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