I was serving on the aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes in late 1968 when were visited Australia and moored up in Freemantle harbour, which is just south of Perth, Western Australia.
Each Commissioned Officer onboard gets a second responsibility, and our junior weather forecaster, Lt ‘Seaweed Sid’ was also the ships Sailing Officer. As the ship was so big we were able to carry a handful of fibreglass sailing dinghies which were stowed, strapped up on the deckhead (ceiling) of the afterdeck (the bit at the back, halfway up).
At the end of our visit to Freemantle those dinghies needed to be recovered from the Freemantle Sailing Club further up the Swan River, so as ‘Seaweed Sid’ was our boss, we ‘Met’ lads were given the job of recovering them. We piled in to a motor launch and were taken up to the club. We were each allocated a dinghy to take back. We had no lifejackets and the fact that I couldn’t swim was of no concern to anybody. We each sat astride the bow end of our dinghies and paddled out to the middle of the river where we roped ourselves one behind the other to the motor launch. As well as myself onboard the dinghy I had a very large kitbag which apparently had all the sails and bits in it, where the masts were I just can't remember, maybe they went by road, what I was sat astride was a glorified fibreglass rowing boat.
When we arrived back at Hermes we detached from the launch and were informed that we were to be hauled up to the afterdeck on the port, or left hand side, whilst remaining in the dinghies. Kevin was the first one to be hauled up, and I was to follow him. When it was my turn the rope was thrown down to me. This ‘rope’ went to a large ‘O’ ring as I recall, which then had three ropes and hooks coming off it. These were to be attached to the dinghy, one at the sharp end and one either side at the back. With the dinghy secured I stood up and hung on to the ropes before giving the thumbs up that I was ready for the lift.
Up on the afterdeck a party of seamen led by a Chief Petty Officer were to manually haul me up with the rope and block and tackle in true tug-of-war style.
The view on the way up was quite pleasant as I recall whilst stood there.
I remember the Chief shouting out “One big haul and we’ll pull him in” before SNAP! – the rope broke, and down I went, still stood up in the dinghy in total disbelief. I remember thinking to myself in the seconds I had ‘I must survive this’ before CRASH!! I hit the water. I slammed in to the bottom of the dinghy before it lurched over and I went in to the water. Fortunately I surfaced right next to the boat and was able to scramble back in to it, but the heavy kitbag was gone (which had clearly made the dinghy too heavy for the hauling rope). ‘Seaweed Sid’ was running round in circles up on deck shouting that they should save me (it was probably at that moment he remembered I couldn’t swim), and within a couple of minutes a Gemini inflatable boat with two or three lads onboard came roaring round from the other side of the ship. I was able to quickly identify to them that I was ok, no stings from the jellyfish (the water was teeming with them) though I did have a painful shoulder.
Wet and bedraggled I walked up the officer’s gangplank on to the afterdeck where the officers saluted ME rather than the other way round. Maybe that was an old Naval tradition, after you nearly kill one of your crew you acknowledge their survival with a salute. Anyhow ‘Seaweed Sid’ insisted that I go straight down to the sickbay for a check up. And there I stood, outside the open sickbay office door in a puddle of water on immaculate, shiny, lino tiles. I won’t repeat what was said to me by the medic once he’d noticed my presence but basically it was to go away, get changed and then come back. This I did before being given the all-clear without any examination of my shoulder.
Later in the day I went to take a look at the dinghy, where I noticed that a thwart (it’s a sailor’s term for about a one inch thick plank of wood which runs from one side to the other which they sit on) was broken in two. So that explained why my shoulder hurt, I’d broken the thwart in half as I went down in to the dinghy as we hit the water. And that’s why to this day I believe in the power of the mind, and how these karate experts can chop bricks etc without pain, though quite why the hell they would want to do so is beyond me, and as far as I know that large kitbag of rigging is still at the bottom of Freemantle Harbour.
In the photograph of HMS Hermes you'll notice three openings with curved tops at the back, about halfway up the ship between the sea and the flight deck. It was level with the middle one that I fell from.
Now was that luck - or divine intervention?