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At The Helm: Man Overboard!

Not the best time to go forward! 

Not the best time to go forward! 

Imagine this simple scenario: the boat’s powered up, sailing close-hauled in a building breeze under full sail. I come on deck as the skipper during the watch change to make sure the new crew is comfortable and the boat is properly set up for both the current conditions and those expected over the next four to eight hours. The helm feels a little heavy, and it’s going to be dark soon, so we decide to roll up part of the genoa, bringing it in to the first reef mark. In doing so, we’ve also got to move the car forward in order to keep the sheet lead correct—we want it pulling “down” on the leech of the sail as well as aft along the foot to maintain proper shape.

By now our Swan 59, Icebear, is dipping the leeward rail from time to time, and the low side has become the “dangerous” side for the crew who need to work their way forward in order to re-position the car. This maneuver is routine and can happen several times over the course of a four-hour watch when conditions are variable. It’s also risky, making it a great test case for Icebear’s man-overboard safety practices.

As a skipper, if the words “man overboard” don’t send icy chills down your spine, you’re probably not doing enough to prevent it from happening. You go overboard, you’re dead. Simple as that. If we get you back—well, you’ve been very, very lucky.

Safety briefings on our boats begin and end with an emphasis on staying aboard. Conventional wisdom says it’s your life jacket and tether that keeps you safe. That’s wrong. It’s you. You keep yourself on the boat. Your thought processes and decision-making skills keep you on the boat. Your physical ability and your balance keep you on the boat. Your awareness of handholds, footholds and tethering points keeps you on the boat, as does the explicit understanding that the edge of the deck is no different than that of a 2,000ft cliff. Go overboard, and the consequences are the same. At sea, it just takes a while longer. That’s what keeps you on the boat.

John Kretschmer in his must-read Sailing a Serious Ocean calls this “thinking like a sailor.” To me, it simply means awareness. It’ may be cliché, but it means always keeping one hand for the ship—even when you’re in the head! It means working up the high side of the boat as you move forward, so that if you stumble, you fall into the boat, not over the side. It means not standing in way of the boom should you accidentally jibe, and not using loaded winches or sheets as handholds in case they should fail. It means putting knives down in the sink and not on the counter and avoiding cooking meals that require boiling water in heavy weather.

Life jackets, tethers, jacklines—these are all crucial safety items. However, they’re also secondary and only to be relied upon should your awareness fail. If you’ve ever needed to rely on a tether to save your butt, it should still give you chills.

Back to our scenario. Since we’re not racing, there is no penalty for altering course in order to make this kind of sail adjustment that much safer and easier. I’ll bear away from the wind until the boat is on a beam or even a broad reach. By doing so, we’ll lower the apparent wind speed and flatten the boat, thereby making rolling in the genoa and going forward that much safer and easier. Once the jib lead has been adjusted, the crew returns to the cockpit, we trim sail, and I gradually bring the boat back up, hard on the wind.

Of course, we have life jackets on and tethers attached throughout. But again, they are only there to serve as our secondary mode of safety.

It’s worth noting I also end each and every one of our man-overboard briefings with a simple rule—if both primary and secondary modes fail and somebody were to go over the side, STOP THE BOAT! We don’t any waste time or mental energy thinking about Williamson turns or reciprocal bearings. We just slam the helm down hard to windward, shout so the world can hear, wrestle the sails down and attempt a recovery under power.

While on passage, I also quiz the crew several times each watch on which way is windward. (Hint: it’s always away from the boom, even if you’re wing-and-wing).

This “quick-stop” method, in my view, risks the least amount of damage to the boat’s rig and sails, and simultaneously puts the least amount of distance between the boat and the person in the water. The odds of getting the person back alive are still pretty slim—even if you can find them, how, for example, do you avoid having the hull slam down on their head or haul them back aboard over 6ft of freeboard? But at least you’ve given them a fighting chance. Bottom line: stay on the boat. 

Andy Schell is a veteran delivery captain and co-owner, with his wife, Mia Karlsson, of the adventure-charter company 59 North, which specializes in providing sail-training and offshore passagemaking opportunities. Visit for more information.

April 2021



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