A Chain of Events Can Cost You Your Life

By Warren Miller

Warren MillerI had a 6:00 dinner date on a nearby island and the mechanic showed up to change the oil in my boat half an hour late. By then, my only option to make the dinner on time was to launch my dory and row to the other island.

I have a 16-foot dory with a pair of 10-foot fiberglass oars that are normally used on a high-tech rowing shell. The trip only took 20 minutes on a beautiful summer evening.

The dinner was great with a lot of diverse conversation about world affairs mixed with local gossip. I had planned ahead and brought along my one-million-candle-power flashlight because I didn’t want to row back home in the dark. I was able to excuse myself with enough time to row back to my dock before total darkness.

At the dock, my trip home began to unravel.

Before I climb into my rowboat, I usually rest the gunwale (that point where the deck meets the side of the boat) on top of the dock so I can get my body ready to row more comfortably with my feet in the stirrups. I do it this way because the dory is very unstable and the water is about 48 degrees, which is teeth-chattering cold.

So, I was sitting in the dory and bolting the oars into the complicated oarlocks when my host apparently noticed the gunwale of my boat resting on the dock. Thinking this was an accident, he gave it a shove off of the dock and in less time than it takes you to read this sentence, my boat and I were upside down in the cold, dark water.

When I tried to surface, the current had already swept me under the dock. This was a bit of a surprise. I thought that I should open my eyes so that I could see where the light was coming from and start swimming in that direction. The next time I came up, I was under the upside-down boat, where there was still not much air.

This also surprised me a bit. I thought, “Let’s see, the boat fell over on its starboard side and I got swept farther to the right, under the dock, but had already swum towards the light far enough to come up under the boat, so all I have to do now is hold my breath a little longer and swim farther away from the dock so I can come up and get what is already a much needed breath of air.”

While I was swimming around under the boat, I managed to get my sweatshirt tangled up in one of the complicated oarlocks, so I had to mess around with that problem for what seemed like an hour and half.

Unfortunately, my dinner host Stu Kauffman had just had a hernia operation and couldn’t help me up out of the water. I was wearing a sweatshirt, t-shirt, pants with assorted nuts, bolts, keys and my wallet in my pockets, and jogging shoes, so I now weighed an extra 50 pounds. It was impossible for me to pull myself up out of the water holding onto the wooden dock, so I grabbed Stu by his shoe and used that for a handhold. Fortunately, he weighs enough that I didn’t yank him into the water with me.

He then offered to tow me home with his powerboat and I wisely agreed. I was already shivering and the twilight that was left was rapidly disappearing. However, then Stu realized that the keys to the boat were up at the house. I decided against waiting because I knew that by the time he got back, I would be shivering uncontrollably. I said, “I’m rowing home, I’ll call you when I get there.”

I have never rowed my boat any faster. When I came around the corner of Crane Island and started across Pole Pass, I realized that I had lost my powerful flashlight and would have to row across the pass in total darkness. Pole Pass is the main passage to and from Canada that the Vancouver Bud smugglers use. Their favorite time is just after dark when they sometimes roar through without any lights at about 40 or 50 miles an hour.

So, for the next 10 minutes, I rowed five or six strokes and then paused to listen for boat engines. While I paused and listened, I saw Mars in the eastern sky, shining like a wayward street light. The strenuous rowing kept me from shivering.

When I got to my own dock, my two dogs were in the ‘welcome home’ mode. They jumped all over me until I thought my rowboat would tip over again. I sloshed my sopping wet way up to the house as the dogs ran excited circles around me. I realized that the title of that book I wrote a few years ago was still my mantra. I had cheated death once again as I was Lurching from One Near Disaster to the Next.