Man Overboard in the Middle of the Atlantic Ocean

Illustration by Steve Sanford

Illustration by Steve Sanford

Having someone fall off your boat is a possibility, as we all know, but that situation is something the skipper takes care of, right? Well, what if it’s the skipper who goes overboard? This was my harsh reality when I found myself in the middle of the Atlantic, with no land in sight, in 6ft to 8ft seas and 28 knots of wind—and one very scared first mate.
A word to the wise, get to know your safety procedures inside out—before a situation in which you need them presents itself.

We had been sailing into the wind and bashing into high seas every day for many days and Indigo, our 46ft Leopard Catamaran, was taking a beating. We had left George Town, Exumas, for the Turks and Caicos, where we were scheduled to meet a friend in 10 days. Gale-force winds and the waves that came with them were relentless, but still we pressed on. Every morning we hoped we would get a different forecast but to no avail, so we did what we said we would never do—tried to beat the clock. It was a big mistake.

A few nights before we left, we had dinner with a fellow Leopard 46 owner and our float plan sparked some interesting conversation. Our Leopard friend Mike, my husband, Eric, and I, covered the gamut of the love/hate relationship that results from a cat’s idiosyncrasies. As we kept talking, the discussion became increasingly serious—big seas, big crossings and emergency procedures.

Mike, with his gentle but commanding way, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Debbie, if anything happened to Eric, could you handle the boat?” This question, while not a random one, really made me think. My hesitant answer was, “I could probably muddle my way through it—but I pray I will never have to.” Well, as luck would have it, “never have to” happened.

It went like this: high winds on the nose equals big swells, no sailing, and no following or rolling seas—just a bash fest for hours on end. Same old same old, and once again I figured the sea gods must have had an argument with the wind gods, as they were going at each other like nobody’s business.

The fourth day, well out to sea, Eric discovered that our dinghy was hanging by a thread (or I should say a broken bolt) and it had to be fixed immediately or we would risk losing it off the davits. So he did what he always does: many difficult and dangerous moves preformed underway while I pray he doesn’t get hurt or fall overboard.

I was at the helm, we were doing 7 to 8 knots and the seas were moderate compared to what they had been. Eric grabbed all the essentials needed to take care of the problem and began securing the dinghy with more lines. Every now and then I would look back to check on him as he dangled above the tender, tools hanging out of every pocket, but he seemed to have everything under control. In the back of my mind I was thinking how much I really and truly hate it when he does those things. Nonetheless, I resumed my watch, put my headphones on and tried to enjoy the ride, until to my alarm and surprise I suddenly heard him call out loudly and desperately, “Debbie!”

Now I have heard my name called, yelled and even cursed many times before, but never like this, and turning around I immediately saw, to my horror, that Eric was now in the water. I was stunned to say the least, especially since I did not—I reiterate, did not—ever hear a splash. Fear gripped me as I froze and just stared. I couldn’t believe my eyes. My first reaction was, “What the hell?”

Finally, panicked and shell-shocked, I began to process the situation as I tried to remember what to do and things started coming back to me at what felt like a snail’s pace.

I hit the MOB button on the chartplotter, slowed the boat down, turned into the wind, got the sails de-powered and checked on his location. In my flustered and frenzied mode, I thought I could get the jib down, but there was no time and far too much wind to do it by myself.

At this point I was beyond upset, but kept telling myself, “Get it together, get it together, I can do this.”
My only salvation was that the seas were now somewhat mild, and I could still see him, thanks to the fact he was wearing a white shirt. (Unfortunately, a life jacket was not on his scheduled attire that day.) Being able to spot him helped me calm my nerves a bit, though I was still going through so many emotions it was hard to think.

I could hear him yelling to turn the boat around and was now ready to do so, although before I did I ran back to throw the life ring off the stern. I also clipped the line to the boat, only to discover it was not long enough to reach anything, let alone my husband 50 yards away, and this made me very mad. (In hindsight, I should have used the Lifesling.)
Making my way back to the helm I started what I thought was my “slow and deliberate” turn, but as I maneuvered the boat I lost sight of Eric—I was actually going way too fast—and that horrible, helpless feeling rushed back in for a moment until I heard him call out, “Slow down! Reverse, reverse!” which helped calm me down again.

Following the sound of his voice and his instructions I eventually maneuvered to where I could see him off the port side, after which I put Indigo into neutral, the boat slowed and Eric was able to climb aboard.

As I rushed back to him, he could see the look in my eyes—too mad to cry, too scared to be pissed off, and with an adrenaline level that was off the charts as I kissed his wet salty face and collapsed back into the helm for a moment.
Eric kept saying, “I’m OK, I’m OK, now get her (Indigo) back on course.” I kept thinking, “Really? That’s all you have to say?” but I did it, just as if nothing had happened. I put her in gear, back on our line, and we headed off to Caicos.

This is a story to all those who stand second in command (the wives, the first mates). When I was asked about my ability to handle the boat in an emergency, it really made me stop and think twice about my skills and knowledge. So I asked Eric if we could go over our safety equipment and guidelines again. Ironic? You decide, but in the heat of the moment, staying calm is key and knowing your equipment is a must.

I can now proudly say that Eric has taught me well and I can somewhat manage the boat. However, if he does something stupid like that again, instead of turning the boat around, I just might sail off into the sunset. s
Debbie Lynn and her husband, Eric, are currently cruising in the Caribbean, making their way to the British Virgin Islands.

What we did wrong:

Didn’t insist Eric wear a harness and tether when working on the dinghy

Should have attached the life ring to the MOB pole instead of attaching it to a cleat

Didn’t make a big enough turn to follow the victim in the water

Should have deployed the Lifesling when approaching the MOB from downwind

I had too much speed

What I did right:

Stayed calm

Activated the MOB on the chartplotter

Got the boat powered down

Kept an eye on the MOB (as best as I could) while turning around

Didn’t push my husband off the boat again after I rescued him

November 2015

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