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By Capt. Bruce Gregory
Before I begin, let me first say that in spite of the odds against it, I suffered only a few bruises, some sore muscles and a fractured ego.
On a Friday night in early September, I nearly died in a boating accident.
That night was like a hundred other nights at the club. Sometime between 9 and 10 p.m., I loaded some gear into a tin boat and brought it out to Morning Star. I tied the painter to the boat, loaded the items into the cockpit, climbed aboard, unlocked the cabin, put my gear below, locked the companionway and climbed down into the tin boat, so far without a hitch.
My usual procedure is to start the tin boat motor and then and only then, untie the painter. This trip was no different. The night sky was cloudy with little or no moon. (Had it been visible, its crescent shape would have offered little light for that darkened sky.)
The seas were nonexistent so there was little noise heard between the two boats joined together and the only movement was that of the southerly outgoing ebb.
As I started walking toward the stern of the tin boat, the bow was hit with a wake that seemed of one or two feet of water. I lost my balance and was propelled forcefully toward the motor as another wave followed and before I knew it my body, which was being forced aft, was then propelled and catapulted over the motor and into the sea.
This in itself would not have been so bad except that as I passed over the engine I attempted to grab at the tiller but instead hit the shift paddle putting the prop in reverse.
So here I am, in the water (and here is the first and most important lesson that anyone can learn) without a vest, facing the rear end of a tin boat bearing down on me. I moved quickly to the right and my head was met with the starboard quarter of the boat. I reached up and was able to grab the aluminum loop molded into the rear gunnel.
As I hung there, I realized that although the motor was in reverse it was at idle and almost not a match for the ebb current unless I followed it. The brake wasn’t set on the steering as the motor was sloppily moving from side to side so I attempted to hold myself up with my left arm and pushed and pulled the motor to and fro with my feet so I could get a shoreward track.
I called out a few times but was probably too far out for anyone to hear. (At 7 the next morning, I found out that two friends did in fact hear me and set out with the launch but were unable to locate me out in the mooring field.)
About 15 or 20 minutes after traveling in endless circles, my back was pressed against a boat’s pendants causing the prop to get close enough to grab my shirt. This was the real terror as the prop brought me closer and closer to its blades as it wrapped my shirt in such a way as to almost strangle me.
The shirt, as my good luck would have it, was a lightweight polo, so just as the motor stalled I was able to remove the noose from my neck, which, including my head, were below the water line. This was probably the most scary moment as I thought, if only for seconds, I was going to drown with my head attached to the prop, a real terrifying thought.
As I attempted to hold one of the pendants that had captured me and the tin boat at the same time I could see that I would soon be leaving the mooring field. I tried to swim with one arm back in, but the current was doing everything it could to steer me toward the main channel. All I could think of was that if I couldn’t get to shore I was going to end up by one of the bridge pilings, a lonely place indeed, so I kicked harder and pulled water with my left arm as hard a I could to counter the pull.
Eventually, I heard loud music on the shore. I started yelling again as I got closer and then was totally elated when I heard someone call back. After a brief dialog I made it clear that I was holding my own (and the tin boat) and would be able to stay afloat until help arrived but was exhausted and would need to be pulled out of the water.
Within minutes, there was what seemed like an entire police force along the shore, but no rescue boat. There were many searchlights on me and I could hear the crowd that had gathered giving me all kinds of verbal support. Eventually, maybe 15 minutes after I had made first contact and with me only about 20 feet from the shore headwall, a fire-rescue boat pulled alongside and quickly got me aboard and then to a awaiting ambulance.
So, before you get into a little boat solo on a dark night without donning an inflatable or conventional life jacket, consider what may be required of you. You may have to hang from the stern quarter of the boat for an hour or more (in my case it was nearly an hour and a half). If you lose your handhold, are you strong enough to swim ashore, fully clothed? Could you swim right angle against the current with one arm pulling a boat along for more than an hour? Could you remove an ever tightening strangling noose from your neck while under water with the prop just inches from your face as the noose gets tighter and tighter? How well would you fare after consuming a quart or more of nasty sewage-tainted river water?
Most of these questions are rhetorical but are ones you need to ask yourself. I am not superman but because of an incredible amount of luck will now be able to celebrate my next birthday at age 70. What I experienced that night — a lot of life-threatening bad luck joined with an incredible amount of good luck — had little to do with my ability.
My lessons learned:
I didn’t mean to get so winded but winded I did get. I can only hope my experience will prevent just one sailor from killing himself.
Capt. Bruce Gregory is a life-long sailor and a member of the Nyack (NY) Boat Club, about 30 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. He also owns S/V Morning Star, an Island Packet 32.