Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Difference Between Life And Death Is Just A Moments Thought.

November 1963. Aberdeen Docks. Scotland.

Soon we are going to be busy taking on cargo. I am below, pulling on my sea boots when the cry goes up 'MAN OVERBOARD'.
Rushing up on deck I am greeted by the sight of a dozen or more dockers leaning over the starboard rail. "Hang on Pat," someone shouts, "We'll have you out soon, just hang on."
Looking over I see a fellow crew member, Paddy, in the water, he has fallen from a painting stage. It is a long way down. The ship is empty and riding high.
Somebody, please help him!
Paddy is desperately treading water. But it is obvious that he is a none swimmer. A surprisingly common trait among merchant navy men.
Someone, anyone, help him!
The water is black, freezing cold and foul with the flotsam and jetsam of many ships and trawlers. Dead fish, rats, jagged pieces of timber from broken fish boxes, bilge waste, spilt oil, galley slops, and the shit and piss of a thousand of his fellow seafarers, have combined to make a thick poisonous soup. A stinking, fetid, broth, that rises and falls with the dockside swell.
As I look down all I can see of him is his pallid frightened face, which framed in his lank black hair, stares back up at us, and seems to appeal mutely for help.
Is anybody going to help him, for God's sake?
He goes under for a few seconds and resurfaces with blood coming from his eyes, mouth and nose. His face is now grey. He opens his mouth in an effort to take oxygen and instead swallows a lungful of the stinking muck, before going under again.
Why doesn't someone do something?
Someone throws one of the ships lifebelts, but it is way beyond his reach, and anyway he is now past the point of reaching out for it.
Look, he's drowning. Help him!
Why doesn't someone jump in and save him? Where is the fucking rescue boat? Don't just stand there shouting. Do something for God's sake. Why isn't anyone doing anything?
Why aren't I doing anything? I'm going to! I'm going to! I want to help him. Look at me. I am taking off my sea boots. Can't you see me? I'm not just standing shouting. I am going in after him. I can't swim. I am scared. I am more than scared, I am petrified. I will go in though. Just give me a second to think.
If I go in I will surely die. I do not want to die yet. I nearly drowned once before. It is not a good feeling.
I have got myself over the rail, and I am only waiting and hanging on, while I search for a clear area to jump into. That's all. I don't want to let go. But I will. I will. In a moment.
For God's sake somebody do something.
Suddenly there is a loud splash. A cheer goes up from the watching dockers. "Good on you Jim, good on you." "Oh well done mate." "You're gonna be all right now Paddy, hold on."
Someone has gone to Paddy's rescue. It is the Stevedore. He has got to Paddy and is holding his head above water, and now at last here comes a dinghy to help.
An ambulance has been called and Paddy and Jim the Stevedore have been taken to hospital.
Paddy made a full recovery, but he never returned to the ship. Superstitious lot us seamen.
Apparently Jim didn't hesitate for a second. As soon as he arrived on deck and saw what was happening, he jumped straight into the water, without a seconds thought for his own safety. A courageous man.
Me? Well I am left feeling inadequate and ashamed at my lack of decisive action. Would I have gone to Paddy's rescue? I console myself with the thought that I would have. It helps my self esteem to think that I would have. But I was just a boy at the time, and I was truly frightened.

The duration of this incident from beginning to end was just a few minutes. All the thoughts and fears one goes through are compressed into just seconds. Panic set in, and all my training counted for nothing. It was a horrible incident, which mainly because of the fear I felt, I will never forget.
My redemption from the guilt which consumed me at that time, came a few years later, when another incident occurred. Maybe I'll tell you about that some other time.


  1. An understandable fear, John. What would I have done in that situation? I don't know. Your story was brilliantly written, I felt every tense moment.

  2. A well written account of a scary incident. Don't beat yourself up so much.

  3. A heart pounding moment for sure. I'm afraid that if you'd gone in, as a non swimmer, there would have been two men to recover. Or worse. Great story!

  4. Water can be pretty frightening.

  5. A very vivid and atmostpheric retelling looking forward to reading about the other incident that you mentioned

  6. I think I can relate to the fear you were feeling. Not being able to swim myself I can see wanting to help but not really knowing how. A gripping tale

  7. Oh my gosh I would don't think anyone knows how they will do till it happens to them. Even the most trained people.
    A hard memory for you I am sure. B

  8. I sure understand that fine line between life and death, but I don't understand why people who can't swim are allowed on boats.

  9. This is a compelling story. I also believe you would have tried to save him. You would both have drowned and there would have been no good ending for someone else to write about.