Making a boat warm and cosy overnight nearly cost two sailors their lives. Jeremy Evans recalls a narrow escape from severe carbon monoxide poisoning
Jeremy Evans shares how his dog saved him and his wife from severe carbon monoxide poisoning on board their boat
Just over 10 years ago, my wife and I had the romantic notion to buy ourselves a classic boat, writes Jeremy Evans.
We made enquiries and looked around. We saw a fantastic yacht in Dover that scared me: far too impressive.
Finally, we settled on Soothsayer, an 8-ton Hillyard, 30ft on deck and a double-ender. In truth, she was pretty but not beautiful and she sailed, but not well.
The Hillyard’s engine repeatedly needed an engineer to be called out and, on one memorable occasion, the tiller came off in my hand.
Despite all these fun aspects, she did have lovely varnished woodwork and people often commented on how nice she looked as they passed our mooring.
One of the things that was rather charming about her was her little coal stove.
There was a flue going out of the deck and in cold spring and autumn we thought this would help keep us cosy.
Now, to the black dog. No, not the black dog of depression. This was a proper black dog; a Labrador we had named after a place we had been on holiday.
So poor Biggore had a silly name, but he usually got called Big, Biggy or Mr Big which he much preferred.
Soon his pretentious upbringing was long forgotten.
Big would lie on the foredeck as we sailed up the river. His nose would be down, his eyes solemn to the point of misery until the moment the anchor went down or we picked up a buoy and he knew that he was going ashore for play-time.
His nose would sniff the air; his eyes would suddenly shine brightly: he was ready for shore leave adventure!
On this particular weekend, it had turned cold even though it was early June.
We had only had our Hillyard a few weeks at this time. We were enjoying her traditional looks and discovering her special sailing features.
We ate in the cockpit but it was so chilly we decided to try out our coal stove for the first time. In went the briquettes and a firelighter. In went a match.
The stove smouldered without enthusiasm and refused my prodding.
As it was now quite late, I gave up. So much for the cosy, warm fire.
Instead, I threw on a few more briquettes and we snuggled down.
My wife Jo and I were in the forepeak, which was really just one large bed open to the saloon, and Biggy lay down on the saloon’s soft, wooden floor.
This particular Hillyard had a stern cockpit rather than the typical centre cockpit arrangement.
She did not have standing head room, so it was a crawl-in system.
Not wishing to waste any heat that the coal stove might finally choose to generate, and entirely against my normal practice, I decided to all but close the hatches.
Only a sliver of opening was left at the main hatch, essentially at the other end of the space we were in.
We all snuggled down in the cold and damp. Quickly, we went to sleep and the stove smouldered on inside the small space.
At about 0445 Big whined. This wasn’t like him and I started to get up.
‘Go back to sleep,’ said Jo. ‘Biggy, be quiet.’
‘No,’ I said feeling quite awake. ‘I’ll take him ashore.’
Truth is, I have always loved getting up early on the river. It’s so peaceful when everyone else is asleep.
I often just sit and enjoy the changing scenery and the rise or fall of the tide.
This morning we were on our own mooring at Waldringfield on the River Deben.
The beach was only a short row away. There was no wind. It was actually no longer cold. The sun was already climbing into the sky.
I scrambled out of bed and opened the hatch. Standing up in the cockpit I felt an unusual sensation.
My head was thumping. It felt like my brain was pulsating against my skull. I had a really bad headache.
Biggore seemed happy enough. He looked expectantly up at me and, as I stood there, it quickly dawned on me what had happened.
I called to Jo. ‘My head hurts,’ I said. ‘So does mine,’ she answered.
Jo came out into the cockpit and no sooner did she emerge into the early daylight, then she fell into my arms.
Much as I’d like to say it was my charms, it was not.
If you’ve ever seen anyone fall into a dead faint, it looks as if they have died. And for a few anxious seconds, I thought she had.
She had gone completely ash-grey like a corpse. Thankfully, Jo came round within a few more seconds.
Worrying that my mistake might still be serious for her, I called an ambulance. Just to be certain.
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False sense of security
Within 15 minutes, the ambulance duly arrived at the shore and had no idea how to get to us.
So we got into the dinghy and rowed ourselves to them.
If we had been somewhere inaccessible, I would probably have called the Coastguard, but I was surprised that the ambulance crew did not think to call the Coastguard themselves when I had explained that we were on a boat.
Having said that, the paramedics and the hospital staff were great but they were distracted from us – they were far more interested in Biggore and he got lots of strokes and attention.
He was allowed in the ambulance and, at the hospital, even invited into A&E!
We arrived at the hospital in good spirits.
Feeling like I had wasted their time, I called my sister and she came to collect me and Biggy.
I had decided there wasn’t really anything wrong with us at this point.
Going along with the procedures, we let the junior doctor take blood from our veins – this was much more painful than blood from arteries as they are smaller vessels and the needles seemed bigger than I remembered – and off the doctor went with our venous blood to analyse it.
Feeling absolutely fine, I went back to the boatyard for my car with my sister, the whole time thinking what a gorgeous day it was – blue sky and sunshine and a light sailing breeze.
Perfect weather. I was looking forward to getting back to our plans for the boat weekend.
As I was driving back to the hospital in my own car this time to collect Jo, I got a call.
Come straight back, you shouldn’t have left, your oxygen stats are very low.
Jo’s carbon monoxide reading was 11%, mine 17%. Carbon monoxide has a half-life of an hour.
I guessed it had been about an hour since we had emerged from the inside the boat.
This meant that Jo’s CO reading had been 22% and mine 34% an hour before.
30% carbon monoxide concentration in the blood is considered moderate poisoning.
When I got back, they told me that if mine had been even slightly higher they would have driven me to the decompression chamber at Lowestoft to avoid permanent injury, regardless of the fact that I actually felt completely fine.
Reunited with Biggy
Looking forlornly out of the hospital window, we were both taken to a ward and put on oxygen.
We lay in bed all day side-by-side in oxygen masks until about 1700.
I glanced outside at the lovely cloudless sky and breezy conditions every 30 seconds.
At one point a medic came and asked me how much alcohol I drank and went away disappointed when I said I’d had two glasses of red wine.
It seemed they were bored on a Sunday morning and were hoping I was an alcoholic with extra health problems that they could do more tests on.
That evening, we were reunited with Bigorre, our heroic dog who had woken us up in time.
We gave him a big dinner and the next day he got a very juicy bone.
Sadly, Bigorre died a few years ago at the tender age of 11, but none of my family or friends have ever forgotten that it was Biggy who saved us from the smouldering fire.
I don’t know if we would have perished, but tragically carbon monoxide poisoning on boats is a very real concern and deaths do occur every year from this preventable cause.
- Maintain an airflow: Obvious as it seems, I all but closed the hatches in a mistaken attempt to help the fire. Very stupid! Normally, I let plenty of air through the boat at night so that we have a flow of oxygen. It was a costly mistake to change a habit of a lifetime.
- Stove safety: Leaving a fire to smoulder felt like a good idea, but wasn’t. I should have doused it and opened the hatches as normal. I should also have inspected the flue and seals were in working order.
- Call the Coastguard: Don’t assume an ambulance crew will know how to rescue you from a boat. Even for a short distance, the Coastguard should be called in a life or death emergency. In this instance, we were no longer at risk of death and could take ourselves ashore but this might not be the case in another health emergency.
- Man’s best friend: Always have a dog on board. Okay, this is probably a bit too facetious for a lesson learned. Plus, it is obvious that a beautiful black dog will look after you to the best of his ability, as we all know, a dog is definitely man’s best friend.
- Be alarmed: My story with carbon monoxide poisoning doesn’t sound all that dramatic but unfortunately it is a very real danger, particularly if you have elderly or small people on board, who may succumb to toxins more easily. Fit a carbon monoxide alarm. We did not have one but do now.
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