Crew Overboard!

About 30 years ago, the event all of us hope we’ll never face happened to me: my crew was hit by the boom in an accidental jibe and I had a real-life man overboard with an injured victim. Terry Shrode was in the water. We had done so much sailing together and were so sympatico on the boat that little need be said regarding maneuvers. We took it for granted that we were competent, and this is a very dangerous state of mind. As the saying goes, just when you think you know what you’re doing, “the sea will find your mistakes.” 

When this happened, I was very quickly disabused of the fantasy that, in an emergency, I would keep a cool head. Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who landed an Airbus 320 in the Hudson River, taught emergency procedures. When asked if he panicked when his engines failed, he said that he observed in himself the physiological symptoms of stress: increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and a surge of adrenalin. Yet he didn’t submit to them, but reverted to his training, which was what saved his life and those of the 154 other people on board. In our case, Terry was overboard, and I knew he was hurt. I was alone on the boat, my heart was in my throat, my mind was flopping around like a wounded snake, and every cell in my body told me, “He’s right there!! Turn the boat around!!” But the figure eight recovery method had been so frequently practiced that, emotions notwithstanding, I knew exactly what I had to do. I executed, to my great relief, a perfect return to Terry, and brought the boat to a stop just to windward of him. Though dazed, he was able to regain the deck via the swim ladder, bloodied but not seriously injured. A boom on a 39-foot sailboat is a lethal weapon and that’s what had hit him. Fortunately, it was a glancing blow and he’s a tough guy.

We teach the figure eight method at Tradewinds. It is easy to take the figure eight for granted, yet it is a brilliant piece of seamanship. It doesn’t involve a jibe, which may cause other injuries when there are non-sailors aboard. It allows you time to maneuver the boat accurately and come to a stop, and to make a line ready. If done properly, it is an automatic way of determining a reciprocal course, since when you establish a beam reach and then tack to another beam reach, you’ve turned around 180 degrees just by looking at the windvane atop the mast. You don’t have to do the subtraction from a compass bearing or hit the MOB button on the GPS (processes you’re most likely not practiced at that take your focus off the victim). This is crucial in situations where a heavy chop causes you to lose sight of the person in the water, as it will return you to a point where you can see them.

When we teach it in class, we are in a controlled setting where all of the crew knows what is going on. Yet when it happens in real life, you will not have any warning, and now are likely to be either alone without crew, or with family or friends who are not sailors. If the former, you have to do all of the jobs yourself—tossing a type 4, spotting, retrieving the boat hook and lines, handling sails—while at the same time perfectly steering through the figure eight pattern. If the latter, frantic guests will not understand why you are sailing away from their loved one, and may scream at you or even try to take the helm or jump in the water. The situation may be extremely chaotic, adding to your own considerable stress. This is when your practice will save the day.

We use START Back: Shout “man overboard!”-Throw the type 4-Appoint a spotter- get on a beam Reach-Tack. After practice, we should be able to accomplish the first four steps in 10 to 15 seconds and be sailing away from the victim on a beam reach. You need to turn to a beam reach quickly, lest the geometry of the figure eight is thrown out of whack. If executed properly, the entire maneuver should place you next to the person in the water in 90 seconds with the boat stopped, the goal we shoot for in all conditions. It is also wise to remember that, contrary to what you may think, the rules of the road are not suspended during your maneuvering. Other skippers cannot be depended on to notice you have a person in the water, and you don’t want to make a bad situation worse by causing an accident.

After sailing a few boat lengths and tacking, stay on a beam reach until you spot the victim, and then head about 1-1/2 boat lengths to leeward of them. Then when they are about 45 degrees to windward off the bow, head up and lean to leeward so you can keep them in sight. With practice, you can get the boat dead stopped just to windward—and you must. If you can’t get the boat stopped, you will not have enough time to secure the victim to the boat before you’ve sailed right past. (If this happens, start the maneuver from the beginning as you cannot wish the sailboat back to the victim.)

If you are alone or with non-sailors, you will have to trim the main for a beam reach yourself. This doesn’t have to be fancy, as you’re not racing; just put the boom approximately over the corner of the cabin top. You will almost certainly have to leave the helm to do this except on our small boats. The main will not have to be touched again through the whole maneuver, and is especially unwise to do so when making the final approach to the victim. When trimmed for a beam reach, it will automatically luff as you head up to a close reach, without your having to touch the sheet. This is not the time you want to leave the helm and take your eyes off the victim to do something that has no effect. As to the jib, in real life I would just release it and let it flail. The sheet may find the water and give the victim his only chance of grabbing something. There is nothing to hold on to on the side of a boat. You don’t need the extra sail; we want to be going slow. However, at Tradewinds we don’t have you do this when practicing, as flogging the jib is a good way to damage it. So practice with the jib but don’t worry about it in a true emergency.

As to entertaining the idea that if you don’t know how to manage the return under sail, you’ll just start the motor: forget it. This is at times used on fully-crewed ocean-going boats who have practiced it. You can’t do a figure-eight with a spinnaker up, for example. But for ordinary sailing, the sails will not allow normal maneuvering under power and in fact will create the danger of an accidental jibe. Alternatively, if you choose to get them down, by the time you do you’ll have lost sight of the victim.

Back to that accidental jibe, a rookie mistake. We had sailed into Marina Bay well over 100 times without a problem. The jib had been furled and to start the engine, I needed to leave the helm for about two seconds on Maverick to switch to the starter battery. That day the wind had just a bit more west in it than normal, and the buildings upwind had created turbulence in their lee. This had never presented a problem before, but today a shift occurred just when I left the helm, and the boom came over. Our ASA procedure is to go forward on the windward side, which is where Terry was; but this, it should be clear, is safe only when on a beam reach or above. On a broad reach, it is safer use the leeward side, as the boom will swing away from you.

Terry and I have been through quite a few close calls, but because we have a mysterious connection with good fortune, we have managed them all. This was one that never happened again.

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