Thursday, September 12, 2013

Isla Tortuga, Part I: Overboard in Paradise

The day was tropical gorgeous as our 42' ketch, Shannonigans, dropped anchor just off the deserted beach of Isla Tortuga, an island, that is part of the Costa Rica National Park Service in the Gulf of Nicoya.  It was 1989, & a friend & I were crewing from Costa Rica to Panama on the boat, which was owned by a former student of mine & her husband.  Their Lloyds of London insurance policy required additional crew members, so my travel buddy & I had filed our sailing resumes with Lloyds. We both had been accepted as crew so that the vessel would be insured for the passage, which would include a transit through the Panama Canal.  We were a crew of four, the husband & wife owners, my friend & I.

The only inhabitants we discovered on the beach were coconut crabs, busy breaking into the numerous coconuts lying on the perfect sandy beach.  There were lots of shells, some quite large, & the sun was bright. quickly tanning our November-white bodies as we splashed along the shore, relishing our recreational anchorage just prior to making passage.  We four frolicked in the surf & shore as if the rest of the world didn't exist.

The morning passed quickly, & all too soon it was time to take to the inflatable dinghy for a return to the boat for lunch.  I was third up to grasp the rope boarding ladder, & was half-way up the side of the hull when all of a sudden, & without a clue how it had happened, I found myself underwater.  Silly girl, I thought, as I surfaced, my face red in embarrassment, but I quickly reached the ladder, which descended a couple of feet into the water.  I placed my right foot on the first PVC rung & attempted to lift myself to the next rung.  No go.  My weight had caused the flexible ladder to hug the underwater hull like a second coat of bottom paint. Although still in my 40's at the time, still I hadn't the upper body strength to pull myself out of the water with the ladder at a near 45 degree angle.

So on to Plan B.  Okay, I'll just climb back into the dinghy & scramble up the ladder from there.  The physics of hanging off the side of the Avon with most of my middle-aged body in the water soon became apparent.  There was no ladder on the inflatable dinghy, so no purchase for my feet.  Once again I was unable to hoist myself out of the water.  The skipper gave me an assist, Plan C.  No go. Another lift attempt & it was clear this wasn't working.  Geez, I could be in the water a long time.  I looked around for Plan D inspiration.  The sun-kissed beach wasn't that far away & I could have swum myself aground where I could have been easily picked up. However, the skipper decided to try Plan C-and-a-half.  Crouching in the dinghy, he grabbed me under the arms, & gave such a final mighty pull that he ended up flat on his back in the bottom of the Avon, while I popped up out of the water like a cork & he managed to haul me over the side.

By the time I successfully scrambled up the PVC rungs & over the side of the sailboat, all four of us were laughing so hard that I swear it wasn't just water dripping down from our swimsuits. This was a time before cellphone cameras so all we carry to this day is a visual memory of my escapade, though had this happened later in time surely I'd have ended up on YouTube.

It was a funny tale in the retelling, but by the time I was back in the States I was having second thoughts about the entire experience.  The conditions had been perfect for my clumsiness.  At no time had I been in any real danger.  Wet, yes.  Embarrassed, of course.  However, I hadn't even lost a contact lens, let alone experienced anything life-threatening.  But what would have been the outcome if any of the variables had been different?  What if I had taken the dinghy ashore alone & fallen without the knowledge of the rest of the crew?  What if there had been sharks nearby or rough weather?  What if it had been dark & the water cold, or if my skipper hadn't been young & strong?

It's always a good idea to learn from one's experiences, so I did a little research.  An amazing 90% of man-overboard drownings occur during calm weather, & only 26% of the victims were actually sailing at the time of their accidents.  Half the time, even when the overboard victim is right by the boat, he/she is unable to be rescued because it is not possible to get back aboard.   Not long after I got back to Southern California there was an incident where a sailboat owner on a daysail date fell overboard a few miles from shore.  His inexperienced companion was unable to assist him back aboard & he drowned right in front of her by the side of the boat.  I also have a friend whose nephew disappeared one night off a commercial fishing boat, so I am all too aware of the potential consequences of a boating misstep.

What had been an amusing, if embarrassing, story on myself soon became an opportunity to better prepare myself & my boat.  I  installed up-to-date man-overboard equipment & bought individual lifelines for the crew to wear on deck & on watch.  We practiced man-overboard drills.  My own Avon inflatable was soon sporting a non-flexible boarding ladder that could be dropped a couple of feet below the surface so a swimmer could have foot purchase instead of just relying on upper body strength to haul oneself over the side.  A custom stainless-steel boarding ladder was manufactured for Yankee Rogue, our 35' cutter-rigged sloop.  It folded well down into the water so anyone in the water could just step up onto it for boarding safely & easily.  I wrote an article for a boating magazine so that others could learn from my experience.

Happily I haven't fallen overboard since 1989, & no one ever had difficulty boarding Yankee Rogue. Amazingly, the new custom ladder actually saved the life of my beloved Devon Rex cat, Shadow, a couple of years after my own in-the-water experience.  Look for that post later, as well as the story of my return to Isla Tortuga earlier this month , more than two decades later.  (Note that you can subscribe to this blog so you don't miss any posts.)

Did you ever learn an important lesson while traveling?  Please share your tale below--

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