A salutary lesson in getting back on board

I went for a swim on Saturday.

Peggy and I chose what felt like the one sunny day this August, with a perfect wind for sailing, not to sail but to take a couple of hours out and motor out into the Sound for a picnic.

We anchored under Jennycliff, where the bushes and shrubs come almost down to the water, and a narrow waterfall splashes onto the rocks. We were out of the wind, on a perfect holding ground, with the sea sparkling, enjoying the warmth of the sun – yes, this is Devon.

Ever since I bought Blue Mistress, I have been wondering how to get back aboard should I ever go over the side. In a high-sided boat with a near vertical transom, I would have a metal boarding ladder which folded down. In an open-sterned vessel, I might have a built-in step. But Blue Mistress is neither of these – sloping transom, elegant sheer. A ladder attached to the stern seemed far too cumbersome for such a boat.

So, last spring, I invested in a simple ladder I could stow away a neat, collapsible boarding ladder, which can be stowed away with ease. 112 cm long with 6 rungs and spacers to hold the ladder away from vertical surfaces •Very stable and safe • Weighs only 1.3kg • folds down to just 255x255x125mm • Safe Working Load: 226kg.

The lesson is there in the detail, of course, and you can see what’s coming – but to date I have been very pleased with it – neatly stowed away in a stern locker, waiting to be tested.

So yesterday, I said, “We’ll try the ladder out today. Better I go first in case there’s a problem.”

With my smart, white ladder hooked over the shallow toe rail, and the top rung made fast to a winch base on the cockpit coaming, I stepped over the lifeline and descended – rather more swiftly than I intended, but with what grace I could muster, into the water. The temperature was ok so I spent time swimming around the boat, cleaning the algae off the waterline. It took about fifteen minutes to go round. The sides are low enough for me to hang onto the toe rail with one hand and clean the sides with a rag using the other hand.

The one area that was difficult to clean was the starboard quarter, which, as she is moored head to stern, is the one area of the hull the sun (when it does come out) doesn’t reach.

Now comes the time to get back on board. I had already realised that the sides of the boat aren’t high enough to support the bottom of the ladder – it slides away from me. My first attempt leaves me taking a wild clutch at the lifeline and falling back into the water – strike one.

Peggy moves the ladder towards the stern. I think it will be ok this time because I can grasp the stern rail. But the sheer is greater here and my legs go from under me. Not only that, the ladder slides off to one side. This time I am higher out of the water – (and I am not strong enough to hold on). The subsequent descent gave me a fine view of the bottom of the rudder – strike two.

The splash was also very effective and we have attracted the attention of several boats anchored nearby. Drinks are put down and binoculars come out (at least, that was the feeling I had in the back of my head). Better get it right this time.

We decide that we will try further forward as a last try. (Plan B is to swim to the next boat which does have a fold-down ladder). I notice that I broke the ladder when I pushed it sideways and it won’t hang straight.

However, it doesn’t fold under the hull so much, so up I go, clutching a stanchion, not a little tired, but desperate to make it out of the water. There is a critical moment when my arms are being wrenched out of their sockets and I feel myself going backwards, but I make one last heave (it’s amazing what you can do when you have to), put one foot quickly on deck then the other and then over the lifeline – trying to look nonchalant, but, in reality, rather discomfited – (more hurt pride, and realising my age).

The ladder no longer folds neatly, (although it is repairable), and is no longer on the boat.

Ever since, Peggy has been unable to stop laughing when telling the story and I do feel a tad foolish – but I’ve been there, done it, learnt from it, and now have a design for a proper ladder.

Lessons learnt?

  • Think through what you need before you buy. There was nothing inherently wrong with the ladder, except it was on the wrong boat.
  • Read the specifications first.
  • Respect the fact that getting back aboard is more difficult than you think – even for a relatively fit person.
  • A firm, fixed ladder is better than a flexible one – I wonder about the safety rope ladders that hang on the stern rail. I know about climbing rope ladders placing your feet on alternating sides, but this is difficult against the sides of a rolling boat.
  • Lifelines and stanchions are not designed for this purpose. Although, I have to say, my starboard lifelines have now been thoroughly tested. 🙂
  • If I have had trouble getting back into a low-sided boat, how much more difficult is it to get on board the higher-sided ones?
  • Practice. I am responsible for my own actions. Therefore I have a responsibility to myself, and those who are affected by my actions, to try things out first. In theory, the ladder should have worked – I was very pleased with the idea, (in fact, I was convinced it would work). In practice, it barely made it. In this case, I was wrong to rely on my intuition.
  • So, a reminder: “theory” is good but “practice” is better. You do need both and, at sea, you have to marry them together, (sometimes very, very quickly).

One thought on “A salutary lesson in getting back on board

  1. I was watching a movie the other day and this post came to mind.

    The movie is called “Adrift” (or open water 2 – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0470055/)…

    The whole movie is “based” around a joyfull company of people who sail on a really good looking yacht, they go out in the open and they decide to have a swim…So at that point, a guy picks a lady up and just as some kind of joke he jumps with her in the water, forgeting to even open the little gate on the side of the yacht…And this is where the whole adventure starts because people can not get back up and on top of everything there is a……well you are going to have to see it yourself 😀

    Although the movie is kind of…..well it could have been better….it could be used in a classroom to underline this “plan-ahead” thinking and attention to little things that make big differences…

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