Trapped in an overturned dinghy


An account of a capsize, the use of a lifejacket, and the reporter’s reaction to cold. Recollection of drills and training undertaken 30 years ago saved the reporter’s life.


What the reporter told us

The lifejacket was an afterthought. The visitor motored his way up the river and I’d waved him over towards a vacant mooring nearby. Sat in my cockpit sipping coffee in the morning sunlight, I’d watched him, solo, make two failed attempts to hook the pickup. There was no wind, a slack tide, but even stopped alongside he seemed unable to manage. He was clearly very tired. I called that I’d row across and help pass a line, and pulled my dinghy up alongside. My old lifejacket lay on the cockpit seat so, rather than step on it – and remembering the promise to my wife – I slipped it on and fastened the clips.

The dinghy, a tippy plywood pram I’d borrowed, had lifting strops attached to the floor and my outboard clamped on the transom. That was awkward to start and stop, so I disentangled the oars and rowed across the few yards.

The visiting boat was stationary alongside an orange mooring buoy. Calling to her skipper to arrange a line, I started to row around the bow. There was a loud engine-roar and I looked up to see her bows surging towards me. She struck hard amidships, the dinghy reared up, and I was pitched headlong into the water.

As I went down, fragments of old training kicked in. Thinking ‘Cold Shock Reflex’ I clamped a hand firmly over mouth and nostrils, while tugging on the 10-year-old lifejacket’s pull cord.

A reassuring loud hiss, and I bobbed up quickly, but beneath the now-inverted dinghy. “Assess!” spoke a voice in my head from decades’ past, and I looked around inside my upturned ‘lid’. I was afloat and I could see, and had perhaps 6 inches of breathing space. “That won’t last long,” I thought. “It’ll escape if there’s any wake or waves. But I’m OK, for now.”

I grasped the dinghy’s gunwale, pushed up hard, and ducked my head down to clear the wooden edge.

Nothing happened!

There was resistance. I couldn’t lift the dinghy side and couldn’t push my head down to clear the gunwale. Consternation.  I’d done the sea-survival training – Air Force and RORC/MCA. That should have been easy. Stop. Re-assess. There was less airspace now. I could feel that one or two of the rope lifting strops had wound themselves around my right leg. I could see them now, still secured to the floor, trapping me.

“OK. Reach down and unwind them.” I could feel at least two loops. But I couldn’t stretch my fingers far enough down to peel them over my heel. Panting now, the airspace reduced by half, I was very aware of the weight of the outboard sticking up into the air. “If the air bubble goes and the dinghy sinks, I go down with it.”

I ducked my head under again, wriggling and struggling, with the rope around my ankle holding me under the dinghy. Another attempt to lift the upturned side. No success. The ropes just pulled tighter. The first surge of fear. “Is this how it ends?” I thought.

A third desperate attempt to reach my heel, each hand in turn, left me gasping for breath. There wasn’t much airspace left now. Pushing back at the panic, heart pumping, I wriggled and writhed the other way.

My foot came free. I bobbed my head down, pushed, and then came up into clear space between the cruiser’s hull and the dinghy. Panting for air, I stared up, to see a face staring back at me. “Throw me a line!” I yelled. “Quick!” He did – a coiled-up one!

Somehow I held the dinghy’s painter in my hand and passed the cord up to the fellow. “Here! Hang onto that” I called, and paddled my way along the side, looking for something to grab onto. Down by the stern, there was a boarding ladder, and I clung to that. Suddenly aware the engine was still running and of the proximity of the prop, I found myself screaming at him “Neutral! Neutral!” while drawing my legs up tight.

I couldn’t get a foot onto the ladder, but my new-found friend pointed to a fabric satchel dangling there. I pulled the handle and a little rope ladder tumbled down. I was able to hook a foot into this, and stood up on the rung, shoulders clear. Relieved, but now really feeling the cold seeping through, I stepped my weight up onto the next rung.

“Bang!” went the plastic securing clips. “Splash!” went I, back down into the river.

“This boat’s out to get me,” I thought as I dog-paddled clear. “I really do need some help now.” At that, a couple of dinghies manned by friends from other boats arrived. The cold now seriously limiting me, I could only cling hook-fingered onto the transom of one, but it was just a couple of minutes to the club pontoon and the safety ladder. And nearly an hour standing under a hot shower until the shaking stopped……….



  1. Dinghy means lifejacket, every time. It’s no good in the locker.
  2. You do your engine daily inspection every trip? So, do a daily inspection on your lifejacket, too. ‘Bottle – straps – clips – damage’.
  3. Things happen fast. A small investment in survival training pays off. Even an occasional session of ‘What If .’
  4. Train your hands. Close your eyes, don your lifejacket, find the pull cord. Where’s the sprayhood?
  5. Cold Shock Reflex kills. Learn how to combat it.
  6. Don’t panic. * Keep thinking. Never, ever, ever give up. *
  7. Examine critically all parts of your safety gear. Is it really up to the job? Don’t assume – check.

*Cultural references – Douglas Adams and Schulz

CHIRP Comment

The Maritime Advisory Board mentioned that this was an excellent report and noted the importance of training and risk awareness, which saved the reporter’s life even though the drills the reporter undertook were 30 years ago.

We draw your attention to the “Respect the water campaign”. If you fall into the water do you know what to do?  Try taking the online challenge at


In addition, reference is made to the knowledge and advice section of the RYA web site.