Drowning Prevention Week: Marianne's Story
Marianne recently had a near-death experience after falling into the canal and suffered severe injuries as a result. For Drowning Prevention Week, she is sharing her story as a reminder to all to remain vigilant on the water, no matter how experienced.
Trigger warning: this article contains information about falling into water that some readers may find distressing.
You go through the scenario in your head. What would I do if I fell into the canal? I’ve gone through it lots of times. Neither myself, or my partner Peter, fully realised the actual danger of the situation I was in, until I didn’t surface for a while.
When I fell in, my first thought was ‘I don’t want to drown’. I thought I would try and find the bottom of the canal. But this one was quite a bit deeper, and I wasn’t able to stand. I was flapping my arms around and I did manage to break surface. I opened my eyes, saw where the boat was and the chain for the back button. And then I went under again. This time I opened my eyes, probably for the first time in my life. I saw where the light was and went towards it, and reached out to grab the back button, but that was probably my first mistake.
My attention was diverted
Three years ago, my partner, Peter, decided to retire onto a narrowboat. I said I would travel wherever he was in the country to be with him, over school holidays and weekends when I didn’t work. My land base is Hampshire, and he travels as a continuous cruiser to as far as he can get in the country, which hasn’t been very far over the last two years with covid! But that’s how I came to be Part Time Boater.
On 8 April 2021, we were cruising from Berkhamsted and we were aiming to get beyond the Tring summit on our journey towards Banbury. We’d had three days of cruising; this was day four. We’d just come through Cowroast Lock at the Tring summit. I was on my way back to open the paddles as that lock had to be left empty. On my way back, there was a boater on the water point who asked me to leave it full, because he was going through. As is quite usual for Peter and I, if we are able to help another boater, we will. So, I went back to open the lock gates for him. As I was trying to get back onto the boat, I slipped and fell into the canal.
A lot of factors played into the accident. One was that Peter was having a bit of a hard time controlling the boat, because the wind was starting to pick up. When you’re on land, you’re not really aware of the effect the weather can have. But when you’re in reverse gear, which he was as he was trying to keep the boat close to the bank to avoid hitting the other boat, you don’t have any steering at all.
I was aware that the front of the boat was going to hit the other person’s boat on the lock landing. So I quickly took that step, and I reached for the rail, but I didn’t fully grasp it. My attention was diverted to see what was happening at the front of the boat and to see what I could do to help it.
I had this vision in my head of my hand not quite grasping the rail and it just sliding down the boat, and I thought ‘I’m going to go under’. So, I took a really deep breath at that point, because water and I don’t really go, and I went under. I was floundering, desperately trying to find the bottom of the canal.
I did not want to drown that day
I really didn’t envisage falling somewhere that was too deep to stand up, but I had. My first thought was ‘I don’t want to drown’. I was flapping my arms around and I did manage to break surface. I opened my eyes, saw where the boat was and saw the chain for the back button. And then I went under again. This time I opened my eyes, probably for the first time in my life. I saw where the light was and went towards it. I reached out to grab the back button, but that was probably my first mistake.
Once I’d done that I thought I was safe. I wasn’t going to drown. And no, I didn’t drown thankfully, but then my legs swung underneath the rear of the boat. The engine was still going because Peter was still trying to manoeuvre the boat into the bank for me to step on. He didn’t realise how deep the water was, he was just expecting me to be able to stand up and pull myself out. His main focus at that time was preventing me from the visible danger of being crushed between the side of the canal and the boat. But all the while, below the boat, my leg was trapped. As the propeller was turning, it was taking my clothing into it, which started wrapping more and more tightly around the propellor. I couldn’t get my leg free.
When Peter realised what was happening, he tried pushing the rudder the other way to free me. We thought it might help, but all it did was cause pain the other way. Eventually I was able to call out or mouth ‘turn the engine off’. By that time, I was really cold. Back in April the water was freezing. Even now, in summer, it will still be quite cold. Unbeknownst to me, I was starting to suffer from hypothermia as well.
Peter put the boat in neutral and then had the foresight to go into the weed hatch, get some sheers from the engine room and start to cut my winter tights and leggings off to disentangle me. When he’d managed that, he then tried turning the propeller slowly by hand to disengage my leg, but it didn't work. Eventually, I was able to release my leg, and Peter helped me get it out fully by manipulating it through the weed hatch. I was in the water for about 20 minutes, and my leg was in the propeller for a good five, ten minutes. It was very painful, as you could imagine.
Once my leg was released and I was hanging there in the water, I didn’t want to move. My leg was in agony, I was cold, my arms were aching from hanging on for dear life. I was even still hanging onto my windlass, I did not want to let it go! At that point I just didn’t want to move anywhere. I knew I should, but my brain went into calm mode. I wasn’t drowning, my leg was freed, I needed a moment.
That was the key thing though, I wasn’t drowning. I did not want to drown that day.
If you’re in water, you’re in danger
I knew some of the dangers from falling into a canal, but there were others that I didn’t think of at the time. I’ve had conversations with my son about this since. He said to me: “If you knew you weren’t drowning, your first thought should have been to get out the water. If you’re in water, you’re in danger, full stop. So why didn’t you swim to the bank?”
That thought never entered my head because it wasn’t really a bank. I fell outside the lock and it was concrete to about two feet above my head. With my arms extended fully I wouldn’t have been able to pull myself out anyway. I really didn’t think to swim. I had the lock gates, the lock landing, and two boats near me, so I was surrounded. I don’t think I had enough of water space to swim.
But as I couldn’t get to the bank, there were other things I could have done. I could have just waved my arms and trod water. That would have kept me safe, out of contact with the boat and out of contact with the propeller. I didn’t have the space to starfish and float, but I could have trod water until rescue came. My rescuer was right there. That action would have kept me safe and not left me in the position I’m in now.
You can never be complacent
In all walks of life, you get used to doing the things you do, like walking on the pavement. You walk every day, but then there’s one time you trip and fall over. On a boat it’s even more important, you have to be so aware of your surroundings, so aware of what you’re doing. And if you haven’t got that little germ of a safety warning in your head, then if and when something happens, you can’t deal with it. Your thoughts then don’t go in that direction. You have to have safety in the forefront of your mind to keep yourself and others safe. If you don’t have that there, you can’t act correctly.
My advice is: don’t assume anything. Don’t make assumptions about your safety but do an assessment of the situation that you’re in and try and get yourself to safety as soon as possible. Never get complacent when you’re on the water. Enjoy it by all means, but never, ever get complacent. If you fall overboard and become unconscious, you could drown. You could even be unconscious before you fall into the water. Danger is ever present, wherever you get water.
Experience doesn’t mean anything. You get experienced drivers that end up in car accidents. Just because you have experience of staying safe, doesn’t mean you always will. Having been in the water, I would say never be complacent about water safety. If you can think of drowning as being the worst-case scenario, you have to think, what’s the best case? You don’t fall in; you stay on the boat.
Knowing what to do in an emergency
If anyone or anything ever falls into canal, please put the boat into neutral. I think that action is so important. I think it should be something that’s hammered home to a boater, and something hire companies, who rent out boats to those with no experience, should actively promote. The reason I say neutral is it takes only a short moment to put the boat into neutral and that will stop the propellor. It takes a few seconds longer to press the button and turn the engine off, so it’s a bit slower. Put the boat into neutral first and then stop the engine at your earliest convenient moment. That will hopefully give the person or pet that’s fallen into the water a greater chance of survival without injury. To me, drowning was the first concern, the second was the propellor. I’m very aware of the dangers of that now.
I think wearing a life jacket is a very good idea. Children should definitely wear life jackets on boats. Pets too. Dogs swim, cats swim as well, but when you’re near moving propellers it will keep them afloat and away from danger, hopefully.
I’d also encourage everyone to always focus on what you’re doing. Don’t be diverted. If I had grabbed the rail first, I would have probably been alright. Peter says he remembers asking me to hurry, as he was struggling to maintain the boat’s position. But as soon as the words left his lips, he wished he could have retracted them. Going forward he would never, ever hint at hurrying in the future, over anything to do with boats or canals. I don’t believe I reacted to his words, but I don’t know. There may have been an element of hearing what he said and me wanting to be on our way and not hit the other boat. So don’t hurry and stay focused.
Returning to boating
I was very lucky. I suffered a broken fibular, about four inches below my knee. But the worst injuries were from the propeller, where my leg had been caught. I had abrasions all the way up my leg, from the top of my foot, where there was a deep cut two inches from my toes, all the way up my leg towards the back calf muscle and up my thigh, all the way up to my buttock. There was another cut just below my calf where the break was, everything else was skin that had been taken off.
I’ve got a lot of nerve damage that needs to repair itself, so that’s probably the major thing that I’m dealing with at the moment. I’m going to be scarred up and down my leg. If you can imagine a tiger claw scraped up and down my leg, that’s what it looks like. My foot is very numb, my ankle is very inflexible from soft tissue damage. I really need the flexibility back in my foot to be able to do all the things you would need to do on a boat, like getting on and off, walking the locks and doing the paddles. I need those fine motor movements to adjust balance. Confidence-wise, I think I’ll be alright, but I won’t know until I get back on the boat.
Peter is already at Banbury and waiting there until I’m able to drive longer distances. We are on our way to Birmingham; we visited there a couple of years ago and are now heading back that way. We also want to go into Liverpool this year and stay in the docks, maybe even spend Christmas there. Locks being open, that’s the key! Journeys have always been thwarted by lock closures!
I love boating because you double your life span. And what I mean by that is you could be on a boat cruising for a week and when you get back on land you feel like you’ve had a two-week break. It really is so relaxing. You see everybody walking past even faster than you’re going; you can see cars whizzing across the motorways. It's the slower pace of life that I really enjoy. You don’t have the same rat race thoughts going round in your head like when you’re at home doing housework – you still have housework to do on a boat, but it doesn’t have the same impact on you!
I’m looking forward to resuming cruising – but maybe as a lady of leisure rather than doing the locks. Sitting on the well deck enjoying a glass of wine and the scenery maybe, that would be nice. I can’t wait to get back to Peter, and to get back to being Part Time Boater. That is in the forefront of my mind. When I’m on the boat it will be safety, but right now it’s that.
Drowning Prevention Week from the Royal Lifesaving Society UK aims to equip with the skills and knowledge to make the right decisions about water safety. Safety is very important to us at the Trust. Whatever the weather, our waterways are very popular with thousands of people visiting every year. With every season we urge all of you to be careful and take care around water. You can learn more about staying safe by water by visiting our water safety information section online.
Last date edited: 17 June 2021