothermia.”

It was then I looked down and saw the blood stains on my life vest. I was too weak to argue and at that point chose to entrust my safety to someone else. Ben fired up Soroki’s diesel and motored to the dock at West Point harbor, with Herbie following in the lobster boat.

Phippsburg Volunteer Fire & Rescue along with about 25 spectators were waiting on the dock. The EMTs immediately began treating my shivering and gave first aid for my head wound on the way to Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick, Maine. My core temperature was 92 degrees F when I arrived at the ER. The doctor said another 30 minutes in the water and I wouldn’t have made it.

After about 90 minutes my temperature had risen enough so they could address the head wound. The doctor did a great job, using 22 stitches to close the gash, which incidentally followed the lines in my forehead.

Several hours later, while I was having something to eat, I realized one of my molars had been broken off during the accident.

After four hours I was discharged. I took a cab back to West Point, rowed my dinghy out to Soroki, which was on the Yeatons’ mooring, and motored the short distance to Sebasco Harbor Resort for the night. It wasn’t easy getting back on Soroki that afternoon; I was weak and not feeling very well. I was especially careful and probably was moving slower than usual. When I picked up a mooring at Sebasco, I called my wife and told her what had happened. She drove up to Sebasco that night so she could wake me every two hours, a safety measure after head injuries.

The accident happened on a Friday morning and on the following Monday morning, after installing a new CO2 cartridge and dissolving tablet in my life vest, I was on the same course continuing my voyage Down East, heading out past Wood Island. I had gained more respect for the sea and I was very conscious of my own mortality.

As I write this, I know I’m going to be OK. My stitches have been removed, my black eyes are almost gone, the bruises on my legs have healed and I have a temporary crown on my tooth.

I’ve made a few design changes to Soroki as a result of the accident. I now trail a thick rope with a loop a few feet below the boarding ladder, and I’ve installed “preventer” lines to the boom for safer downwind sailing.

I’m also now aware that my vest had a signal whistle fastened under the inflation flap. This experience taught me that safety consciousness while boating isn’t something to take lightly. It can, and will, save your life.