Falling into the water from a dock is a real danger that we don’t think will happen to us … until it does.

Well, it does not just happen to others. This morning, I was working on a boat project, stepping off to the dock to get a tool and I thought I was stepping onto the swim-step of my boat, except, I wasn’t. Instead, my foot met the water, and down the drain I went. In a second, there I was, under my boat. Fortunately, I was able to pop back out quickly, a little shocked but alright.

Here are a few observations from the experience:

One: It can happen to anyone. I’ve been on my boat for 20 years without incident, but I had heard many stories — even witnessed my neighbor Ross fall in a few weeks back. Today was my turn. Keep in mind it could happen to you, and be prepared. Make a plan.

Two: Think about how you’re docking the boat. I always bring Pardon My French stern in. It makes it easy to get aboard with the walk-in transom, but so much so that I became complacent. The boat was a bit farther from the dock than usual, and it was just enough to think I had footing from muscle memory. I will pay more attention to that distance docking from now on.

Three: Disorientation is all that happens in the first ten seconds, going from listening to your podcast to kissing your rudder. It took a few seconds to realize what had happened and where I was. I was able to collect myself and not panic. Safety at sea training was useful, even at the dock! I highly recommend it to know what to expect/do (in theory).

Four: Adrenaline and clothes helped. The water is very cold (sub 60) in the Pacific Northwest, but I didn’t have time to feel it, as I was out so fast. I started feeling very cold quickly in my wet clothes once I was out; even in 65 degree weather. A hot shower and dry clothes killed any start of hypothermia. Keep a full spare of clothes on board at all times. If you don’t have a shower or hot water, the marina has terrific showers.

Five: It’s tricky to come out. There are no emergency ladders in our marina, or if there are, they are of the unsecured rope type and pretty much useless if you are struggling. So my choice was between my boat transom and the dock. The dock was lower; I used it with my buoyancy to pop out. It would have been much harder on the transom with the ladder up and tied up. Moving forward, I’ll leave a short line to pull down the ladder (as I had on a previous boat). I had enough body strength to pull myself out, but I can see many scenarios where one cannot come out without assistance. So the lack of emergency ladders at docks is a big safety issue at our marina, and in marinas in general. So again, make a plan and try it to lift yourself out next time you are in a pool.

The shore power cable shorted in the water.

I got a bit jolted, but I was alright. It’s only once I was back on the dock that I realized that I had tested my luck. I didn’t hit my head, it was daylight, and the weather was warm(ish). But then I saw the shore power cable dangling in the water. I had taken it down in my fall, disconnecting it from the stern. It followed me in the water. I am lucky that it did not touch me, or worse I could have grabbed it as a safety line. The breaker did not trip (see how the outlet shorted in the water), so the cable was live, inches from me. I know because I got shocked trying to pull it out (I didn’t think of the breaker then) once safely on land. The breaker was still on when I did check later. I learned that salt in the water mitigates the risk of electrocution quite well (touching a live wire does not). I talked with the marina this morning, who confirmed that none of the outlets except those on the newly built N Dock have ground fault protection that would trip the breaker when the cable outlet is wet. It is another safety issue as regrettably, people fall in regularly. The risk of freshwater electrocution is high, though, so be careful if you have a boat on the lakes.

Here’s a quick read on the topic.

If you have opinions on dock safety at your local marina, please voice them with the staff and management.