Ronstan

Overboard: Stories from off the boat

Published on August 26th, 2019

Falling overboard can occur unexpectedly and end tragically. Staying onboard is always a priority, but even the most experienced can find themselves off the boat. Daria Blackwell, Vice Commodore of Ocean Cruising Club, shares her experience.


My husband Alex and I have been sailing our Bowman 57 long distance for the past 15 years, and our number one rule aboard is “Stay on the boat!” Tethers, life jackets, harnesses, solid attachment points, and jacklines are essential gear for us as short-handed distance sailors. We clip in religiously before entering the cockpit.

We were a bit less prescriptive about how one should “Stay on the boat” when we were coastal cruising. Yet, the only time I fell overboard was in a marina on Long Island Sound.

It was early spring and very cold. We had just launched our Frers 41, and I was on the dock leaning out to polish the hull. The boat lurched away from the dock, and before I knew it, I was in the water. When I came up, I was experiencing cold water shock. I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t talk, I could barely breathe in short staccato breaths.

I was wearing wellies that had filled with water and were dragging me down but I couldn’t reach down to yank them off. I was also wearing a very heavy woolen sweater which was considerably heavier when wet. This was before there were ladders installed in marinas. There was no way for me to lift myself onto the dock or into the dinghy which was tied alongside. I did try.

Alex was not on board. He had gone to the other end of the yard to discuss something with the yard manager. In fact, I had seen no one in the marina that day. I remember thinking my only chance was to swim – take off the boots and sweater and try to swim to shore. I thought I might have just enough reserve to get there before the cold took over and paralyzed me further.

I was making so much noise splashing trying to stay afloat that someone working inside a boat nearby heard me. He came running over and yanked me out of the water and onto the dock. As soon as I was out of the water, I was able to breathe and speak. I thanked the gentleman profusely. He was frantic over the ordeal. He offered dry clothes, but I said I was fine and had a change of clothing on board.

I don’t know who he was, but he saved my life. If he’s reading this now, I’d like to thank him one more time. And I’m always very happy to see ladders at reasonable intervals in marinas today.
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