Carsington Water – Sunday July 5th 2015

Craig was leaning against the mast and looking past us, his face creased in concentration as he watched the dark skies to the west.

Jenny and I were in the other boat, the motor ticking over.  Technically, it was a power boat, but the single outboard had much less horsepower than the two on the RIB we’d been using earlier in the day.  With the water rising and falling rapidly, my hand kept twisting the throttle open to keep us far enough back to prevent a collision.

Craig’s plan was to capsize the dinghy, so Jenny and I could get it upright then tow it half a kilometre back to the jetty.  Well, that was the plan.

He’d commented on the clouds twenty minutes earlier.  Rain was expected that afternoon, but not yet.  He’d thought there was time for one more practice rescue.  Now he didn’t look so sure.

The rain hadn’t reached us yet, but the winds were coming in ahead of it and the lake was responding.

We’d worked with Craig since the previous morning.  Barely in his twenties, he was a lot younger than us and, so far, seemed to have taken everything in his stride.

I looked over my shoulder.  The clouds were moving rapidly towards us, churning around each other and blocking out any blue.  On the far side of the lake, the few remaining boats were hurrying ashore.  Sheets of rain were visibly racing across the water towards us.

“Change of plan.”  Craig was very business-like.

Grabbing the dinghy’s painter, he threw it over to me.  I surprised myself by catching it first time.

“Tie it on,” he called.  The hiss of rain hitting water had already broken out from being background noise.  Even as I leaned over the back of the boat, I felt and heard it hammering on to the deck.

A rope looped behind the engine formed a makeshift point for tying on to.  There was probably a name for the contraption, but I couldn’t remember it.  What I did remember was that it was important to keep any trailing rope high enough to not catch in the propeller.

Craig must have guessed why I hesitated.

“Use a bowline,” he told me.

He guessed wrong.  I knew which knot to use – I just hadn’t tied one from this angle before.  And I couldn’t really ask Jenny for help, because there wasn’t enough room for both of us in the stern.  Besides, the rain had already had several seconds to work on me, and my hair streamed water into my eyes.  Visibility was going to be limited enough without another head in the way.

A glance up and I saw Craig rapidly pulling his sails down.  No sense in risking an uncontrolled capsize.

My T-shirt already clung to my body, and rain poured down my arms, leaving my hands slick and oily as it ran between my fingers.  Maintaining a grip on the painter was a struggle anyway, without trying to form a loop in it ready to curve around the other rope.  Still, I got on with it.  I didn’t have a choice.  After an age – probably less than a minute – I pulled on the painter and it felt secure.

Leaning back into the boat, I realised the wind and rain had become more violent.  Thunder boomed in the distance.  Overhead, the sky was almost black.

In the dinghy, the mast was bare, the boom and sails tucked away.  I grasped the painter, about to start pulling it in so Craig could join us on the power boat.  He’d told us several times over the weekend that any boat under tow was safer left unmanned.  But he waved for me to stop.

“In these winds, it’ll capsize if it’s left on its own!” he shouted.

That could be disastrous.  If it capsized while we were towing it, we’d come to a stop.  Then we’d have to find a way of righting it – not easy in a storm – or we’d have to cast it adrift.  What he said made sense.

I turned to Jenny, who was crouched in the bow.  She hadn’t been able to contribute much so far, but that wasn’t her fault.  I offered to let her take the controls but it was probably the wrong thing to do – we didn’t have time for swapping places.  Instead, she watched the dinghy for me, while I concentrated on getting us back to shore.

It was a slow start.  Like towing a car, you gradually take up the slack in the rope, then you have to take the strain on pretty much a dead weight.  That’s true in ordinary circumstances, but it’s harder still when you’re heading into wind and there are waves pushing against you.  Oh yes, and the rain’s coming at you almost horizontally, blinding you.

Gradually, though, we began to edge forward then slowly pick up speed.  Driving into the wind, our bodies felt as if we were travelling fast, though our blurry eyes told a different story.  Still, we clawed our way across the lake, the boat rising and falling with the waves, punctuated occasionally by a jarring shriek letting us know when the propeller cleared the water.

While Jenny watched to make sure the dinghy hadn’t capsized or broken free, Craig was standing upright by the mast.  He told us afterwards that he felt like Captain Jack Sparrow riding the sinking ship into port at the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean.  He smiled when he shared that with us.  I don’t know whether he was smiling at the time.

Our first target was to reach the buoys marking out the more sheltered area of the lake.  Another age passed but, eventually, we passed them and, sure enough, the waves dropped a little and the dinghy felt more stable behind us.

As the noise of the wind fell, I could hear Craig shouting.  I looked back and saw he was pointing to the beach.  In these conditions, it offered a softer landing than a jetty, where a sudden gust could blow us into one of the other boats or smash us against a pontoon.

The rain had eased so it felt more like standing under a shower than in front of a pressure hose.

As we entered the shallows, a call from Craig reminded me to lift the engine.  It should have been second nature to protect the propeller but, in the confusion, it slipped my mind.  Moments later, I pulled the kill-cord off and the engine cut out.  I jumped out of the boat and was surprised at how warm the water felt on my legs.  The chill of the wind and rain had crept up on us, and it was only now I appreciated just how cold I was.  Grasping the power boat’s painter in a shaky hand, I hauled it up on to the beach.  Behind me, Craig was doing the same with the dinghy.

Satisfied both boats were secure, Jenny and I sank into the shallow water, warming ourselves up.  The hot shower would do a better job later, but this was a step in the right direction.

As I lay back, immersing myself, I noticed Craig checking my knot and shaking his head.  Obviously not quite a bowline.  Frankly, I didn’t care what kind of knot I’d tied.  It had held, and we’d just performed a rescue in a storm.  I was happy with that.