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Saving A Soul

Boating safety lessons gleaned from rescuing a struggling swimmer.

September 20, 2012
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Saving A Soul

Do you believe in fate? Do you believe that sometimes you’ve been put in the right place at the right time?

I’ve never held much stock in kismet, but a recent boating experience has me thinking.

Here’s how it unfolded:

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My wife and I decided to take another couple – Ralph and Paula Amadio – for a Tuesday afternoon cruise in Southern California’s Huntington Harbour to sightsee, enjoy the sunset and have dinner on the waterfront. Boat traffic in the harbor is light in the middle of the week, and that makes for a quiet, peaceful cruise.

But it seems destiny had something additional in store. While idling through a turning basin near the back of the harbor, we came upon a man bobbing in the water along with a pair of kayakers, a man and a woman, circling him. I gave them a wide berth, but as we passed, the kayakers called out to us.

“I think he’s in trouble,” said the woman. I spun the boat around and then grabbed a throwable floatation cushion and a dock line. At this point I could see the swimmer was in his mid- to late-60s and he could barely keep his head above water.

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The male kayaker swiftly paddled over to get the throwable and line, and quickly returned to the struggling swimmer, handing him the cushion and one end of the line. With the swimmer grasping the cushion and line under his chest, the kayaker towed him to the closest dock about 100 feet away.

As it happens, the dock and the house behind it belonged to the swimmer. With trembling legs and arms, he slowly ascended the dock ladder and crawled dripping wet on to the planks, eventually finding his feet to wave and say thank you to his impromptu rescue team.

“I guess there’s nothing worse than a crazy old man,” he said, to which Ralph responded, “Except a crazy dead man.”

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Later in the afternoon, we passed the same house, and the erstwhile swimmer waved us over to his dock. We asked his name. “Willie,” he said, then shook our hands and he gave us a bottle of wine as a gesture of thanks. His wife, who was more than a little annoyed with Willie, had just returned home and was on hand to say thanks, too.

“I used to swim out 100 yards to the buoy and back all the time, but that was 10 years ago,” said Willie. “I kept hoping for somebody to come by and help. The kayakers were great, but they had no way of helping me. So I am glad you finally cruised by.”

We were in right place at the right time. Fate? Kismet? Quien sabe?

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Whether it was destiny or not, I did learn some important boating safety and rescue lessons from this experience, to wit:

1. Make Sure a Throwable and a Line is Always Easy to Access. You can’t access these if you don’t have them. The kayakers were not carrying life jackets (a legal requirement in California), nor did they have a throwable or a line aboard either craft. Neither did they have a handheld VHF to hail the harbor patrol. Any one of these items would have enabled them to lend immediate assistance on their own.

2. Carry a Boarding Ladder. I did not have a boarding ladder. I have a portable one, but I didn’t take it for the cruise, since swimming wasn’t in the plan. Yet a boarding ladder might have enabled the swimmer to climb aboard our boat. Without one, the weakened swimmer would not have been able to clamber over the gunwale or even the splash well.

3. Never assume everything is OK, especially when you happen upon an odd scenario like the one we encountered. Give a shout out, and immediately lend assistance if there’s indication that someone’s in trouble.

Next time, I’ll be even more prepared to save a soul.

For more on safety and rescue, check out these links:
Teaching the Importance of Boating Safety
Key Items for Your Ditch Bag
BoatingLab: Auto-Inflatable PFDs

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