The events described here in this true story took place on the River Foyle in the summer of 2013.
At the request of the survivors the names have been changed.
Out of respect to posterity, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
The boat was a 30ft cruiser. The survivor.. sorry, customer, was an elderly gentleman named Walter.
From memory, Walter drove a really hard bargain, but over the course of a few weeks in August. We bashed out a deal on a lovely single engine cruiser that was going to suit Walter down to the ground.
A date was set for a visit and a sea trial.
The subject of transporting the boat came up, as the boat was destined for a new home on the West Coast of England.
Walter reckoned that if everything went according to plan with the inspection and sea trial on the River Foyle. (As we fully expected) he would simply cast off the lines and motor her home.
Now, this is fairly unusual
Yes, the boat was more than capable of the trip, but I didn’t know Walter from Adam and I had some concerns over his level of experience. As it pertained to such a journey on a vessel that was totally new to him.
Walter told me not to worry. He’d been around the block a few times. He was in his late seventies and had spent a lifetime on boats. Admittedly it was mostly sailing yachts, but as the years were catching up with him. He wanted something a little easier to manage and this 30ft single screw was going to be a breeze.
If I enquired once, I enquired a dozen times about Walter’s confidence and ability to undertake the journey home. Each time I asked, I became more and more reassured that he was up to the job. Indeed it was becoming increasingly apparent that Walter was getting decidedly chessed off about my inference that he might not be up to the task.
So I shut my mouth and focused on doing my job.
A schedule was agreed. Walter would arrive with us on a Tuesday. We would launch the boat, perform the sea trial and finalise the sale. Walter would spend Wednesday provisioning the boat and he would set off for home on Thursday.
The appointed week arrived. Tuesday went beautifully well. Sea trials were a success, we shook hands on the deal and Walter became the proud new owner of a fantastic motor cruiser.
I had only one concern. Walter had arrived alone. When I enquired when his crew would be joining him, he told me there was no crew. He’d be making the journey single handed. But he had single-handed his yacht around the UK many times and he was unperturbed by the journey ahead.
The customer always knows best.
Wednesday came around and as part of readying for the off Walter had arranged for us to install a brand new Mercury auxiliary outboard. On the stern of his new vessel to act as an emergency back up. We also arranged to spend a little time together for Walter to get some practice. At close quarters manoeuvring with me on board for some extra help if required.
So with shiny new outboard installed, Walter was keen to get going with the boat handling practice. He explained that he didn’t want any help as such, because he had to be able to do this alone.
Now Walter was something of a go-getter who liked to get things done and didn’t really like faffing around talking about it.
He’d been thinking things through since yesterday
and he had already figured out the best way to cast off the boat. As soon as I stepped on board he sprang into action, throwing lines off as he told me what he was doing…
Untying fore and aft lines, he’d leave a single line mid-ships that he could let loose as he stepped onboard and took the helm. The only problem was that with the tidal and river flow combined, the water underneath Walter’s new boat was surging past at around 7 knots.
With the nose of the boat pointing upstream and into the current everything was fine as Walter took off the stern line. But as soon as he let go of the bow line the nose of the boat started to turn away from the pontoon. He just had time to step on board before the boat pulled away from the dock. The river now doing its best to spin the boat on it’s axis.
As soon as Walter stepped on, his handy mid-ships line snapped tight. Now straining to hold the boat against the current. And serving to create the perfect pivot point around which the boat could rotate.
In a second the boat had turned fully perpendicular to the jetty.
Now this had all happened extremely quickly and with virtually no notice on my part. As Walter had instructed me to sit tight and just be on hand in case of any problems. He was an experienced yachtsman after all.
Well, slow and all as I am, and with considerably less experience than Walter. At around this point in the proceedings I was thinking that things are going spectacularly wrong.
But, maybe this is what Walter was going for? Who am I to question him?! He did appear remarkably calm.
Trying to decide whether or not to step in. The next event pretty much confirmed my suspicions that the manoeuvre was indeed going pear shaped and Walter hadn’t a clue what he was doing…
There was an almighty crunch from the stern.
A quick glance aft confirmed that the shiny new Mercury outboard had just had a fight with the dock and lost!
With the boat fully broadside to the river and the midships line holding her fast, the stern had wedged tight against the dock. The little Outboard had done a sterling job of trying to fend the boat off, but unfortunately it was crushed against the jetty and promptly broke off her bracket and disappeared into the river!
Yip. Walter was out of his depth and fresh out of ideas…
Minus outboard the boat now started to heel over dramatically to the side that was being held by the midships line, as the river tried its best to tip the boat over and swamp us!
I asked Walter if he had a knife.
He politely enquired why and I told him I needed to cut the line that was holding us to the jetty. He produced a knife but asked if it was really necessary?!
I can’t remember my exact response, but it was something along the lines of ‘if we don’t cut the line then the whole boat is going to follow the outboard!’
So the line was cut, we popped free and motored off calmly and majestically down river.
Not much happened the rest of Wednesday…
Thursday morning arrived. The day of departure.
I politely enquired if Walter was sure he didn’t want to arrange for some help to make the trip. He pooh poohed the notion. Yesterday was just a one off related to the unique conditions of the river. He’d be absolutely fine.
He had all the right safety gear, had carefully planned his journey and informed the coast guard of his passage plan and was undertaking the trip in fairly short, manageable hops. So I bid him farewell as he executed a flawless departure from the jetty and motored off into the meandering flow of the river.
‘He’ll be alright’…I thought to myself as I hurried back to the office.
A few days later I heard through the local nautical grapevine about an Englishman who had gotten into diffs at Portrush harbour.
My ears immediately pricked up…
It happened in Portrush – that was Walter’s first stop off port, I thought to myself.
It was an elderly gentleman – yip,
He was on his own – that’s Walter,
And he was in a lovely cruiser – go on,
The man fell off the boat, into the Harbour – no doubt about it, that’s definitely Walter!
As Walter was coming alongside to dock the boat, he stepped off too early (or too late), missed the jetty and fell into the water. He was clinging to the boat as it drifted about the harbour for 10 minutes before a local boat crew spotted him and fished him out!
I was flabbergasted.
A member of the local lifeboat crew took him home, dried him out, and put him up for the night. And he went about his merry way the next morning, headed for England.
On hearing the story, and fearing the worst, I dropped Walter an e-mail to enquire about his journey (and to see if he was still with us)…
He was home. (Thank God!)
The journey was fine. There were a few snags with the boat but things had gone well on the whole.
He mentioned not a word of his swim in Portrush.
And nor did I.
Another happy customer!