Having fallen overboard in a deserted anchorage at night without a lifejacket, Cully Pettigrew is in serious trouble

Survival instinct

The anchorage was deserted and the nearby shoreline of Goat Island forbiddingly dark so there was no chance of shouting and receiving help from third parties. Treading water and feeling acutely aware of my difficult position, I thought calmly for a means to escape the sea.

I was angry with my inability to help myself out, but, although despondent, surprisingly felt no panic despite this being a cold, late-winter evening with a sea temperature of around 48°F or 9°C; the temperature, although not uncomfortable, could have slowed down my body clock.


Yachting Journal of a Hebridean Sailor
by Cully Pettigrew is published by Author Way

After 20 minutes of dithering indecisively, I made a move more of desperation, and started to slowly lift one leg into the rubber dingy which alarmingly tilted sideways then flipped me unceremoniously back under water for a second time. I was beginning to feel tired and a little fed up but thanks to my three thick jumpers felt surprisingly warm.

An eerie glow from the cabin lights reflected onto the water and I felt like a sailor having survived the shipwreck only to find himself helplessly marooned on a piece of wreckage with little chance of escape. My arms felt like two lead weights and, being a poor swimmer, I was reluctant to try and reach the nearby deserted shore.

This would provide little shelter from the freezing conditions, but my body still felt unexpectedly warm despite having been in the water a considerable time. The exact period was hard to gauge but, treading water, I dithered and slithered a further 15 or 20 minutes making a total time immersed of around 50 minutes.

A sense of futility and hopelessness began to affect me. Rather worryingly I felt an inward deeper calm and wondered if I was reluctantly starting to accept my fate.

Looking up at the starlit sky, I knew little time was left before becoming unconscious. What a bloody shame to go without a struggle, I thought, and pondered if I would be unconscious before drowning, which sounds melodramatic but such events are sometimes hard to express without emotion.

These pessimistic thoughts must have kick-started my survival instinct and, summoning what energy was left, my bare foot found a toe hole between the skeg and the boat’s rudder. Using this technique gave extra purchase, and slowly, so very slowly, I manoeuvred the back of my head onto the bow of the now upturned dinghy, then my shoulders, and started to lever my body backwards, not daring to shift for a number of minutes during each movement lest the dinghy tip me back into the water one last time. I doubted I would have energy for a further attempt as cold, tiredness and dejection were beginning to take effect.


Rescue by the Mallaig lifeboat during another adventure

When the top of the upturned dinghy had been gained, and on recovering balance and nerve, carefully, very carefully, I turned over onto my knees and facing the stern of Papillon gave her a wholesome kiss on her backside… nearly home… out of the water… don’t do anything stupid.

Gaining the cockpit was easily accomplished despite having to climb over the top of my lifebelt but, surprisingly, on reaching the cabin there was no feeling of relief or gratefulness for being alive… I think I was still in shock.

I didn’t even have energy to dry myself, put on the fire, or make a hot drink. Anyway, my hands were now numb and useless for any intricate task, and my body started to shake, and shake violently. It was now essential for me to crawl into my sleeping bag, even in my wet condition.


Cully Pettigrew has sailed Papillon of Carden for more than 30 years

I was experiencing hypothermia and beginning to convulse, but my head was clear and I rationalised the shivering would pass although I vaguely wondered if the following day someone was going to find a corpse.

Now in a physically exhausted state there was no option but to let my body shake it out. After around 60 minutes, the violent shivering did subside, helped by moving my legs and feet vigorously together. I irrationally thought of a boy scout lighting a fire by rubbing two sticks, but this visualisation seemed to help me warm up.

After a change into dry clothing, with events still fresh to mind, I wrote up my log and a troubled sleep eventually came around 3am. I had been immersed for between 50 and 60 minutes and I knew little time had been left to me, being a further 10 to 20 minutes away from total incapacity and certain drowning.

Normality resumed

Next day was a beautiful sunny morning. I had breakfast, raised the anchor and continued to Crinan as if nothing had happened; wondering if I was experiencing the classical delayed reaction to a traumatic event?

The purpose of this account is to alert all boat owners to the danger of over complacency, especially early in the season. Events can happen when least expected so the following lessons have been learned. The wearing of three jumpers may have preserved body heat as I didn’t feel cold until getting back on board but it certainly hampered my efforts in the water.

My bare feet may have saved my life. Had shoes been worn, I wouldn’t have had the extra purchase between the skeg and rudder, similar to how a climber achieves a handhold by using tiny crevices in the rock to give more leverage.


Papillon motoring up the Sound of Mull

Never make a night visit over the side unless you are well secured from falling outboard. My fainting was diagnosed as a postural or orthostatic hypotension, a drop in blood pressure caused by suddenly getting up from a low position and a common occurrence when we get older. Better still; use the inboard toilet or a bucket if you do not want to disturb a sleeping crew.

On this occasion the use of a safety line, although prolonging my survival time, wouldn’t have helped and the wearing of a lifejacket may have impeded the eventual method of exiting the water on my back onto the upturned dinghy. Of course, these two elemental safety precautions should be a necessity on every occasion and more especially for single-handed sailors.

Being a strong swimmer may not save you as the shock of hitting cold water can seriously impair your swimming efficiency, especially the use of your arms. Swimming to the shore is equally dangerous as the coastline can appear closer than it really is, the sea may be colder and the currents stronger than you expect.

Last week I fitted a Plastimo 1.6m safety ladder but not the 1.3m version as you must be able to place your feet into the bottom rungs to easily escape from the water. Two weeks after my initial immersion, I tried the ladder and was able to exit the water in less than 60 seconds. The plan was to test the new equipment as well as ridding myself of any delayed shock or trauma from the first incident. The ladder worked perfectly.

I hope my experience might shake up a few complacent boaters and maybe even save a life.

First published in the January 2020 edition of Yachting World.

  1. 1. From Yachting Journal of a Hebridean Sailor
  2. 2. Survival instinct
Page 2 of 2 - Show Full List