Into The Abyss: One small step to the tender, one giant leap to the ER - PassageMaker
One small step to the tender, one giant leap to the ER

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Maritime Universal Truth #1: 
Reckless choices rock boats. Or they sink them.

Author, Captain Sue LaNeve and her husband Don.

Author, Captain Sue LaNeve and her husband Don.

My husband and I considered ourselves seasoned mariners. Thirty-five years aboard seven vessels of increasing size and complexity seemed to substantiate that rank. Seasoned mariners understand the uncertainty of traveling aboard a boat. When Mother Nature’s fury kicks up her seas, we respectfully bow. When an unexpected maintenance issue presents, we inhale deeply, down a cold beer, and get to work. We’ve gained wisdom through extensive experience and choose adventuring with care over grounding on a rocky ledge, running out of fuel, capsizing, and/or drowning.

Maritime Universal Truth #2:
Seasoned mariners do not make reckless choices.

Read on and you’ll understand why I’ve had to demote myself from seasoned mariner status. This is a tale about a foolhardy decision rooted in excitement and impatience—truly the definition of reckless. I am embarrassed to tell the story as it resulted in an accident equally laughable and frightening. But sharing it might prevent others from making the same potentially fatal errors in judgment before and after the event. Perhaps it might even save a life.

Remarkably, I still have no memory of exactly what happened. In fact, right after the accident, when asked, I simply had no answers. Science tells me my protective brain focused its attention on surviving—not on building a memory. Yet at the oddest times, scattered images have emerged.

Emerald. White. Opalescent.

Sitting in front of the TV the day after the accident, I suddenly burst out crying as I remembered being submerged, looking up through translucent emerald water. Something white, angular, and illuminated rocked above the surface.

Beautiful green. Green water. You are underwater. In your clothes. Something is weighing you down.

A view from beneath.

A view from beneath.

Setting the Scene

Prologue to finding myself in this predicament: My husband, Don, and I had been heading north on another cruise to New England. We’d covered the 1,500 or so miles from Tampa Bay on the west coast of Florida, through Lake Okeechobee, northward along the east coast and the Chesapeake Bay, through New York City’s Hell Gate, and along Long Island Sound to Newport, Rhode Island.

Sue and Don's Kadey Krogen 55 Expedition trawler, Invictus.

Sue and Don's Kadey Krogen 55 Expedition trawler, Invictus.

We’d docked Invictus, our Kadey-Krogen 55 Expedition trawler, at Fort Adams State Park to attend Kadey-Krogen’s 40th anniversary weekend celebration. Then we departed with the plan to spend a couple of months exploring the coast of Maine. But first, a Fourth of July stop in Boston Harbor.

Previous visits to Boston had only been by car. We’d loved the city. But as seasoned mariners, arriving by boat always intensified that experience. Plus, we’d be celebrating the holiday in the town where an act of civil disobedience—dumping 342 chests of tea into Boston’s harbor—pushed our original 13 colonies closer to a war for independence from England and oppressive rule. The opportunity to hear the Boston Pops live and see an explosion of fireworks made this historic port irresistible on Independence Day.

Passing Boston’s outer islands that day, we had experienced our usual excitement and anticipation of entering a harbor new to us. We’d booked a mooring in downtown Boston, wanting to be in the heart of the action without a hefty dock expense. As we secured Invictus to our mooring ball, a dozen water shuttles taxiing folks around the harbor threw wakes in every direction. Holiday boaters swarmed the area with no concern for others. We knew we were in for a rough time, but we were in Boston Harbor. We’d endure.

That evening, the night before the holiday festivities, we’d dropped our tender, easily motored the short distance to shore, and fallen in love with the many restaurants, bars, performance artists, and historic sights Boston has to offer. The harbor had settled by the time we returned to the mothership. We high-fived, feeling confident in our decision to moor there.

Overnight, the weather had cooled. The day dragged as we waited to depart for shore. Finally, sunset approached and it was time to head in. Normally, Don would secure the dinghy to Invictus or dock and board first. I’d hand him whatever I carried, then join him. But it didn’t happen that way. Not that afternoon. Boston was waiting, as was a cold hoppy draft at The Black Rose.

Standing on the swim platform with my purse hanging from one arm and a bag containing some snacks and a blanket on the other, I fidgeted and sighed, waiting for Don. He knelt, his back facing me, trying to unlock a steel cable we use to secure our Boston Whaler tender when we are moored or anchored in a busy harbor.

He’d finally opened the lock and was coiling the steel cable. But my excitement battled patience; I imagined the discordant sounds of the orchestra warming up in the Hatch Memorial Shell. “Come on,” I said, pulling in the dinghy painter with my left hand, bringing the tender closer to me. Lifting my foot to step onto the Whaler’s flat bow, I let go of the platform staple just as a holiday boater sped by. There was a wake, a wave...

I clearly remember being underwater. But nothing between the moment I stepped off Invictus and saw those beautiful colors above my head. Fortunately, evolution prompted a fight-or-flight reaction, saving my life.

SURFACE! You must surface or drown.

My sneakered feet kicked, fighting the weight of the bags hanging from both arms that were pulling me deeper. My left arm tried to reach for a white edge I’d seen through the water’s surface, but I could not lift it. My purse, holding a new iPhone, keys, and wallet, submerged beneath the opalescent green, hung from that arm.

Maybe it’s caught on something.

My more pragmatic right arm had no interest in problem solving. Although it shouldered a heavier bag containing a now waterlogged blanket, it easily shot up above my head. Kicking harder, my legs propelled me upward toward that white edge—the swim platform. I grabbed hold with my right hand, pulled myself above the surface, and gasped for air.

I don’t remember seeing Don. But I’ll never forget the intensity of his voice. With my right hand holding firm to the swim platform’s edge, I tried again to lift my left arm. A sharp paralyzing pain that stabbed my shoulder blocked the attempt, adding to the absurdity of being underwater in my clothes.

“I can’t.” With only one functioning arm, I yelled for Don to unfold the swim ladder. “And don’t touch me,” I growled, like a wounded animal.

Sue, during a happier boating experience.

Sue, during a happier boating experience.

As if I were dangling over a vast canyon, my legs locked like a vise around the ladder, and my right hand held on for dear life. I let go of the rung, slung the waterlogged bag hanging on my right arm onto the platform, and grabbed hold of the ladder again to keep from falling back in the water. Each action caused excruciating pain, requiring recuperation before my body had the energy to perform the next. Leaning against the ladder to keep from falling backwards, my right hand eased my purse off my left arm, then threw it on deck, too.

Don waited to help me board as incomprehensible pain unleashed an evil alter ego. My words snapped like rubber bands. “I have to do this myself.”

To ascend the ladder, my legs would have to unwrap themselves. With one foot on a lower step and my right hand holding a higher step, I again tried to grab the swim platform with my left hand—forgetting it was the one connected to the shoulder that now felt as if a hatchet might be stuck in it. I howled, fell back in the water, latching my right arm around the ladder.

With fight-or-flight still powering me and with teeth gritting to encourage my efforts to pull myself onboard using just my right arm and feet, I grabbed the highest step with my right hand and boosted myself up with my left foot on the lowest step. My left arm dangled, useless. Eventually I reached the swim platform, crawled on board, and began to sob.

“Hey!” Don’s voice sounded good-humored. “I can’t believe you fell in! You okay?” A smile draped his face and then evaporated. “Why are you crying?”

In retrospect, I know why he’d been confused. I’m a strong swimmer. I’d fallen in the water. No big deal. Why was I so upset? Muted by my own confusion, I had no answer.

“Sue? What’s wrong?”

Wrong? What could be wrong? Boston Harbor! Cooler weather. Picnicking on the Esplanade. The Boston Pops and July 4th fireworks. My sobbing grew uncontrollable.

“I’ve screwed up our night,” I moaned, waiting for my left arm to behave normally and quit hurting.

“It’s still early,” Don said. “How’d you fall in?”

We’d only boarded our dinghy to go ashore a thousand times before. He reached to hug me, but my alter ego barked, “Don’t touch me!”

“Okay, okay!” Probably fearful I might bite the hand that touched me, Don took my purse and bag into the cockpit and gave me a minute to calm down. “But seriously. How did you fall in?”

That niggling question again! I tried to make sense of it. A wake, a wave…I stared into the water as Don waited for me to answer.

“I don’t know what happened. There was a boat. A wake. I guess I fell,” I said. “And this water is disgusting!” An algae bloom had turned the harbor into what looked like a cesspool.

As I sat safely on deck and tried to calm down, I began to fully comprehend something was terribly wrong with my left arm. Any movement resulted in mind-numbing pain. “I might have hurt myself.”

To my amazement in this recollection of events, what upset me more than my pain was the disgusting water into which I’d fallen. I needed a shower. Immediately. Somehow, I managed to stand up. Don helped me into Invictus’ saloon and my bathroom.

Remember the shower scene in Psycho? Imagine me as both actors. I am Janet Leigh standing under the hot water, my slightest movement to undress transforming me into Anthony Perkins as the wicked Mother, stabbing my own shoulder.

“I can’t do this! I can’t move my arm. And it hurts. It really hurts!” I cried.

Don never left my side. Fortunately, I wore a buttoned top that he helped ease off. Each slight movement caused horrific pain. There was more uncontrollable sobbing. Much more. After simply letting the water bathe me, Don insisted I lie down and try to relax, realizing I might be in shock. We needed to evaluate the seriousness of the situation.

“Did you try to stop your fall with your arm?” he asked.

I couldn’t remember. But it made sense. We examined my left arm and shoulder. We found no bones sticking through skin, but I could not lift it. Our hypothesis? When I’d fallen into the water, perhaps I’d grabbed something and dislocated my arm.

The unbearable pain sent Don searching for painkillers. An old prescription containing codeine hardly helped. Plus, Uncle Google reminded us that a dislocation tends to swell rapidly, which would make it worse. It would need to be reset quickly to reduce long-term issues.

What to Do

Should we call the Coast Guard? Nothing seemed to threaten my life. No boat hazard existed. In denial about the seriousness of our situation, we decided to dinghy to shore.

Don created a sling from a large scarf to immobilize my arm. On deck, he supported me as I kneeled and then sat on the platform. The harbor seemed calmer as if the universe had come to our aid. With the tender’s bow and stern tied close to the platform, Don helped me ease myself aboard. Besides the incredible pain each minor movement caused, it was a relatively easy, stable boarding—I wasn’t carrying anything this time.

Docking, disembarking, and Ubering to the hospital challenged every ounce of my ability to bear pain and show courage. Images of a doctor yanking my arm back in place gave me the shakes. Luckily, or unluckily, I didn’t need it. My shoulder wasn’t dislocated. It was broken.

I learned a new word that night. Comminuted. The x-ray reported a minimally displaced, comminuted fracture involving the humerus surgical neck, greater tuberosity, and the lesser tuberosity. In plain English, the shoulder end of my arm was fractured in three places. The bad news? There were many pieces. The good news? Those pieces were mostly in place and surgery would not be necessary. Instead, my shoulder would be immobilized for months. After the bones healed, physical therapy would reeducate my muscles on how to function.

When I decided to write about my experience, I picked Don’s brain for more details. The splash of my body as it hit the water alerted him that something unexpected had occurred. He’d spun around but I was gone. Then he saw my head a foot underwater. The tender, which had ricocheted on its painter, was about to hit me, which might have knocked me out. He’d been able to kick it away, only to realize later that he’d also kicked the steel cable into the harbor. Bummer. But he had probably saved my life.

I feel deeply grateful for retained consciousness to tell my tale. If after reading, one accident or death is prevented, some good will come out of it. But should you experience a trauma, work hard to shake it off and get back in the saddle. I am aboard Invictus once again, but working through some PTSD, imagining everyone onboard falling in. Still, I’m always game to set out on another adventure and wish all a safe journey. 

Read Sue's sidebar on her takeaways and lessons learned from this incident.

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