This is article was originally published in 2003 and has recently been transferred to the new website.
For those of you without the time to contend with my vernacular meanderings I will tell the expedited version first. One Saturday two friends went out for a sail, got into difficulties, inconvenienced loads of people, got a well-deserved fright and were lucky to get off so lightly.
The truth is that it could so easily have been the end for either or both of us. It is not that to die prematurely is so terrifying, it is what you may have to live through just prior to that event that scares me. The culprit in this case was our own complacency. Normally we would only go out with other boats, usually on a Sunday with rescue cover and we would be on a boat that we both knew well. Factors easily evaluated correctly with the benefit of hindsight. The Dee Estuary has been our playground for 4 years. In that time we have taken our share of risk and danger sensibly…ish.
I believe that in human nature there is a strong desire to control, I also believe that control is illusionary. We are quickly lulled into the comfort zone; a place we all instinctively strive to inhabit. Consequently to follow that theory: the more control, the bigger the illusion, and the more comfortable we become. We disregard the risk of mechanical, systemic or procedural failures, as the new level of control/illusion becomes the normal state. It is a very human trait to delude oneself. No matter how we may rationalise our thoughts and beliefs into things that conveniently suit our own particular tenet; we remain divisive. I would like to think I am adventurous rather than reckless, that I may be misguided rather than stupid and will remain alive for the foreseeable future rather than dead. I take for granted that I can handle ‘it’, I know what I’m doing, and I’ve got everything under control?
Most of us choose to ignore the speed limits on the roads, some don’t strap in for a short journey. Ask yourself this; would you travel down a motorway without your seat belt? I wouldn’t, but it is significantly safer on a motorway than on the ‘short journey’. A large number of the population smoke despite the knowledge of the damage it can do. Familiarity may well breed contempt, delusion and a dangerous disregard for what is really going on or in our case, may be about to happen.
I have to say from the outset that these machinations by virtue of having to think to write are mostly reflective, it is not a tale of heroism on my part or an effort to appear other than I am (don’t answer that) so please accept that all facts are tempered with hindsight and coloured with vanity. I have known Simon for many years and count him as a close friend. We don’t consciously acknowledge our fundamental thinking differences as in many ways they are complimentary. Simon is a classic thinker, logical and precise; I on the other hand, am far more romantic. I don’t mean that in the way of the boy/girl thing, but more in the way of being fanciful, a dreamer. These differences are not absolute or totally exclusive, I guess that we share a great deal of common ground. The point that I am trying to make is that when we experience things our reactions to them may be from a different perspective.
The decision was made, a thrilling Saturday sail on the Dee. I had spent some time fettling the Animal. Current status: – a happy boat owner. Andy M was in the club working on his International Canoe. We changed, I had forgotten my hat and fortunately someone had left a fleecy one in the changing rooms. The club has an excellent record for belongings staying put, you can leave a pair of gloves behind, come back 2 weeks later and find them still there. It was cold out so I took the liberty of this loan. I said to Andy on the way out, “if we’re not back in 2 hours, just wait longer.” There are many times in my life when I have regretted my unfortunate style of wit. I have sometimes offended people and then blamed them for their lack of humour. Andy followed us down to the water and helped with the sails and the wheels.
Off we went. It was windy and Animal sports a large sail area. Simon hadn’t crewed for a while and I was struggling a bit with the steering and getting out on the wire. Still a blast, took me back to early Dart days and the old team back together. The sea fairly choppy and the wind from the SE, we were late getting out so it must have been close to, if not past, high water. We would usually be on the water an hour or more before high tide. The benefits of Sunday sailing meant I no longer bothered to check the forecast conditions, other people always willing to fill me in on the day. Not really switched on I sailed across the Dee. The conditions steady if a bit windy and the visibility was poor. Failed a tack, tried again then bore away down wind and was still grinning. Good gybe headed back up wind and on to a starboard tack. I noticed it was a becoming a bit squally and saw more white tops to the waves. That’s the thing, subconsciously treating it all as usual conditions, the same as dozens of days sailing before. Status: – happy blokes out for a play?
Trying to hold her steady and about to clip on to go out, I think a bigger wave hit the inside of the port bow she seemed to spin on the nose. Simon appeared to be heading down the tramp. He was in fact holding on the shroud with his left leg under the forward toe strap. I enjoyed a short flight through the forward emergency exit, head first past the forestay. Cold water, glasses drill, bobbed up, retrieved the fleecy hat (after all it was not mine and I had to return it). Animal was about 10 to 15 feet away, I struck out to swim. Breaststroke at first, with all the gear the crawl is very awkward. The gap had widened alarmingly, switched to crawl and the boat really began to speed away. I could not see Simon and the gap was now more than 30 feet. The swimming stroke was a bit more frantic now but to no avail.
I stopped and bobbed, I still couldn’t see Simon, he was nowhere in the water in-between the boat and me. I assumed he would be on the blind side of the boat sorting out how to right her. Even now I was not as concerned as I should have been. It had not crossed my mind in anyway that I would get separated from the boat, so I had no plan. I afforded myself the luxury of an expletive outburst and realised it was time to start thinking. Right! I thought. A cat on its side could travel faster in the wind than a fully kitted swimmer. I took off my trapeze harness. Although I did not at this stage acknowledge to myself that I was in real trouble, I knew that I had to keep hold of it for the buoyancy, the concept of ‘later’ had not yet intruded. The intention was to float on my back and hold up the harness as a sail, I tried this for a minute and watched Animal shrink alarmingly. With my particular perspective at water level she could have been a block of flats on a distant horizon. It began to dawn on me that my sail idea was not only pathetic and stupid, but also ineffectual and lame. I was almost glad that there were no witnesses. Status: – bobbing buffoon.
I bobbed a little longer with Animal almost out of sight; the thought crossed my mind “that bugger’s making off with my boat!” Suddenly felt alone and quite concerned. I realised that I really knew too little about the estuary to begin making rational decisions. I reassured myself that Simon was with the boat and would hang on. I also knew that despite the fact he had never righted such a large cat on his own before, he would be doing everything he could to work something out. I knew that in any event I was in no position to help. At worst he would get blown on to the Welsh coast and find help. My second reassuring thought was that Andy was back at the clubhouse and of all the people to have there Andy is surely the best. We had been out for about 30 minutes, plus 10 minutes in the water, I remembered I had said to Andy “If we are not back in 2 hours just wait longer” – not so witty now then. No good dwelling on that, I knew that Andy would not leave the club until we were back, no question or doubt on that, not that we had asked Andy to baby-sit our return, but it is what Andy does. Thing was though; at what point would Andy react? I hung on to the 2 hours, so 1 hour 20 minutes to kill. I was aware that the effort of swimming after the boat had produced a lot of sweat; I could feel it running coldly down my chest I knew my dry suit did not leak. The sea was very brown and animated the wind not too bad this low down, but still strong. I could feel a wave of panic build up and the temptation to succumb was very seductive, a primal fear with a false promise of a primal solution. I had to think clearly, this was a survival situation. Status: – active survivor.
I could see West Kirby to my left when facing the Wirral and the tide running out from the right. Choices; could either conserve energy and drift with the tide treading water to maintain heat or swim towards the Wirral. I know enough to know that you can’t beat the tide by swimming but may be to able traverse enough to clear the channel and land somewhere on Hilbre. Too many things I did not know. Would I be swept out to sea in that time? If I chose to drift would I pass by Hilbre a few hundred yards from the shore knowing I may have traversed that distance when I had the chance? I just did not know. Too many ifs. I remember reading a survival book once, it dealt with jungle and mountain survival so not of much use here then, the author did say though that in survival situations whatever you may or may not believe in if saying a prayer helps then do it. The point being that a positive mental attitude is vital. I considered a quick rendition of the Lords Prayer, it wouldn’t have been the first time, but I seriously felt uncomfortable with it in the light of my monumental stupidity and decided not to. I did however reserve the right to resort to it later if needed, so fickle this human. Status: – Defiant.
I heard an engine, I knew at once it was a plane and looked up. I wondered if the passengers, either brown and sunburnt or pale and excited had any clue what was unfolding below them, I was tempted to wave but did not. I decided to swim; aware that energy is a finite resource I set a comfortable stroke. Crawl was too splashy and backstroke kept my head in the water, which was too cold. So breaststroke it was then. I guess doing something is better that doing nothing. Status: – Philosophical.
I did remember a story about SAS training. Apparently after several days of physical and mental endurance training, individuals exhausted and disorientated were blindfolded and dropped at night from a helicopter into a lake. Some would swim off others would panic and thrash about. The correct response was to tread water and wait. The lesson was that the forces would not invest time and effort in training and developing personnel just to drown them, and what was the point in wasting energy swimming off into the unknown? In the absence of instruction or a brief the only sensible option was to maintain status and wait to be rescued, remain rational whatever happens. I’m not in the SAS and had no Army infrastructure to account for me. On my own then, just me… I struggled with the trapeze harness trailing loosely. I had tried it around my neck and then over my shoulder, I had considered ditching it but it was buoyant so I stopped and put it back on. I scanned around and I was still alone. I thought for a moment that I saw the bow wave of the rib with Andy at the helm, but no it was a white horse on the crest of a wave. It was just wishful thinking and far too soon for hallucinations.
I swam on keeping myself as square to the Wirral coast as I could. I spotted a buoy and my hopes soared. It was well to my left, I could not guess the distance. If I kept swimming I might traverse enough and the tide would bring me on to it. I felt that to latch on to something fixed would be better than being swept out. Easier to spot and I could conserve energy. I had lost sense of time and wondered if Simon had hit the coast yet. I swam on and the buoy got a little bigger but was not so much to my left, I tried to maintain a transit on the coast but the visibility was not that good. I put on a spurt of speed and effort and resorted to the crawl. Worth the risk, if I made it I could then rest and wait for rescue. The tide was strong and the buoy was now directly ahead, possibly 100m. So assuming a 3-knot tidal flow about 5 kmph that is getting on for 100m of lateral drift in oooh! A minute or so. It would take me more than 2 minutes in a pool to do 100m. Even working with so many unknowns and guesstimation maths I knew it was now beyond reach, I dropped to the sustainable stroke and carried on. I doubted my plan and considered floating: kept on swimming, there are more buoys. I spotted one and repeated the previous sequence this time failing by a smaller margin.
Plodded on, West Kirby now more directly ahead and Hilbre to my left. I wondered how the current flowed out around the island; I had a real fear that I would be swept past and out to sea. I stopped briefly to rest and scanned around, still alone. The sun was now orange and heading downward rapidly. I contemplated being out alone in the dark and the fear was back. Swam on and saw a third buoy, stroke was now more frantic and breathing began to rasp. I had swallowed seawater several times and was concerned how easily splashes got into my mouth, my breathing and coordination becoming erratic. Concentration was becoming sporadic; a gulf of fear threatened to overwhelm, this buoy was passing me by. Keeping Hilbre to my left was my next target, tightened the lid on the pressure cooker and thought of the family. Visualisation technique, see your goal focus and believe, bunkum! Quick check for signs of failure; had cramp in my left calf and managed to kick through it, the right was now cramping, back under control, more dogged and determined swam on. Despair is not as bad as you imagine, you peel back each layer like an onion. Even as things get worse you still cope. It’s the hope that gets you, that’s what breaks the coping cycle. Your hopes are raised, and you have to re-travel the same route of despair, as the hopes are dashed. Leaves you lower than before with the notion of one less chance. I prepared myself for the possibility of drifting past Hilbre, beyond there I had no plan. The choice to swim had left me tired with a dry suit full of cold sweat. Swim on. Status: – estuary effluent being flushed out to sea.
The nagging doubt, tugging at my resolve more treacherous than hope. I may give the impression of being decisive, but in reality I have never been that confident with my ability to make ‘the right decision’. I find the trauma of dithering over different options is unbearable, so I would say I am pre-disposed to select an acceptable option sooner rather than later. I still doubted my decision to swim. I did need to be pro-active in my own salvation, but having made my choice the virtues of option ‘B’ may have been better begun? I could have conserved energy and waited sensibly for the inevitable rescue search. Imagine trying to find a black football in something the size of the Wirral at night with a torch. I scanned around and I was still alone; I needed counsel. My wife is wise and honest and forthright, in every respect I could trust her with my life. Should I swim? “I don’t really know, which do you feel is best?” she would say giving an answer in the form of a question. I did not need a debate, however well intentioned. “Where are my car keys?” I would bleat already late for an important appointment. Stock answer, “Where did you see them last”? My eldest daughter is fiercely passionate about things and would fight any foe and defend me to her last breath. She would be very upset and emotional and I had to keep my emotions in check. My youngest ‘Cakes’, cool, calm and wise beyond her years. As a parent there are no favourites but there are times with Gemma when our inner dialogues are synchronised, events and circumstances surround us and now and then we make eye contact and I know I am not alone. I did not need to ask the question the answer came back. “Keep swimming, Dad!”
I guessed I had been in the water for about two hours, possibly good for another two; had to keep moving now to stay warm. Tempted to let the fear out but decided not yet, there would be plenty of time for that later. There was going to be quite a sunset and from my altered perspective it was beautifully surreal. Some say the sea is cruel. At this moment I disagreed, the sea is neither malevolent nor benevolent, it just is. Totally indifferent to me, us, mankind, it just does what it does regardless. No matter how my little existence chose to conclude, the tide would come back in and the sun would rise again. Swim on, I rested and looked around. My relationship with hope had recently left me in a more suspicious frame of mind but I dared to believe my eyes. Status: – no time for status!
When Animal capsized Simon had his left foot under the toe strap. The Nacra is not like the Dart with a long and generous strap, it has two short sections of webbing on each side and much tighter. Held up by a tenuous grip on the starboard shroud he finally lost his hold, he slid down the trampoline executing a vertical pirouette (degree of difficulty 9.5, scored an 8.6 for not smiling during the discipline) but was now hanging from the twisted toe strap by his foot. With this new and altered perspective the next problem was how to avoid breaking his ankle. It took minutes to haul himself up enough to get his leg free. With the leg free the rest of him was then hanging upside down from the several sheets and lines but with his head in the water. Refreshing no doubt but hardly a reassuring prospect for the remainder of the journey. Ropes are such functional items, compliant, innocuous. They thread so willingly through pulleys and fairleads and take tremendous tensional stresses one moment, and lay passively the next. They stay where they are put, jammed in cleats waiting for the controlling hand, or lay coiled obediently, such loyal slaves. Until they sense their users’ lack of concentration or a sign of weakness. Once loose and powered by water, gravity and wind they rise up ensnaring and entwining. They wrap around any unsuspecting appendage to trick and trap. Travelling in this tangle with the boat and expecting my ugly mush to appear any moment he finally broke free. Not comfortable with the situation and with no certain knowledge that the boat could be righted solo, it seemed an important task was to secure a lifeline to the boat. Back in command, the ropes and lines were obsequious once more. He couldn’t understand why I was not in sight, the awful thought that I may not have surfaced at all crossed his mind, how would he explain that to Teresa, “Well, I’m sure I had him with me when we went out”! Well beyond the point of expecting me to put in an appearance, it was time to evaluate and plan. It takes time to sort things out. Finding the righting line, all the more difficult on a strange boat.
Simon knew that whatever may transpire and wherever this absent helm was, that my best chance for rescue hung on Animal being the right way up and sailing. Things conspire to hinder even simple actions, the movement of the waves, the cold and the wet. Roles could easily have been reversed, I don’t know if I could have been as resourceful and pragmatic. Simon lives firmly in the here and now, he accepts problems as things to be solved. I live in the past and in the future, the here and now for me presents mysteries and magic, conspiracies of time, form and fortune. Simon’s actions epitomise the truth behind courage and bravery. I was forced by my circumstance to deal with the now and had few options. Against the odds Simon worked his learning curve beyond the point where most people would have given up. Poised at the outer edge of the dagger board on tiptoes, tied on to the righting line at the harness and arms over his head waiting as the gallons of water slowly sluiced of the 255 square feet of sail. Pitted against 196kg of Nacra in a tug of war and battle of wits. Animal righted, rolled straight over the other way and turned turtle, the mast hit the sand and she pivoted around; rally, learn and try again. I don’t know how many times Simon worked this routine, he never let her go back over again but kept releasing the tension too early so she would drop back down. Simon saw ‘Seldom Seen buoy’ march past. Refusing to negotiate with the fatigue, Animal finally complied with a successful attempt. Fate had not finished it’s game, Simon now caught at the stern and pinned by the righting line, Animal loose and free stampeding downwind. Simon was pulled under water at every wave. The initial euphoria at righting turned to the “oh my…. god what …… have I done?”
Getting loose without losing the righting line required ducking under to free the tangle around the rudder. Free at last to move along the hull. The Nacra is much higher out of the water than the Dart making it so much more difficult to pull yourself up. At one point he began to think that he may never get back on board. Each step fought through had brought a new twist to his predicament, each solution a new set of problems. Simon rigged a winch to a trapeze ring. With not enough left in the arms to pull himself up he had to think again. Back to the stern and he put his feet up over the back of the hull and hooked his toes under the rear beam. A sit up action to roll onto the boat, genius! Time to take stock. He had to get the boat under control. Within 100m of HE4 and Hilbre, Simon began to sail back up river, the wind still strong, Animal was not pointing too well without the jib. As every minute went by, the prospect that I may not have made it seemed to grow in his mind. Simon’s intention to right the boat and pick up / sail for help was still in progress but it had taken far too long. He knew he would have moved faster than me, so both help and my possible whereabouts were in the same direction. Several tacks later Simon was now headed towards Little Eye and the rocks and tacked again.
In the pale orange/pink light – there was Animal! I knew he would find a way, I just knew it! I could not guess the distance but could make out the Nacra sign on the sail. The jib was flogging I could hear it. Simon was wisely keeping the boat manageable. I was surprised that I had not spotted Animal sooner, kind of crept up on me a bit, sorted now though. I shouted and waved, hope flooded back welcomed like an unfaithful love. No response. I shouted louder and waved harder. At this point I wouldn’t have blamed Simon for ignoring me. I knew that was not the case, he simply could not hear me. Hope was in the driving seat. I bobbed and waved, saved for sure. Animal sailed on to my left and towards Little Eye and the rocks. He started to tack. That’s it, Simon is getting a good line for the pick up. But no, he was sailing across between Wirral and me, at more or less the same distance. I bellowed and waved until it hurt and still he sailed on, passing the point. Somewhere in my subconscious a memo was sent. ‘Start proceedings to divorce Hope for mental cruelty’. I was coping fine before I saw Animal. Status: – Low, so very low.
Animal was now on a course away from my position. I was almost overwhelmed with futility. I ventured one more effort. I mustered a soulful wail and frantic shake of the arms almost a symbolic farewell as I rose on a lucky swell. I fell back as Simon raised a hand briefly in recognition. Once again my whole outlook changed in an instant. The pick up was textbook and faultless. My legs were burnt from cramps but the rush of adrenaline was like rocket fuel, in survival situations adrenaline is not necessarily a good thing, it burns up precious energy. It makes you brave and rash when you should be calm and cautious. Simon was weary; so tired. There was a brief moment that will remain ours. I took the helm; I felt surprisingly OK. Quick factual exchanges and we concentrated on keeping the boat under control and we headed back. It was not easy making ground against the tide and light was beginning to fade. Heard the rib approach. Andy, Richard and Steve standing like noble gladiators in a chariot, looking slightly more concerned than your average gladiator. They swung round the back of the boat and made a quick evaluation. Radio exchange; water still at the causeway, rig down and tow in. Status: – Sheepish so very sheepish.
I instantly relinquished any misguided notion of my authority to Andy and his team. Simon steered and I lay pathetically on the tramp. The speed with which my body now started to shut down was alarming. Richard had crossed over and was knelt on the tramp. I looked up and said, “Do you know something Richard, I really love you!” Without batting an eye he keyed the radio to the rib, “Andy, Mark is going into shock!” Obviously thought I was delirious. He may have been right, lights were switching off in my head and I wanted to sleep. “Keep talking to me”. Said Richard, in this new here and now I had nothing more to say. Status: – Saved so very saved.
Got to the end of the causeway and for some reason started tarting around thinking about getting the boat up the beach. None of that; they had us straight in the rib and up to the club. We got into the kitchen and could hear the ambulance on the way. I was still thinking I would be OK in a minute. I was not fully functional, legs did not work and brain foggy. Paramedics came into the galley. In the fog a new concern was forming; Andy and his team were being very nice to me, deeply suspicious, I must be in a real state. The Paramedics were going to make me better. Clunk! The penny dropped. Said to the paramedic anxiously, “don’t make me better too quick these guys are waiting the kick the s*#t out of me”.
Like two errant schoolboys we were marshalled into the ambulance and told to strip. I have never been unduly self-conscious about my own nudity, not that I would ever seek to impose mine on others uninvited. I recall my first ever trip to a sauna, I was in my twenties and with a friend, only the two of us in the large cabin. Presently a thin wiry chap joined us, early 40s in good physical shape, but with an endowment policy of abnormal dividend. Not that you ever make a point of looking, but at times like this you can do nothing but make mental comparisons evaluating your own portfolios standing, or not as the case may be. A portly gent who looked like a bank manager soon joined us. The sort that likes to ruin your life by saying “No!”. His particular financial package would have required a great deal of faith in the concept of long-term investment with little return; he may have had a little extra tucked away, but this kind of unorthodox social research did not include closer scrutiny. With no particular hang-ups on the subject I accepted my moderate security as adequate for all future needs. Standing in the back of an ambulance with a naked close friend and 2 paramedics, Mark and Darren, I noticed that I had adopted the stature of the aforementioned bank manager: what I had was a penis only much smaller. In my fuzzy and emotionally drained state I could not endure this new insecurity and offered the feeble excuse, “I have been in cold water for over 2 hours!” It’s a guy thing, honest.
Wrapped up in foil and blankets I was still shaking like a soggy dog. We were quickly re-located to Arrowe Park. I enjoyed the attention of several professionals with drips and monitors attached to my arms and chest I was gently cosseted in a warm air quilt. The shivering was soon superseded by the quake of terror as the attractive (force 2) lady doctor announced the arrival of my wife. There is a turmoil and conflict that rages within the maladjusted 21st century male. Having endured an emotional roller coaster of fear and trauma, the arrival of your life-partner threatens to unleash from within an uncontrollable and embarrassing blubbering. I managed to avoid this response to her demeanour of care and concern by feigning torpor (not too difficult in my weary state).
I was hearing my own words of explanation to the various staff regarding my recent near-miss and I endeavoured to mitigate the clear contributory negligence on my part with puerile references to previous deeds of sensible conduct. One large male nurse summed things up quite nicely; “Sailing. That’s a sport isn’t it? Same as football, we get them all in at the weekend, and them rugby players too, all injured.” He continued “Can’t see the point myself; all end up wounded”. It was not a case of agreeing or disagreeing with him, but it was not the first time in the space of a week that I had been compared to a football player. Re: – The rescue crew curry night, a timely tribute and a worthwhile investment. Did not plan to cash in quite so soon.
Simon was discharged hours before me and stood in the corridor by the doors while Sue got the car. Fully clothed holding 2 large bags of wet gear and wearing no shoes (Lady wife had omitted to include footwear in the dash from home). Having survived the Dee and several hours of wrestling the Animal into cooperation if not submission, a hospital official mistaking him for a vagrant moved him on, out of the door and into the cold. Despite protestations from Simon about just recovering from hypothermia that was it, out the door you go.
The next day I was stiff and sore, I had lost my voice and thought better of going out for a race. I went down to the club, I was tempted to hide away but I wanted to say “thank you!” to quite a few people. Simon was OK to sail and the conditions were light and he had permission. I had been grounded for a week and sent to my room. I walked down the ramp with a mixture of feelings somewhere between sulky youth and whipped cur. I eyed the Dee, suspiciously searching for signs of murderous intent. There was none. In the scheme of things hardly a misadventure of epic proportions, but in real terms a lucky escape. I hope in writing this tale I have saved everyone the trouble of having to try it for themselves. Thanks again to Andy M, Richard S, Steve P, Tony M and especially Simon.