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Old 10-12-2011
peterchech peterchech is offline
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I have a dinghy capsize story where I could have died of hypothermia induced drowning... does this count?

It was 70 degrees one day in March. I had to get out on the water. I got to the harbor at Liberty State Park, where I often launched my dinghy, and it really blowing, prob 20 knots.

The boat had been in storage all winter, so it took me a while to put the sails on the spars and rig up the boat again. It turns out I really should have taken longer to do this. I tied in my flotation, which consisted of a water resistant dufflebag filled with styrafoam. I donned my surfing wetsuit and launched, wondering if I should even bother with the wetsuit it was so hot, but nevertheless I zipped it up and dealt with the heat.

I had some serious issues with the setup of my rig. I hadn't sailed the boat all winter, and during the summer I rarely if ever sail single handed. So in this blow I had my hands full. The tiller wasn't long enough, so every time I went forward to fix something on the rig, I had to let go and the boat would head into a broad reach. I kept fiddling, and I realized that the halyard wasn't tight enough and the front of the boom was getting caught on the hull sides. I have been out in this kind of weather before, with crew, and in a serious gust I have always just let go the mainsheet (the beauty of an unstayed mast) and been fine. Now the boom was stuck and I couldn't release. The wind caught the scoop in the sail created by the stuck boom and over I went.

The water was COLD, about 40 degrees F. I got dunked, and when I came up felt like I was having a heart attack. COLD SHOCK!!! I coughed, I couldn't catch my breath, I could do nothing but instinctively doggy paddle and grab onto the gunwhale of my submerged boat. It took about 30 seconds to gain my senses, and as the freezing water that entered my wetsuit finally warmed a bit I realized I needed to get the boat upright ASAP. I swam around to grab my bailing bucket, which was tied in. I fiddled with the knot, until I realized my fingers were completely numb from the cold. I fiddled with it for about 30 seconds more before my dull brain realized I have a knife. One cut with the knife (I just sharpened it fortunately) and I was good.

OK, now time to get this boat upright. I unstepped the mast. I put the boat on its side as I had planned to do, and guess what. The flotation bag came loose!!!! It was tied in, but floating about a foot or so off the floor and was useless. My hands were too cold to tie anything (though I tried), so I attempted to stuff the bag under the CB case and get water out of the boat that way. My cold brain messed up again, trying to lift the boat the wrong way relative to the powerful wind, and it was not happening. I had to get out of the water soon, before I got blown out of the harbor and into the Hudson river, and I was going probably 1 knot in that direction just being blown by the wind. I began to realize that I might be in some serious trouble. I contemplated leaving the boat and swimming the 100 yards or so to shore, but fortunately I stayed with the boat. I would have to swim it the 100 yards to shore.

Well I started swimming, first pushing the boat then pulling it. I am 26 years old and in very good shape, but I could barely breath and was struggling to stay afloat myself. In fact, I found myself sinking and fighting harder and harder to keep my head above water. DUH! My dull brain finally clicked and I realized I needed to get my pfd on NOW. I grabbed it, somehow got it unbuckled with my numb fingers, and put it on. I was instantly feeling much better. I breathed easier and could concentrate on pushing the boat rather than staying afloat. Again, my dull brain wasn't thinking about wind, and I swam into the powerful gusts to try and reach the nearest shore. I got nowhere, and was getting exhausted. DUH! I finally changed course and went with the wind to the lee shore, which was rocky and less than ideal but at least within reach. Once I swam with the wind (actually sort of diagonal to it) I made progress and finally made it to shore. I stood up out of the water, and within 30 seconds of getting my torso out of that icy water was warmed up enough to catch my breath and assess the situation.

I was on a rocky shore, standing on razor sharp barnacled rocks. I dragged my boat up out of the water (it kept wanting to run away with the wind) and I finally thought enough to use the wind to help lift the boat sideways and empty out the water.

Done. No more sailing that day! But now what? I had lost my seat and a bottle of water, but everything else had been tied in. The wind was relentless. I put the boat back in the water, and launched with oars alone. I had to row against the hard, gusting wind to get back to the dock/ramp I launched from. There was nowhere else to go, except out into the Hudson river. That is where the wind wanted me to go, and I knew the tide would kick up and pull me out soon too so there was no time to waste. I jumped in and rowed, stowing gear as I could. Without a seat, the already too short oars (6 ft) combined with the already short (for my body) oar sockets made rowing hellish, using more forearms than back. The wind was ferocious, and for a while I didn't think I would make it. I contemplated letting the wind drift me back to where I came from. Then I decided to "man-up", I stopped worrying about making progress and just concentrated on rowing. After a hellish row, fortunately directly into the wind (not much weathercocking as long as I kept it straight) I made it back.

This was over a year ago, and I now keep my pfd on at all times, I'm actually paranoid about it. Oh, and I keep a sharp knife on that pfd, and a whistle... and a waterproof flashlight at night... :-)

Last edited by peterchech; 10-12-2011 at 04:31 PM.
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