It is the sea that binds us, that affords us our collective pastime and pursuit. It also the sea that unites sailors when it becomes our most fierce foe. And it's the worst incidents at sea—the ones in which we lose fellow sailors—that have the potential to bring us most closely together both in memory of those who were lost and in thinking about the future and our own safety.
On Friday evening, just two hours into the Storm Trysail Club's annual 185-mile race from Stamford, CT, around Block Island and back, Jamie Boeckel, was knocked from the foredeck of Bob Towse's 66-foot sloop Blue Yankee and never recovered. Though the crew of the boat—an experienced and talented group including former America's Cup racers and commentators Peter Isler and Gary Jobson—immediately executed a man-overboard maneuver, and fellow crew member Brock Callen dove into the 50-degree water to support Boeckel, the sailor ultimately was lost at sea. Boeckel was not wearing a life jacket. Neither was Callen, who with extraordinary stamina was still able to hold his shipmate up for several minutes.
Every one of us will have feelings and thoughts about this sad event. SailNet seamanship columnist John Rousmaniere is among those who have studied tragedies at sea and thought deeply about their causes, their consequences, and ways in which people react to them. Rousmaniere followed the Blue Yankee
incident closely from shore, and it's his contention that all sailors must attempt to find meaning in such tragedies. He says there are two issues: "Foremost, it's a terrible tragedy that leads us all to grieve. The Blue Yankee
tragedy seems to have been a simultaneous, sudden, and unlucky coming together of several events—a radical windshift, a hard squall, a sail change, a broken spinnaker pole, and a brave, athletic sailor who was not wearing a life jacket or a safety harness, and who was standing on the bow at just the wrong moment. All that added up to a fall overboard by the last person one would expect to take such a tumble. So the first response must be sympathy."
|"Their last gift to us is a reminder that the sea can be a destroyer, and that we must be prepared."|
Rousmaniere continues: "Yet the rule of the brotherhood of the sea requires that as we mourn the dead, we try to learn from them. Their last gift to us is a reminder that the sea can be a destroyer, and that we must be prepared.
"I wasn't on this Block Island Race (one of the few I've missed since my first in 1965), but I spent the weekend at a yacht club in eastern Long Island Sound where everybody was talking about the accident, and everybody was asking (in amazement): ‘Why wasn't he wearing a life jacket?' That's a reasonable question, given the predictions of a frontal passage at the pre-race weather briefing (which I attended), and given the cold water of late May and the recent advancements in PFD design that allows extremely compact, lightweight units that inflate automatically when they hit the water. Implicit in this question is another query we've heard a lot recently, which is: ‘Do professional sailors play by different rules?' Myself, for the past decade, racing or cruising, I've been wearing auto-inflatable PFDs whenever the conditions are worse than moderate air and a light chop. Why? Because I want to be around to bounce my grandchildren on my knee—and to take them sailing."
Admittedly, the questions sailors are asking related to this incident are tough ones, and not ones that can be easily resolved. Who are we to second-guess a guy like Jamie Boeckel? He was a hardy and experienced sailor. His resume included America's Cup competition and a string of prestigious offshore events. He'd recently raced from Miami to Baltimore, and at 34 he was in the prime of his sailing career. To him, going up on the bow to affect a spinnaker peel in 25 knots of wind on Long Island Sound wouldn't have been a risky maneuver, certainly no more risky than anything else the Blue Yankee
crew would ordinarily do under the same circumstances. That he wasn't tethered or wearing a PFD we can only assume stems from Boeckel's own decision, one grounded in his ample experience.
But consider another incident, one that took place roughly two weeks before Boeckel went into the water, in which another sailor was also thrown from his vessel. Mark Herendeen, sailing in the double-handed Worrell 1000, was on the weather hull when the leeward rudder of his 20-foot beach catamaran unexpectedly kicked up and the boat lost steerage, spinning into a capsize en route from Jacksonville, FL to Tybee Island, GA. Herendeen recounted afterward that he went into the water almost immediately. Although he grabbed for anything he could as he somersaulted off the back of the boat, he said it took only a few seconds for the boat to be out of his reach.
"I should have been tethered on to the boat, but I wasn't," he said in a subsequent interview. Herendeen, a 33-year-old who says that he's "pretty fit," spent at least five minutes trying to swim and surf toward the boat as it was washed to leeward. Finally, his co-skipper Les Bauman got the boat upright and proceeded to retrieve his partner. Herendeen said later that he was in the water for 25 minutes.
"Maybe we were lulled into a sense of false security," he admitted. "The conditions weren't bad, and we were on the boat and in control. But the moment you're out of control, you put your life in danger."
This incident bears mention because, from the outward perspective, the underlying difference between it and the situation on board Blue Yankee boils down to expectation. Despite a pre-race briefing on man-overboard procedures, no one on Blue Yankee expected that a crew member would end up in the water; however, everyone who competes in the Worrell 1000 knows that at some point his boat will capsize and that sailor will need all his resources—both in skills and equipment—to contend with the situation. That means wearing the requisite safety gear at all times, which is what the sailors in this 1,000-mile race do.
Some sailors will argue that this isn't a fair comparison. After all, you'd expect the crew on board an extreme, relatively unstable platform like these beach cats to conduct themselves differently than those on a 66-foot ocean-racing monohull, and certainly they would be attired differently. That may be true, but there's a simple, seemingly irrefutable point here—if we expect the worst to happen, we'll be better prepared when it does.
The incident that took Jamie Boeckel from his family and friends instructs that tragedies at sea don't just occur to those sailors who are less prepared or less skilled, they occur in a more haphazard way, and they can happen to all of us. Consider the list of sailing heroes who have been lost at sea (Eric Tabarly and Mike Plant come to mind), and the argument becomes more plausible.
In the wake of this tragedy on Long Island Sound, we heard from several SailNet readers, one was former contributor Bruce Caldwell. He wrote: "I think this is the third boating fatality I've read about this year in our area. The first one spurred me to lay out the money for an automatically inflating SOSpender with harness. I took the SOSpender out with me the same day it arrived, but didn't wear it because conditions didn't seem to warrant it, with wind only in the 15-knot range. But when the first jibe was much more violent than I expected, I realized I could have been knocked unconscious and dumped overboard, so I put it on after the fact and felt much more secure after that. I hope the story of last weekend will spur others to act on the side of caution, and with suspender-style PFDs there's really no excuse."
Caldwell is right. None of us has any excuse to comport ourselves at sea in a less-than-safe manner. It's horrible that we relearn this at the expense of a friend like Jamie Boeckel, but it's no less important that we accept the lesson all the same. We have lost an exceptional member of our sailing community, but the consequences of his loss are still within our collective grasp. Let his legacy be one that unifies us in prompting sailors to redouble the emphasis on safety, starting with the use of personal flotation.
A Personal Footnote from Blue YankeePerhaps I've just been lucky. Lucky to have raced and cruised tens of thousands of miles over the last 10 years or so and not experienced any serious injuries to myself or any of my fellow crew members. Lucky to have been on boats that have been well-prepared, with good teams, and when there were gear failures, we pulled together as a team to confront the problems, solve them as best we could, and carry on. Lucky to not have been in weather or sea conditions so horrendous that I've been afraid for my life or anyone else's on board. And until last Friday night, lucky to not have a catastrophic gear failure that resulted in serious injury or death.
SailNet contributor Dobbs Davis was in the cockpit on board Blue Yankee when the fatal broaches occurred. Here is his account:
Sure there have been close calls: losing the mast, a shackle exploding, a particularly spectacular broach, a rudder failure, being so seasick that you wished you were dead—most of us ocean racers have endured these calamities, gotten through them, and keep the memories as lessons, sources of stories, or as my parents used to say with a sigh, "character-building experiences." But regardless of the amount of sea miles or experiences we've logged, nothing prepares us for the unexpected.
It looked to be a beautiful night of sailing on Blue Yankee, with an approaching cold front and veering northerly breeze promising to be strong enough to propel us at near-record pace around the 185-mile course around Block Island. Boomerang and Bright Star were only a mile or two ahead with only two hours into the race, Carrera behind to windward and Zaraffa behind and to leeward, so we felt we were in a good position. The breeze had built and veered so that a light air VMG run was becoming a fast, close reach. As the breeze headed us even more, the boat was flying at 15 knots with the asymmetrical A3 spinnaker and full main. As it built up to be consistently over 20 knots, the call was made for the smaller A5 kite. We had already done an earlier peel from the A1 to the A3, so the move would be a routine repeat of our earlier maneuver, just with more breeze and therefore more effort to pull the new sail up and the old one down through the foot of the main. Most of the crew had been veterans of this boat for over two years, and many had been together through various other Blue Yankees for over 10 years, so there wasn't much need for discussion as everyone went to their positions and took to their tasks. The daylight was just fading as clouds obscured the sunset, but the water was relatively flat, the deck was dry, and many of us hadn't even changed into night gear except to don light jackets to protect from a light sprinkle that accompanied the arrival of more breeze.
Just after the new sail went up, an unexpected blast of over 25 knots hit, and we bore off another 20 degrees to keep the kite full and not heel too excessively. As our bowman Jamie Boeckel struggled to spike away the old spinnaker so the new one would fill, another strong blast hit, and despite dumping the mainsheet and vang, we rotated into a windward broach. As I loaded the new spinnaker sheet, I kept a hand on the pedestal which was now nearly horizontal, and I remember thinking "Boy, is this is going to be a mess to clean up when we come back upright."
Then a crunching sound, followed by the unexpected cry "Man Overboard!," words I'd been fortunate to never have heard, but will now live like a snapshot in my memory forever. Before every race on Blue Yankee we discuss the drill: stop the boat, someone stay in visual contact with the target, someone log the GPS, someone launch the Man Overboard Module (M.O.M.), the rest of the crew get the sails down, lines out of the water, and engine started for recovery.
Instantly we all sprung into action: I saw someone aft diving for the M.O.M., one of the two spinnakers hit the water, and the boat turned into the wind, mainsail and remaining spinnaker flogging in what was now up to 30 knots of breeze. It was amazing to see all this happen without discussion, with everyone as if by instinct knowing exactly what to do. As a sail trimmer, I felt my best role was to help get the sails under control, so I struggled with several others to drag in the huge spinnaker from the water and get it into the boat and down below. I then turned toward the main, which was flogging itself mercilessly in the strong breeze. Two of us got on the pedestal to trim it in so we could get the boat turned around to tack as others struggled to pull in the trailing spinnaker sheets, runner tails, and whatever else lay trailing in the water. The engine then came on, clunked in gear, and we charged back to find whoever it was in the water. This all happened so fast, there was not time to ask the who, where, and how questions; you simply react to what needs to be done, and you do it.
We got to Brock and pulled him in over the transom, shaken and shivering, and I thought, "Great, let's get the sails back up and get racing again." But when no one else acted on this thought came the horrible realization that we were still looking for another crewmate. I then went back to mechanical mode: no time to process, just react to the immediate need to get the main down now before more damage could be done and we could maneuver more freely.
But once the main came down and we could get it tied in place, the realization started: Jamie was still in the water, injured, and needing our help. Along with most of the crew, my eyes strained to see anything out of the pattern of reflected light from the Connecticut shoreline, only a few miles away. Within minutes all manner of boats started appearing, some with strong searchlights, others with just flashlights. Two helicopters appeared sending sun-like blasts of light to the surface, and I remember wishing they could somehow expand to illuminate the whole scene, and we'd find Jamie there waving.
After four hours of traversing a back-and-forth pattern centered on where Jamie went in and Brock followed to save him, we broke off the search. As I write this, he still has not been found. As a team we've been calling and writing each other, checking up to see how everyone's doing and how we're absorbing this terrible tragedy. Some have been lying low, others trying to work off the pain. Everyone seems to cope in their own way.
No doubt some armchair pundits will ask all the why, where, and how questions, trying to distill some rationale or lessons from this senseless accident. They'll have the luxury of not having been there, seen us spring into action and act with expedience, competence, and resolve. They won't have to deal with the emotions of loss and remorse that we have to face. Good Luck to them, trying to make sense from the senseless.
Jamie was a superlative sailor, a great mate, and will be missed by us all. We gave it our all to find him, but for right now he's still in the arms of the sea. He would not want us to stop sailing, to stop doing what he so loved to do, so we'll always cherish our memories of him whenever we're again out on what promises to be a beautiful night for sailing.
— Dobbs Davis
Offshore Perils by John Rousmaniere
The Hope that Sport Brings by John Rousmaniere
Safety Essentials by John Rousmaniere
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