The Dog Days Of Summer

By Deb Rodenhouser

A leisurely sail takes a dramatic twist when a four-legged friend goes overboard in heavy weather.

Dog overboard illustrationIllustration: Gary Hovland

Heading out from Kent Narrows, Maryland, one lovely summer day for a jaunt on the Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, my new husband, Dick, his 6-year-old chocolate lab, Sloopy, and I were all nicely settled into the aft cockpit of Dick's pride and joy, our 42-foot Tatoosh sloop Rusty-Rudder. Dick was at the helm, Sloopy lounged on the stern cushions, and I was soaking up the surroundings and thinking, ‘Life is good!'

The weather was lovely, with breezes at about 10 knots as we continued down the Chester River toward the Chesapeake Bay. We'd just hoisted the sails and silenced the engine. I was new to sailing, so Dick encouraged me to take the helm for some practice as we approached the Bay. I got behind the wheel, while Sloopy stretched out on the broad, convex helmsman's seat at the aft end of the cockpit. I didn't want him sliding too far when we heeled, so I'd secured his leash to the backstay. It was smooth sailing as we headed for the Bay.

The next thing I knew, the wind picked up considerably. With too much sail up, we heeled sharply to starboard. As I tried to recover my balance at the helm and figure out what to do, from the corner of my eye I saw Sloopy sliding over the boat's aft starboard quarter, legs splayed, into the rough waters of the bay. Dick and I screamed. Adding to our panic, the poor dog was dangling overboard by his collar, his leash still connected to the backstay of the boat!

From Bad To Worse

Dick ran to try and retrieve the dog, but Sloopy's collar slipped over his head, he dropped into the water, then rapidly drifted away. Dick grabbed the helm, as we frantically tried to figure out our next steps. I tried to keep my eye on the panic-stricken brown dog swimming his heart out in what was now a dark, angry sea. I rushed to drop the sails, while Dick tried to start the engine. Nothing. The starter had been giving us trouble, and now it wouldn't turn over. There was plenty of yelling as we tried to communicate over now-howling winds.

"I see him!" shouted Dick. "Drop the dinghy!" I raced back to the stern and untangled the dinghy from the davits while trying to hang onto a boat that was now a bucking bronco. I managed to get it lowered and secured, then tried to figure out how to get into it as it tossed around in the waves. Grabbing both davit lines, I attempted to make the 5-foot drop from the stern rail into the small center of the dinghy. It was hard to know where to aim; I lost my footing, then ended up hanging midair in an "iron cross" fashion, my feet searching frantically for the dink.

Pulling dog aboard illustrationIllustration: Gary Hovland

Finally, I was able to drop into the dinghy just as Sloopy came rushing by. I grabbed his fur with both hands and heaved him, a tumbling wet mess, into the boat. I'd just had time to hug him when I felt cold water rising around my ankles. In my rush, I hadn't put the drain plug in! Luckily, I was able to reach down, locate the tethered plug, and insert it to stop the inflow of water.

The next considerable challenge was how to get an 80-pound wet dog up and over the boat's stern and into the cockpit in raging seas. By this time Dick had come back to help, and he heaved and dragged Sloopy, legs flailing, into the boat. Coupled with adrenaline and relief, and a lot of pushing and pulling, soon we were all back in the cockpit, exhausted, but happy to be together. 

Deb and Dick Rodenhouser now live in Oriental, North Carolina, after years of living and sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.

— Published: June/July 2015

Lessons Learned

Several hours, multiple hugs, and quite a few tears later, I was able to digest a few very important lessons learned.

  • First and foremost, it's critical to wear a life jacket.
  • Even if your pet is a good swimmer, put a life jacket on him, too, and secure him in the cockpit via his life jacket, not his collar. With a life jacket (that has a handle) on the dog, it's easy to grab the handle or attach it to a halyard.
  • Always apply the "spotter" rule, where someone on the boat keeps his/her eyes on the person (or in our case, dog) who's gone overboard.
  • Learn and practice the Quick Stop crew-overboard retrieval method, as well as your approach to the person or dog in the water, and the rescue maneuvers you'll apply when you get there. Learn which one works best for your boat. You and your crew need to know instinctively what to do in an emergency.
  • When sailing, at the first sign of a change in the weather, reduce sail, and put pets belowdecks.
  • Finally, given the difficulty of rescuing our dog, even with a ladder, we realized that it was time to add a swim platform to the stern of our boat.


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