Quick thinking on the sound

Eric Burdett

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Knowledge gives boater edge in urgent situation

A few years ago in July, I went out for a day trip on Long Island Sound with my friend Matt. We had nice weather with clear skies, temperatures in the mid-80s, 3- to 7-knot winds, and waves under a foot. Matt brought along Keeko, his small well-behaved 8 pound dog.

We departed Connecticut’s Black Rock Harbor around 11 a.m. and sailed in a southerly direction for about an hour, approximately 3 nautical miles. The light wind kept the genoa filled and the boat moving, but it wasn’t an exciting sail. Since it was just a day trip and we had no destination, we doused sail and drifted, spending our time lounging, talking, and catching up on recent events.

Matt and Keeko go for a swim

Eventually, Matt decided to go for a swim. A strong swimmer, he swims as often as he can. I tend to avoid swimming unless both the air and water temperatures are quite warm, so I stayed on the boat.

Matt decided to take Keeko so the long-haired dog could cool off. He asked me to take a couple of pictures of them and handed me his iPhone. Gently holding Keeko in his canine life jacket, Matt stepped down the stern swim ladder into the water.

I took a few pictures of Matt holding Keeko as they drifted. Matt repeatedly tried to get Keeko to look toward the boat so that I could get a good picture, but Keeko had found an activity he enjoyed more: gulping down seawater.

When Matt realized what was happening, he lifted Keeko high enough to prevent him from drinking seawater. However, this caused Matt’s head to submerge. Now at least 50 feet off the stern, Matt realized the tidal current was quite strong.

Keeko enjoying the ride

Since he could neither swim back to the boat nor stop his dog from drinking seawater, Matt told me to motor over to him. Although that sounded easy, I first had to start the stone-cold diesel engine. Before trying to crank the engine, I needed to engage the glow plugs for about 30 seconds. About 15 seconds after Matt’s first request, he made a second request in a much more tense voice: “I need you to come get me now!”

In the span of about 45 seconds, we’d gone from a lazy, relaxing sunny summer day on the boat to a slightly panicky, urgent situation. Ten more seconds went by before I tried the engine. (If I tried too soon and it didn’t start, I would have had to restart my 30-second “engage the glow plugs” count from the beginning.) Thankfully, the engine started.

Now I had to maneuver the stern with the swim ladder near Matt and Keeko without hitting them with the propeller, which was only about 30 inches from the ladder.

I could tell the current was pushing them westward, so I motored past them to the west, gave a quick burst of reverse to slow the boat to a stop, and killed the engine to neutralize the risk of injury from the propeller. The current should push them the final few feet into the boat’s stern.

I plan to be as prepared and knowledgeable as possible.

When I took my eyes off them to reach down and kill the engine, panic washed over me. I could no longer see them. Were they underneath the boat? Had I killed the engine too late and hit them with the prop?

However, Matt had intentionally swum over to the area where the stern overhung the water so he could reach up and grab the side rail, away from the propeller. He handed Keeko to me, and the situation was over. The total time from when Matt entered the water until I hauled Keeko back onboard was about 75 seconds.

I wouldn’t call what happened an emergency because Matt and Keeko hadn’t been at risk of being seriously injured or dying. However, Keeko could have gotten sick from drinking seawater, which isn’t uncommon for a dog. Wearing his doggie life jacket, Keeko wasn’t in danger of drowning. Matt simply became overwhelmed out of concern for his dog. If it became necessary, he could have let Keeko go and swam back to the boat. Although not life-threatening, this event was the closest I’d come to a real on-the-water emergency.

The takeaway

It’s important to remember that emergencies and tense situations happen quickly with almost no warning, so you need to be prepared. The more knowledge you have, the better equipped you will be to handle an emergency when it arises. Having a good understanding of things like tidal currents, engine operations, and boat handling helped me do things quickly but efficiently without rushing or making things worse. I learned about tidal currents so I could know how to plan boat trips properly and use the current to help boat speed, not because I thought I would need it to rescue a friend in the water.

Who knows what other knowledge I will rely on in the future? While no one can say, I plan to be as prepared and knowledgeable as possible.

This article originally appeared in the Waterbury Sail & Power Squadron/1 newsletter, Pharos Beacon.

Eric Burdett

Born and raised in central Connecticut, Eric grew up sailing with his father. Eventually, he got his own license and joined United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club. After becoming active in Connecticut’s Waterbury Sail & Power Squadron/1, he took classes and earned the grade of Senior Navigator. He became squadron educational officer in 2019 and is a certified vessel examiner. Eric works as an automotive and marine mechanic, servicing boats at various marinas on the Connecticut coast. Although he doesn’t own a boat at present, he’s saving up to purchase a used sloop and get back into sailing.

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