Most of the time when we get back to the dock we feel pretty safe. We are safely tied up and shore is within just a few feet so how could there be any danger? The sad truth is the danger is more present than most of us would think. I personally know of several cases of people who have fallen in at the dock and never made it back out. Ask around any marina and you are sure to find someone who knows of someone else who has fallen in. Most of the time they have been able to get out and everyone had a good laugh with only dignity and a cell phone lost. But every now and then the story does not end so well and the result is more tragic.
We tend to let our guard down once we are safely tied up, but the truth of the matter is that the danger is always there. We often are climbing on the boat with armloads of stuff not able to see well with dock lines statically placed to trip us. The boat does not always stay where we want it to as we stretch out for that step that we are somehow just sure we will make. All it takes is one slip or wave and before we know it we are in the water between the boat and the dock. Now what? With luck the water is not too cold and there are no electrical wires in the water near you. Hopefully the current is not too strong and you can swim over to a safety ladder that you remember seeing at the end of the next dock over.
But what if the water is cold, we have our heavy winter clothes on and there is no safety ladder nearby? It can be almost impossible to pull yourself up and onto even a low floating dock. There are few handholds and your clothes will weigh you down. Add a strong current and you are in real trouble. Even if a ladder is just a few slips down, it could be impossible to swim to it. You could yell for help, but in most marinas it is not likely to be close by. Maybe you will get lucky, maybe not.
It pays to plan ahead before you get into a bad situation. As a surveyor I see many stern ladders securely lashed to the transom so they do not fall down. I ask the owners what they would do if they fell in. Most of the time I get a funny look and they say “well someone would let it down for me.” I ask what would they would do if they were alone. Again the blank look. The solution is quite simple really. Remove the lashings and add a tag line. A tag line is a piece of line that can be reached by a person in the water to pull the ladder down. I have never had my ladder fall down while underway, but if this is a concern, secure it with Velcro that would come loose when the tag line was pulled. Simple, cheap, and could save your life. What could be better? If your boat is not equipped with a boarding ladder, you could consider having a rope ladder on deck with a tag line so it could be pulled down from someone in the water. You should also scope out other boats nearby and any dock ladders that could be reached from in the water. Point out to crew and guests where the tag lines and nearby ladders are.
Of course the best thing is not to fall in the water in the first place. The best way to do this is to make sure you can get on and off your boat easily. This is sometimes not as easy as it should be. Often we end up tied up to a fixed dock that may look like it was built by Rube Goldberg. The best thing we can do as boat owners is to make sure we do not add to the problem with poor handholds or dock lines that are sure to catch a foot. Have good non-slip footing where you are likely to be boarding. Make sure you also have good handholds in case your foot does slip. If you are boarding with supplies, either hand these off to someone on board or set them on the boat before you step aboard. Keeping a good handhold will help ensure balance and could save you should you slip. Armloads of supplies will throw you off balance and make it impossible to get a good hand on something should you slip, not to mention you could drop that nice new piece of gear overboard! And finally if you see any shore cords in the water near your boat, take action to get them out by either asking the owner or dock master. It takes a surprisingly small amount of current to paralyze a person in the water making swimming impossible.
Just because you are at the dock or safely anchored does not mean you should get careless while on your boat. Take steps now to ensure that if a slip or fall does happen that you can laugh about it later. Common sense goes a long way in protecting yourself and your crew.
Capt. Wayne Canning lives on his Irwin 40 Vayu, in Wilmington, N.C. A marine professional for more than 35 years he is now a full time Marine Surveyor, freelance writer, and consultant/project manager on major repairs. Canning also runs web sites for those restoring project boats. Visit www.4ABetterBoat.com and www.projectboatzen.com for more information.