Monday, December 8, 2014

Swims With Dolphins - Lessons Learned

It has been nearly a week since the rascal Dee Dee had her dolphin adventure. There has been much discussion on the ActiveCaptain Facebook page and elsewhere as those of us who choose to live on a boat with our four-footed family members try to process and learn from our experience. The fact is that our dog-overboard experience directly relates to all crew-overboard lessons since it's not often that a real situation happens.

For us it had a happy ending and has even led to some lighthearted joking - quite a few people have wondered about what role Dylan may have played in attempting to dispose of the sometimes challenging Miss Dee Dee. I know I've woken in the night thinking of the ways it could have had a different ending as I pull her a little closer to me.

But ultimately we now feel the need to learn from the experience and maybe help others learn as well. We have spent hours discussing what happened before and during the event. We've looked honestly at the things we did right, the things we did wrong, and what we could have done better. Of course, it all revolves around our particular boat, the equipment we have onboard, our own skills, and more. Many of these lessons will be different for others. But if our experience and analysis can simply get other pet owners thinking about their own situation, then some good has happened out of Dee Dee's unexpected swim.

First some background for those who may not be familiar with aCappella and its crew.

We cruise on a DeFever raised pilothouse trawler with a fully enclosed walk around deck and gunwale that is above waist-high. If you've followed this blog, it won't surprise you that safety for our canine crew was one of our highest priorities when we were selecting our boat. The high gunwale was a key safety feature that we felt helped to keep the canine crew safer (as well as us). We've cruised for 12 years though some 35,000 nautical miles on her. During that time we've had 4 canine crew members including our current crew of Dylan and Dee Dee. Also of relevance is that Jeff and I are experienced EMT's having served on the volunteer ambulance of our homeport for 20 years. We're more experienced than most people when it comes to emergency situations and have been involved, if not in charge, of far too many difficult and dangerous events where life was on the line. The majority of emergency situations we've been involved in have resulted in successful outcomes. But we've also been there when the patient never went home again.

If you somehow missed the online commotion that our little Dee Dee caused, check out the previous TakingPaws blog posting.

So, what do we think we did right?

1.  We didn't panic. This is something we always talk about when we do our medical emergencies onboard talk. It's possibly the most important thing anyone can do in an emergency and also the most difficult. Our EMT experience helped here. You have to keep a clear head and focus on the task at hand. There's plenty of time to panic later. Planning, practice, and preparation before any emergency will always help.

2.  The dogs were in their harnesses. Long before we owned aCappella, our first canine crew member, Tucker, never came onboard without his harness on whenever the boat was moving on the water. We have used a harness to pull dogs from the water into the dinghy 4 times. At one other time we had to lift Dyna back onto a dock when she mis-stepped off the edge. Each time we've needed it, the harnesses have worked flawlessly. Having Dee Dee in her Kong harness made it easy to grab and hold her beside the boat using a boat hook. Trying to grab and hold her, let alone lift a wet, panicking animal, would have been close to impossible had she not been wearing her harness. We think the harness was 80% successful. More on that later.

3.  We had exceptional communications. On this one I will get on my soapbox. For optimal safety in any boating situation, I think the most important factor is communications. From early on we've had various headsets that allow us to communicate without yelling or needing to have each other in visual range. I have had boaters argue that hand signals are sufficient. They aren't. If it had even been possible for me to see Jeff as he leaned over the swim platform, he had no hands left to sign with. Yet with our headsets we could talk without raising our voices (and thus raising the stress level), we could exchange fine details and instructions, ask for clarifications, and numerous other subtleties not possible otherwise. It was a complex situation as I piloted blind to Dee Dee's position and therefore unaware of her location in reference to the props or how to position the boat in swift current to catch her on the first attempt. The headsets allowed Jeff to remotely control the boat and guide me at the controls ("port out of gear, bowthruster right 2 seconds, both engines reverse, out of gear"). Of course, this is something we have hundreds of hours of practice doing as we use the headsets in the same way every time we anchor or grab a mooring.

4. We kept all options open. This one was all Jeff. He realized that we had minutes while I stopped and then turned the boat around safely. He took that time to run to the flybridge and start to prepare the dinghy to be deployed if needed. We were in a section of the ICW that was a deep channel which quickly became very shallow as you left the channel - a good example of why the ICW is known as "the ditch." If Dee Dee had swum out of the channel, we would have been unable to bring aCappella to her and would have had to launch the dinghy. Doing a few of the preparatory steps would have saved valuable time.

Now for the real lessons. What could we have done better and what did we learn?

1. We lost sight of the dogs. We let ourselves become complacent. Tucker was our first dolphin fanatic and we had a hard and fast rule that he never was dolphin watching without one of us beside him, ever. But 12 years go by without an incident. Over time, we occasionally let them out while keeping them always visually in view - well, nearly always, as we've obviously learned. It's easy to forget how quickly an event like this can happen.

2.  We assumed there'd be a splash. There were times when we discussed what we'd do if a dog went overboard. We always assumed that a large dog diving or falling in would make a loud splash. We also always thought that one or both dogs would bark, yip, or make some sort of noise. But in the real event, we heard absolutely nothing, at least nothing we recognized as any different from the normal slap and splash of our wake. We now realize that this would be the same incorrect assumption should a human crew member fall overboard. This told us that we need a better way to alert us to an overboard situation and we're investigating wearable devices which may be holiday gifts for the whole crew.

3.  We should have had better communications with MV Intermission and other boats. 12 years onboard has given us lots of practice for how to best communicate with each other. But I could have done better with the other boats in the area. Thinking back, there was important information I failed to give to Intermission. They indicated that while they were attracting Dee Dee to their boat, she only came so close and then swam away. Would she have come closer and stayed if they were calling her by name? I never told them her name. We selected the Kong harness in part because of the large traffic loop on the back which we thought (correctly) would make it easy to grab with a boat hook. I should have told them about her harness and suggested using a boat hook. If others are involved, it's important to remember that they don't know what you know about the situation, especially personal items about the victim, clothing, conditions, and more. You've got to tell them.

That led us to discussing what we would have done if Intermission hadn't been there. Does the situation warrant a Pan-Pan or Mayday? I say yes, and if the Coast Guard disagrees, I'll gladly pay their fine. A Pan-Pan, Mayday, or DSC alarm to alert other boats could have put more eyes on the scene. It might also slow down nearby boats and alert them to use caution in the area. She was a small, easily missed target in a busy waterway. Getting hit by another boat was a very real threat.

4.  We hadn't practiced the right things enough. I already said that the Kong harness did 80% of its job by allowing Jeff to quickly and easily bring Dee Dee right up to the boat. Unfortunately, it then failed when he tried to pull her onboard through the side door. The harness had become so loose that Jeff feared that lifting her would have pulled the harness off, sending her adrift again without a means of grabbing her with the boat hook. We have analyzed what went wrong - after all we had successfully accomplished multiple lifts before although under easier circumstances. We're not sure yet what failed. It could be that the harness did not fit right. Or perhaps there was a failure due to prolonged time in the water (stretching fabric, clips slipping) possibly made worse by Dee Dee's frantic swimming. It could be the harness age - they are about 5-6 years old with Dee Dee wearing Dyna's harness. Or it simply might not be designed for this type of use. We plan on doing more testing. We know the concept is good, we just need to work on the specifics and understand what went wrong.

Ultimately what we learned is that we had failed to practice this critical procedure - and nothing beats practice. We felt confident we had a good solution because we had hauled dogs out of the water before. But we had never tried it from the mothership and we found that there were significant differences.  From the dinghy it was me who hauled three of the dogs in and I was able to do it by reaching over the side, grabbing the harness, and flinging my weight backwards. I literally leveraged the dogs sideways over the side of the dinghy pontoons. This wasn't possible when bringing in the dog from a higher position on the boat through a narrow door. And because the harness was slipping, Jeff couldn't lift her straight up which was how we got Dyna back on the dock. This meant some tricky maneuvering to get her around to the swim platform. Not knowing these things added stress and wasted time. So while it's good to think through the scenarios, nothing beats a trial run. We are already planning where each crew member will go overboard in a controlled drill.

If you have four-footed crew members, take time now to look over your boat. Think about what you would do if one were to jump in the water while underway. Make a plan and then practice doing it in a safe way with others helping. Learn from your practice and do it again. Repeat as necessary. Make sure to also practice how you will communicate as most likely one of you will be maneuvering the boat while the other does the rescue. Consider whether it makes sense to trade places. Consider every possibility.

Think about prevention. After all, the best scenario is never having to do a rescue. Spend time analyzing how your pet might end up overboard and correct or limit that possibility wherever you can. We have only one crew member who really knows what happened and she ain't talking. We are fairly certain how she did it and have already taken steps to stop it in the future. But ultimately, we're guessing.

Once you've done all that, grab your furry loved ones and give them a hug. Oh, and Dylan and Dee Dee say a treat would really be appreciated as well.


S/V Magnolia said...

Terrific analysis. On Magnolia at the first hint of increasing blood pressure first thing to happen in donning our headsets so we are ready for whatever comes next. The thoughts about communicating with others outside your own lifelines is a key take away as well, NO ASSUMPTIONS!

KnottyYachty said...

We have not tried the DoubleBack Harness from Ruffwear yet, but the idea to grab a hold of the harness on their backend sounds excellent.

I nearly lost slightly-blind Bud, yellow lab, last year after jumping into the lifelines from the pier and refused to come to the dinghy float.

Whitley wanted to jump in and help, but thankfully listened and stayed put.

Unknown said...

What kind of headsets do you have?

MV Red Head said...

We've used Eartec for about 2-3 years before and really like them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to your offering through Defender a few Decembers back, Todd and I use Eartec now as well. They are so much nicer than the Cruising Solutions headsets we had before. Of course, in my estimation any headset communications is better than none at all.

Now we need to get a harness for Charlie that doesn't loosen. His current harness has to be tightened every time I put it on...even with the stays that are supposed to keep it from loosening. If you come across a good harness that's reliable, I know you'll pass on the information.

Thanks for all the information, hours of dedication and help you afford the cruising community. We so appreciate you two! PSRussell on M/V Ocean Breeze

Sara said...

Thank you for sharing this. We're just getting ready to start our adventures, having bought a 43ft Californian. We haven't been out alone yet, and haven't introduced our 2 old dogs to their new part time home. We have to make some adaptations to allow access. I'm reading as much as I can find from other boaters in an attempt to be as prepared as I can. Your blog is so informative!
Sara & Hugh

Unknown said...

It may be too restrictive for your use, but our 60lb Goldendoodle is in a car riding harness and never loose on deck. His leash is always attached to something. I proved invaluable when our previous dog fell overboard twice and was held against the boat by the harness and the leash (and not his neck!)