David's Diary: Tuesday, January 1, 2002

A New Years Adventure

Andy The Swimmer
Andy The Swimmer

For the most part, New Years Day was uneventful on Dragonsinger. We visited with friends on Arbella, another boat here in Port Vell. Dragonsinger was tidied up in preparation for school resuming tomorrow. Dinner was early so that everyone could settle down for an early night and be ready for the start of the 2002 school year. Events were to provide us with unexpected excitement as I ended up helping to save someone's life before the day was out.

The evening was almost at a close when around 9:00 PM I got ready to take the garbage down the dock. What started out as a mundane evening chore quickly turned into something different as someone on the dock called to me to grab a rope and get on the dock as someone was in the water. Since Kevin and Allen always have a line out to play with it was seconds for me to take a line with me and jump on to the dock.

It was pitch black out and the docks at Port Vell are very high -- at least 1m/3ft off the water. The person in the water was trying to climb out of the water on the swimgrid of a powerboat. Even though the swimgrid was close to the water and there was a set of handholds, he was finding it impossible to climb out of the water. I quickly tied a bowline and threw it to the person in the water who put it around his shoulders and under his arms. I lay down on the dock and as a woman next to me coaxed the swimmer along I held him up in the water using my rope. The swimmer was cold and tired enough that he said to me more than once that he couldn't swim any longer and when he was not hanging on to dock lines or the back of boats my line seemed to be the only thing keeping him afloat.

The woman next to me climbed on to another sailboat and lowered the swim ladder that was attached to its stern. I helped Andy to the ladder, but in the end he had to pull himself out (more on that later). The woman who had been directing the rescue was Gill O'Donovan and her husband Tim was the one who originally called to me to help. Gill helped Andy to their boat Simba so that he could have a hot shower and warm up.

Tim and Gill O'Donovan
Tim and Gill O'Donovan

Andy is a boat worker who travels the Mediterranean looking for work. He was trying to board a sailboat which was being sailed further south tomorrow. As Andy stepped on to the boarding ladder it collapsed underneath him and he was in the water. As an itinerant worker he was carrying his life's possessions in the backpack that he was wearing. At first the backpack had enough air pockets to help keep him afloat, but as it filled with water it started to pull him under. Not wanting to lose his life's possessions he took the backpack off, but still hung on to it as he managed to hang on to a nearby powerboat.

Reading this you might think it crazy for a person to be so concerned about their possessions. But this all happened in the middle of a large marina in one of the major cities of the world. Who thinks they could possibly drown in a place like this? Until Gill had tied Andy's bag to the dock, he wasn't really ready to get out of the water. It is about this point that I showed up with my rope. Fortunately, Gill is an airhostess for British Airways and trained in emergency procedures. She took control of the situation, calmed Andy, and made sure that the rest of us worked together to get him out of the water. Andy owes much more to Gill than to me, but I am glad that I was able to help.

The Boat In Question
The Boat In Question

After Andy was out of the water I tried lifting his bag out of the water. It probably weighed 30kg/70lbs and with the long reach into the water it was impossible for me to lift it more than halfway out of the water (i.e., the bag was still half-submerged). Tim tried to help me, but together we could only get it halfway to the dock. A security guard finally showed up and it took three of us to lift the bag out of the water.

There is an important lesson in this. I know from personal experience just how difficult it is to get out of the ocean. Many years ago I went overboard while racing in English Bay in Vancouver. It was a blustery day and a broken tiller had seen the boat I was on broach and in a flash I was in the water. That day I did make it back to the boat. But despite the fact there were five other people on board they could not pull me back into the boat. With nothing to hang on to and no leverage I ended up pulling myself back into the boat just as Andy had to pull himself out of the water. Lifting someone out of the water up a 1m/3ft dead lift is incredibly difficult. For this reason, we carry a recovery and lifting device on Dragonsinger as part of our standard safety equipment.

But back on board Simba, Tim and Gill's boat, what of Andy? I joined them about a half-hour later. By that time Andy was in warm clothes after having a hot shower, and covered with a duvet. But he was still shivering so hard that he could not take a warm cup of coffee off the table to his lips. He had probably been in the water for at least a half-hour and the sea temperature in Port Vell is around 14C. Andy probably got away with a case of mild hypothermia, but if we hadn't happened along he probably did not have a lot more time to survive in the water. When immersed in cold water heat is removed from your body at an astounding rate. Andy was lucky, but it reminds us that it could easily be any of us who accidentally slip into the water. Getting out is much harder than you think.

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