Overboard Downwind: The Nightmare

By Kimball Livingston, Senior Editor West Coast

I’ve been through two overboards, one as the guy in the water and one as crew on deck. May neither happen to you.

My own overboard was the least of it—inshore, with plenty of boats and race crews around to make up for my collision-disabled ride—but it was scary enough, and the outcome wasn’t guaranteed. As for the other incident—offshore, in a crashed-out, messed-up boat in pretty big wind and pretty big seas— well, recent events in the Volvo Ocean Race brought back every stark, terrifying detail.

No matter how responsible you are about developing and practicing an overboard drill for your boat, you can never escape the nagging and probably correct suspicion that the real thing won’t be like that. I have twice participated in crew-overboard seminars and recovery-equipment tests conducted on San Francisco Bay by West Marine and Modern Sailing Academy. They were informative and useful, and much to be encouraged, but they smelled like the laboratory, not the real thing. I really had nothing to offer when reader Tom Watkins wrote to say, “What did you learn (what should we know) when the boat is off the wind? Or has a cruising chute up? Normally I have only 2-3 others aboard, not a race crew.”

One thought, and it’s purely mine, is that if I found myself under spinnaker, leaving someone behind, and I lacked either the manpower or the organization for a controlled douse, I would regard that sail as an agent of the devil and cut it loose from three points, and I would go back for my people. But even that is easier said than done. And by the time I turned around I would be lucky to still have visual contact.

At this point in a round-table discussion, there’s usually someone who points out that the solution to recovering a man overboard is to not go overboard. And that is true enough, but not helpful when someone does go over. All of us have a responsibility to think about this. You’re only a crew? What if your skipper goes over and somebody has to figure out what happens next? It’s a problem that always seems to leave more questions than answers.

UK Sailmakers has posted a video at ukhalsey.com showing a Quick Stop, overboard-under-spinnaker, textbook recovery by an all-up, prepared racing crew in moderate conditions. I recommend a look, but know before you go that you can’t see the video until you’ve site-registered (they’re building their database) and then, separately, signed up for their newsletter. What the heck. They also do a Rules Quiz that’s very, very good.

Here is what UK Halsey has to say about a textbook downwind recovery.

“The key to the quick stop is stay within in 5-10 boatlengths of the crew overboard. As soon as someone goes overboard, the person who saw the victim go over yells “Man Overboard!” and becomes the spotter who does nothing but point at the victim in the water with an outstretched arm, while calling out the range and bearing to the MOB. Next: five things happen simultaneously: Someone hits the MOB button on the GPS to mark the position, cushions or the Life Sling (or both, or all; everything) are thrown over the side, the boat turns into the wind, the spinnaker afterguy is released enough to move the spinnaker pole to the forestay, and the spinnaker halyard is dropped. As the boat rounds up, the chute falls onto the deck so that the crew can pull it in.”

[Editor’s note: Anyone who has dropped spinnakers on short notice will recognize that things can go wrong at this point.]

The text continues: “Turning immediately keeps the boat close. This is important since a boat is moving quickly with the chute up. Even if the drop is slowed by a fouled halyard, turning the boat up toward the wind keeps the boat near the victim.”

If the boat is controllable. If the seas, when you turn up, are not scouring the deck.

I cannot imagine how anyone could conduct controlled tests when the boat is on the edge of control, or beyond control, so what UK-Halsey depicts is probably about as good as we get. Extrapolate from that to the kind of sailing that you do, or the worst that could happen. The video depicts this racing crew making contact on the first pass and muscling the victim out of the water, over the rail, and onto the deck. Not a likely scenario aboard Tom Watkins’s boat, or in any cruising situation. Then, in addition to a method of return, you will need a method of recovery. Fast Return, Quick Stop, Figure 8, I’ve heard the merits of these systems debated (see SAIL, March 1995 and Crew Overboard Event for descriptions of return/contact methods), and I’ve come away convinced that what really matters is to know your boat and know your plan and know how to be a leader. Here is a US Sailing link to information including recovery techniques after making contact with your victim.

As for my second overboard experience, being crew on deck, there was nothing textbook about it. It happened on a coastwise delivery, San Francisco to Los Angeles, with a racing crew in race mode en route to the start of a Transpacific Yacht Race.

Let’s figure that the breeze was in the mid-twenties to high-twenties, and it had been blowing for days and had built up a commensurate sea. [Actually, I remember more wind and more sea, but let’s go with this version.]

I was sound asleep, off-watch, when I was awakened by the influx of a rather large quantity of frigid water, pouring through a hatch, onto my bunk. That, the verticality and jerky motion of a boat in full broach, and the voice of a crewmate who had been tossed cross-cabin, shook me wide awake as he lay at my feet and said, “I can’t move.”

I was pulling on my sea boots as an international veteran dashed through the cabin yelling, “No boots! No time for boots!” and disappeared. Well, good morning to you too.

On deck (still vertical, and I was grateful for my boots) I saw that the mainsail foot had ripped out of the boom when the boat crashed. The spinnaker had torn and was ragging out to leeward. We were one man short. And everybody wanted to spot the man in the water.

For a moment, we were the proverbial deer frozen in the headlights. Then a command structure kicked in, a single spotter was assigned, and the rest of us got to work retrieving the spinnaker and dragging lines aboard (the motor was cranked and put into gear with lines still dragging, a potentially lethal mistake with the mainsail disabled). Being on our side meant, at least, that we were not rocketing away from the scene, but we were sliding away, oh yes.

The air felt biting cold and the spray flying that day, twelve miles off Point Sur, felt even colder. The white-topped seas shone bright in the slanting light of a very early morning. An hour earlier, and it would have been dark.

Subtract one life jacket from the situation, and our man would have been dead. But he was wearing a Type 2 PFD and floating pretty well, considering. We missed him on the first pass, made contact on the second, and got his 250 wet pounds aboard mostly because our bowman transformed himself into the mother-who-lifts-schoolbus-off-trapped-child. After what seemed like a long struggle for all of us, and a growing desperation, he reached down, grabbed our man, and put him aboard.

Nope, nothing textbook about it. Now we had the boat under control, our man on board (he was babbling about how he wanted to stay on deck and sail; we had to herd him below to start warming him up), and plenty more to deal with. My crewmate who had fallen across the boat in the crash came away with broken ribs. He would not get to sail the Transpac, which has a requirement that each boat practice a man overboard drill.

We had certainly fulfilled that requirement. Or had we?

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