Lessons Learned From Man Overboard

A few weeks ago I was commuting home via ferry from my job in Seattle. After a long day, I decided to walk to the back of the ferry and take in the beautiful Seattle skyline. Not one minute into my relaxation, I noticed something in the water. At first it looked like a seal, but upon further inspection it was a dog. Within seconds, a man comes running to me asking if I’ve seen his dog. Apparently the dog jumped from the guys car and he couldn’t find it. I told him where it was in our wake. So he takes the life ring from the boat, throws it in the water and promptly proceeds to dive in. He’s probably 1500 yards from the dog. I heard his shocked reaction to the very cold waters of Puget Sound. It was obvious he wasn’t going to be able to swim to the dog. The ferry stops of course and a rescue ensues. Rescue went fine, but I gathered a few insights for that experience which were good reminders for us sea kayakers. Some are related, some are just my own reflections thinking about different situation responses on the water.

  1. After about 500 yards, it became very hard to spot the man. The dog was totally invisible in the water at about 1500 yards. Lesson learned, flares would be critical if reentry wasn’t possible. Unless a boat happens to sail very close to someone in the water, it’s next to impossible to be seen without visiual aid - a white paddle, flares of various types, a kayak color visible from a distance, etc.

  2. VHF radios are a critical piece of back-up emergency gear should self-rescue attempts fail. I’m sure all the boaters in the area heard the ferry’s channel 16 call as within minutes probably 10 boats began to circle the area for back-up assistance. Granted, this was a sunny afternoon just off the shore of West Seattle. If this was on the coast or elsewhere remote, the wet/dry suit would be critical if you had to wait any length of time for rescue. Again, this assumes you have the radio on your person and it is working.

  3. The water is cold. The man was in the water no longer than 20 minutes, but when got back to the boat it was obvious he was cold! It doesn’t take long for hypothermia to set in. I’m stating the obvious here, but I am amazed how many sea kayakers I see in the Puget Sound area who kayak without any kind of neoprene or dry gear. It’s all fun until you go over and can’t get in the boat. I recently landed on a remote beach off the west coast of Vacnouver Island. It was about 80 degrees and sunny that day. So I get out of the boat and some other folks on the beach laugh at my farmer john wetsuit. They can’t understand why I’m wearing such “extreme gear” on a warm sunny afternoon. Ignorance to the fullest extent. I recently learned about a long-time, well respected sea kayaker in the area who decides just one time to go solo without his wetsuit. Turns out he somehow got himself into a pickle on the water and his body washes up on shore two days later. Cause of death: hypothermia.

    In the end, this was just a reminder to never take for granted the safety precautions that could save our lives. After much thought and personal anguish, I recently decided to purchase (with a friend) a small Portable Locator Beacon. Darned expensive, but the last resort option is important should I ever find myself completely screwed out on the open water. Man, I hope that never happens, but the idea of floating in the water - knowing my life is ending - and thinking about my wife and kids made the purchase an easy decision. I guess this is what happens when you get older…

Prudent thoughts fron you
I’ll give one of mine. Without immersion protection the PLB helps them find the corpse.

Totally agree that PLBs are great tools for locating a body. Hopefully, they are a last resort and save a life, not a body reovery. I know PLBs come with lot’s varied opinions. A year ago I would have said no for sure - if anything just for the sake of being self sufficent - but I have acquiesced to a renewed sense of maximizing my statistical disadvantge should I make a series of wrong decisions that lead to the use of engaging the PLB.

how about the dog…
was he OK too?

Thoughtful Post

– Last Updated: Aug-25-04 12:31 PM EST –

A couple years ago I wiped out a Cobra Strike Sit on top in the impact zone. At high tide there is no beach at that spot. I spent about 15-20 minutes in the water. It was south of Santa Cruz in February, and water temps just above 50. I was wearing a 3mm farmer john and fleece top.

It really wasn't enough....

If my last attempt to remount and get back out had not been sucessfull, I would have had to abandon the boat and start trying to climb the cliffs. The cliffs there are about 50-60 feet high, and no trail...

I think the dog did better than the guy. Both very cold. Dog is truly man’s best friend…

No Argument!
Glad you bought a PLB. Also want to say “get immersion gear and use it” to those who might not know enough to do so. If you are buying a PLB I can assume that you already know this.

Glad this story…
had a happy ending! I would have jumped in after my dog, too.

Good Lord, I hope not
Jumping off a ferry into Puget Sound after a dog is one of the stupidest acts I’ve heard of recently, which is a pretty impressive in an election year.

Quess I Better Not Tell…
I quess I better not tell the story of the time I jumped into Buckeye Creek to grab my silly little Cocker Spaniel.

We both swam a class III, but we got out alright…

It’s all fair if you get yourself out
all right. But this guy was betting his life that somebody else would save him, and he wasn’t even close enough to do the dog any good.

Not Like I Gave It a Lot of Thought…
Not like I gave it a lot of logical thought. One of those things you do without thinking, really.

Probably what happened he did.

Gut reaction
Yes, I think the guy just jumped in without thinking about it. One of the ferry personnel told me they would have stopped the boat for the dog. Not so sure about that.

Substitute the dog with a child
That is, your own child.

Will you jump right in or will you think logically?

In a wilderness rescue course, there’s this warning “don’t become a second victim”. In reality, that happens a lot more than we like. And everyone sitting in a warm classroom doesn’t believe anyone would do such a “stupid” thing. But it’s easy to judge others when you’re not there and you are not emotionally involved.

No, what the guy did wasn’t very smart. But I would bet you that he wasn’t betting his life on someone rescuing him. He just want to help his dog.

OK, I think what you’re saying
is that he did something stupid because of panic rather than basic stupidity, which is fair enough. But one of the reasons for thinking and talking about this stuff when we’re not in a panic situation is because we hope it will improve our decision-making when the pressure is on. I very much hope that if I were standing on the fantail of a ferry and my child was in the water 1500 yards back–close to a mile of cold water–that I’d be smart enough to stay put, keep my eyes on him, and get some help that would actually do some good. Putting two victims in the water that far apart would reduce the kid’s chances of survival, not increase them.

Probably stopping for pets overboard
would be a good policy, if only to reduce the chances of their owners’ going in after them.

>I very much hope that if I were …<

The keyword is “hope”. We all hope we can keep our cool when hell broke loose. We may, we may not. Hopefully, ;o) I won’t be tested.

The original post wasn’t about this guy. It’s about the visibility of a man overboard.

But a Good Discussion
DLongburg is right. It takes a really, really strong swimmer 20-30 minutes to swim 1,500 yards in a pool. The world record is about 15 minutes.

Yes, I would probably jump in to get my kid, but that might not be the best thing…

Yes, but it pays
to think about what-ifs. FWIW, the first time we had my son out fishing off the Washington coast, my dad and I agreed in advance that the man-overboard drill if my son went in was that I’d immediately go in after him to keep his head up and speed up the process of getting him back into the boat. But that depended on having other adults on board to act as spotters and additional muscle, as well as my getting in before I’d need to swim more than a few strokes to link up. And both of us were wearing PFDs, which are pretty rare on ferry passengers.

I didn’t start out to beat up on the guy, but when somebody on this thread said that they’d have done the same thing, I’m not going to let that go unchallenged, because that goes back to some very basic stuff that anybody who’s out on the water in a small boat ought to think about: cold water kills, you can’t swim as far as you think you can, and so forth.

Mental rehearsal, and talking through scenarios, can be a big help when the pressure is on. It keeps your brain from locking up because it’s got something to refer to instead of just a blank page.

As for rescuers not becoming second victims…as you say, it’s easier in theory than in practice. I’d have a tough time standing on the bank watching a buddy drown. That’s why to talk about this stuff – so we can understand the risks, try to minimize them, and then if we choose to do a dumb-but-natural thing do it as safely as possible.