By Dan Crookes
Most of us aging humans have had brushes with our own mortality in personal experiences or vicariously through others. Well, I am now on my third personal brush!
The first brush was a skydiving screwup at a young age where I came within seconds from a “bounce,” an all-too descriptive term for when jumper fails to deploy his ‘chute in time. I was too young at the time to realize the (pun intended) gravity of the event. Now, 42 years later, I sure do! The second time was five years ago — a successful year-long cancer eradication project. That was a seriously humbling experience.
My third brush, in October of 2014, was denying the cold Skagit Bay another victim… me. Okay, so this is going to wind up being one of those “what I did right/what I did wrong” stories. But really, I did everything wrong, except for one thing. If I had done it all wrong, I wouldn’t be writing this!
It was one of those lovely, early October stretches when you’d swear it was summer. I had a rare weekday off to play. With a reluctant nod from loving wife and a sincere “you be careful,” I was off. At age 58 and all too wrapped up in work, this was a can’t-miss opportunity to spend a night on Hunter, our Westsail 32 with Bob, an 85 pound golden ball of retriever.
A good friend, Tom, and his son, Coleman, an excellent young man visiting from Telluride, CO, were heading over to Hope Island in their Livingston Noodle Skiff to camp for the night. The trip promised some nice boat time followed by sitting around a campfire eating hotdogs, beans, chips. It would also be a great chance to catch up on Coleman’s river running, “hottie” chasing, bar-tending, and general knuckle-dragging on the slopes. Bobdog and I set out from home base Cornet Bay to grab a buoy down the way from the campsite. I didn’t need much more than a growler of IPA under each arm and a bag of dog chow.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by our smiling shore party in the Noodle Skiff. Enjoying the warm setting sun, we eliminated our need to haul the growlers into shore. Since it was getting dark, we piled into the skiff, towing my 7′ fiberglass lapstrake knockoff to the beach to stoke the campfire and continue hangin’ out. After a while, our greatly respected badass comrade and token Bayliner friend, Parkinson’s Pete, appeared with yet more craft brew to supplement what we had lightened from the camp cooler. Fun times! We had gotten close to solving most of the world’s problems with scintillating conversation, and then Colman produced the dreaded flask of whiskey. This is when the extremely-smart Parkinson’s Pete did the right thing — he said goodnight and headed for his boat in his sturdy inflatable.
Around midnight, with yawns interrupting discussion, it was time for Bobdog, our designated sober being, and I to row to our home for the night. Our little dinghy was at weight capacity. The night was chilling down with a fresh northerly breeze, so I was looking forward to warming up in that cozy cabin, still wearing shorts and the sunny day’s tank top, which now had a nice hint of campfire smoke smell.
The procedure to get Bobdog from dinghy to our stout vessel with relatively high freeboard is this: tie the dinghy to mothership fore and aft (which I neglected on this occasion), call anyone already aboard to help (there was no one), help Bobdog up so he is standing with his big paws on the toe rail, and with my left hand gripping the gunwale and the other hoisting Bob’s rear end where his family jewels had once existed lift with one smooth movement. And boom — he is aboard! This works great every time…almost!
This time it went very wrong. I lost my balance and stepped too far to the outward side of dinghy. At this point, the event changes to a surreal and slow-motion memory. I heard the “whoosh” of my auto inflate PFD/harness (see below: right thing, number ONLY), which I had acquired years before as a requirement to crew on a Vic-Maui race. That cold, cold Puget Sound water was made even a few degrees colder by the nearby Skagit River outflow. I knew there was one task at hand: try to remain alive! I remember going immediately into a relaxed mode with no panic. Clearly the upside down dinghy was of no use, although had it been secured to Hunter, it would have been. In all, I estimate that I spent about 10 minutes trying to get a leg up on the feeble boarding ladder whose lowest rung was a foot above the water. Then I swam around astern to the Man Over Board line I had rigged years ago. It had foot loops I thought that I could reach, pull down, and save life, even under way…. no joy there, my foot would just push under the boat and flip the upper me backwards.
Now, I was losing any strength and wit that had remained in my compromised condition even before entering the water. After trying to climb up the boomkin over the rudder and failing, it was time to make for shore. I must’ve decided on the back stroke because I do remember stopping to admire Orion, the Big Dipper, and of course, the North Star to its right, and enjoying the moment.
I believe that if I hadn’t done the only “right” thing in this story, I would have been crab food and MIA.
When I got into shallow water, I realized that I couldn’t feel my legs and that I did not feel cold while flapping my arms to the rocky and barnacle-clad perch with cliff above. There was no way to walk down the beach. There, I sat huddled in wet shorts, tank top, inflated PFD, and with one shoe on, wondering if Bobdog had actually made it onboard. I was having the terrible delusion of seeing him in the starlight under the water fading away like the guy’s beloved wife sinking in White Squall. I’m certain what got me through slowly-ticking time until first light was my cursing at the situation and calling Bobdog to come cuddle and affirm he was alive. It kept my blood flowing and after a while, my uncontrollable shaking stopped.
When it became light, I took stock of my gashed and bloody limbs and my lone shoe, roughed up by rocks and barnacles. Still high tide, the only way get back to my comfortably slumbering pals at the campsite was to swim or climb. One attempt to do the latter ended with me falling backwards and rolling into the water. A second attempt using a cedar limb from above, got me to the top. On what seemed like a Lewis and Clark expedition, I went hobbling down a forsaken deer path, which wasn’t any friendlier for my shoeless foot. I stumbled into camp and appeared in front of Coleman, who was sleeping on the picnic table in his warm fart-sack (we ate beans, remember). Opening one eye and then the other, he realized what he was seeing. His comment was “Oh Dude!” In our circle, this means that one has fouled up miserably.
As it turns out, Bobdog was safe aboard Hunter, proving that he is not willing to jump overboard to go save his favorite human from hyperthermia. The upside-down, tippy dinghy was on the beach with both oars and my missing shoe underneath. So that was that, end of Darwin-Award event, nap time!
What I did right: I brought and donned my PFD (personal floatations device) for RUI (rowing under influence).
What I did wrong: Everything else!
Needless to say, my reckless behavior caused this incident… it’s a given that “I yam what I yam” and that alcohol affects our capabilities and decision-making. Here are some of the boat and cruising related ideas that could’ve made this a a safer night instead of some nearly-lethal folly:
We learned, I learned…big time! Life is good!