It’s exactly 18 years ago tonight as I write this that I took a swim without the benefit of a PFD, a witness, or any idea that it was imminent. No, I wasn’t plowing through heavy seas and swept over the side. I wasn’t sleepily standing at the rail, uh… relieving a biological need. And I wasn’t trying to jump a distance that I should’ve reconsidered. I was climbing down a ladder in the dark to walk up the dock and call home.
My boat (the Dragon Lady) was waiting orders in the old General Marine Shipyard, formerly the Jackson Shipyard in Mariner’s Harbor, Staten Island, NY.
It was just after the evening meal and the cell phone was not yet part of my standard equipment. So up to the pay-phone I went. I told the Chief I was going up and he was settled in watching TV as I climbed up and over the barge we were tied up alongside. No one was in sight as I steadied the ladder and took the first three rungs quickly. My world started spinning in a sick and twisted circle as the ladder collapsed under me and promptly sent me falling into the Kill Van Kull. The four feet of clearance between the dock and the barge was enough for me to fall straight in and miss hitting my head on the dock by inches. I went fairly deep, having dropped from about twelve feet or so ( the Russian judge posts a 9.5) and came straight up to the surface. Lucky for me I was a fit 36 year-old at the time and it was high water slack. I managed to keep my wits. I was wearing a heavy coat and boots and aware enough to quickly get a handhold on the first thing I was able to grab, a broken exposed bolt that once held a string-piece in place. This same bolt could’ve been the end of me had I made contact with it on the way down.
After a long few minutes I was able to pull myself up onto the dock. As I sat and considered how close I came to meeting my maker, I spied the hole in the dock which the leg of the ladder had slipped into. That ladder was set hours before and as the barge rose with the tide it shifted the ladder to within a few millimeters of the damaged deck plank. My body weight was enough to send it the last bit and drop me on my way. I stood and reset the ladder and took a very chilly walk back to the tug. As I entered the galley to find the Chief still watching TV, his query upon seeing how “hydrated” I was, “What, is it raining?”. A valid question but for the look that must have been on my face. I told him how I just missed killing myself and elicited the requisite, somewhat sympathetic “Wow, that sucks”……
I am more than aware of how differently it might have turned out. I wasn’t expected to be back in short order. In fact if I didn’t come
back for an hour or so, it would have been assumed I stopped in the local pub across the street for a beer (in those days we could still grab a cold one when nothing was scheduled for a good bit of time). If I had bumped my noggin on the way down, no-one would have thought to look for me for a good long time. And time is not what you have when you’re in the water in December.
If I had been wearing a P.F.D., I would at least been on the surface and maybe been able to call for help after “coming to”, hopefully before I succumbed to hypothermia. Or at least, my remains would have been easier to locate.
So, I know it’s a tired old song, but crew members are lost over the side every year. The winter temperatures allow no quarter and will sap the warmth and life from your core as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow. Taking a moment to make certain the ladder or gangway you’ll be using is safely set will prevent an unexpected swim. And wearing a P.F.D. will give you time to attempt a self rescue, or at least ensure that when you’re discovered missing, you’ll still be on the surface.
Lesson learned my friends.