Crew Overboard in the Clipper Race

Recently, during the Clipper Round the World Race, a person fell overboard while changing a sail. Why he wasn’t tethered to the boat and why he did not have a personal EPIRB, we do not know. In all such incidents, the accounts are sketchy, and often written by reporters whose closest encounter with the sea is a volleyball game on the beach. Moreover, I am against criticizing the decisions of the skipper when I wasn’t aboard and have only third-hand knowledge of the circumstances. They could have had a spinnaker up, for example; we don’t know all the details. In the end, the rescue was successful.
That said, I thought it might be a good occasion to review why we do not teach the method of COB recovery allegedly used in this instance. The skipper was quoted as saying, “We have a well-rehearsed procedure to mark the position, stop racing and engage the engine.” I have heard this same method recommended in more than one national sailing publication, and I’m certain that some of our students consider this their fall-back option if they don’t quite remember how to do a quick-stop or a figure eight. So why don’t we teach it that way?
Reportedly, it took the Clipper boat 90 minutes to pick up the victim. He survived, although hypothermic, because, fortunately, he was wearing a dry suit. I recommend that my students set 90 seconds—one-sixtieth of this time—as an achievable goal for returning to the victim. If you take the time to find and activate the GPS’ MOB function, then fumble with getting the engine going and dousing the main, it is almost certain you will have lost sight of the victim. The chances of this are even greater if you are the only person left aboard. Driving under power, the boat will not be maneuverable in a breeze unless you douse the main, so it’s not really an option to leave it up. Getting it down takes a lot of time, especially if you want to secure it so it is not all over the deck for another crew to slip on and find their way overboard. You’ve also created two new hazards: one, in the chaos, you may have left a line in the water, which will find its way into the prop, vastly complicating the situation; and two, the Coast Guard keeps statistics of people getting killed or injured by the prop during the attempt to pick them up, and it’s not a pretty number.
In a seaway, the quick-stop method may be the best, although the figure eight is preferred by some. These must be practiced not merely until you think you understand them because in panic mode your “understanding” will vanish. They should be practiced until they are completely automatic and you can’t not do them right. In either maneuver, you’ll return to the victim quickly without losing sight of them. The figure eight, if done properly, will take you back to the COB even if you can’t see them. Don’t delude yourself that starting the engine will make the situation simpler. It won’t. By all means press the MOB button on the GPS. But if your man-overboard practice is up to speed, you shouldn’t need it.

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2 Responses to Crew Overboard in the Clipper Race

  1. Charlie Wilson says:

    Good job Tony
    Another reason I agree with you is that sometimes there can be TOO many options.
    Knowing how to execute a figure 8 pickup becomes the automatic “go to” procedure that cuts time.
    One fewer decision to make


  2. Tony Johnson says:

    Absolutely. I try to have procedures that eliminate decision making as far as possible in emergencies by doing my thinking and practicing ahead of time. I try to idiot-proof my boat and my methods because I know the captain, and I don’t trust him.

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