My marina sits at the end of a gigantic turning basin, so called because it is where the tugs turn the oil tankers around before heading back out to sea. I got to the boat around 4:00 PM and noticed a boat out in the basin with his jib flapping in the wind. I didn't pay any attention because it's a common area to drop the sails and head in.
After fiddling around for about half an hour I decided to take my kayak for a spin before heading home. I left the marina and headed up the channel away from the basin. I went about half a mile and turned to come back and as I approached the turning basin I noticed the same boat, with his jib still flapping, dangerously close to the boats berthed along the edge of the basin. The wind caught and he came screaming in to the channel right in front of me. The lone occupant was a man in his 80's with a white-eyed look of terror on his face. I yelled "Do you need help?" he answered, "My engine quit and the jib line is stuck." The wind picked up again and flung him out in to the middle of the channel that I had just come from. I paddled after him and when I caught up I could see that he had some sort of six inch contraption hanging off the front of the pulpit and the jib line was wrapped around this. I tried to use my paddle to reach up and dislodge the sheet, all the while trying to keep up with the boat, but it was wrapped tight. At this point he was on a beam reach but with the jib on the wrong side. I knew that they were 20 or more empty slips further down the channel so I tried to tell him to quit fighting with the tiller and let the boat right itself so he could sail down to one of the empty slip. He either didn't understand or just couldn't comprehend what I was saying.
During all of this we had drifted across the channel and were headed straight for an oil tanker berthed on the opposite side. I pleaded to just let go of the tiller but he refused and ended up going in a circle and then promptly smashed in to the side of the tanker. If you've ever seen one of these up close you can appreciate just how big they really are. Being in an inflatable 10 foot kayak, I was not going to risk getting close to it. So, having no phone on me, I decided to run for the other side of the channel to get some help. The wind had stalled and the boat was being led by the current scraping down the side of the tanker. Once I was about halfway across I noticed that numerous people were now watching this unfold and one of them jumped in to a RIB inflatable and came out to meet me. I briefly explained what was happening and he took off after the boat. I sat in the channel and watched him get to the front of the boat, get a line around something and pull the boat off the tanker back in to the channel. This whole thing took about an hour and I was exhausted so, knowing the old man was relatively safe, I headed back to my marina, which by this time was about 1.5 miles from where I was. Once back at my boat I saw the RIB towing the boat back to the marina next to mine, which, I presume, was where the old man was trying to get back to when I first saw him some two hours before. I'm still processing this as to what lessons, if any I learned. I'm just thankful that no one, including myself, were injured or worse...
Foremost, one needs be truthful with oneself about one's physical capability to deal with ones boat, large or small. In this case, the fellow being as elderly as you describe, may have lacked the physical ability and agility needed to simply jump out of the cockpit, reach the bow, and free the tangled sheet or deploy an anchor. And/or, his mental capacity may have deteriorated (it happens with age) such that he was easily confused and unable to process what he needed to do to help himself; confusion that was augmented by his fear.
Next, for what its worth, anything that can catch or tangle a line or sheet will do so eventually, usually at the worst of times. Such impediments need be dealt with in advance. In our case, for example, we have a vertical anchor windlass about 6 feet from the stemhead that is ideally positioned to deal with anchor rode from either bow roller. It is also ideally positioned to capture a lazy sheet which can make a tack impossible (BTDT). We have dealt with the matter by rigging a stout lenght of shock cord between the top of the capstan and the stemhead that prevents a sheet from being captured there. The fitting on the victims bow-pulpit that you describe might very well have been a mounting plate for the head of a small Danforth type anchor. We had such an arrangement ourselves on a prior boat and mounted an anchor there whenever we went sailing. It worked well but the anchor could catch a sheet if the sail were inadvertently allowed to flog while furling/unfurling the sail. Again, we had to rig lengths of shock cord from the ends of the stock to the pulpit rails on either side to prevent a sheet getting caught.
Third, one needs a readily deployable anchor when sailing in close quarters as other have noted above. This can, but need not, be at the bow. An anchor going over the transom will stop or slow a boat quite dramatically and sometimes more efficiently than one dropped over the bow, no? And, it's immediately at hand. Our "kedge" is a Fortress FX-16 which is very small for a yacht the size of ours. Never-the-less, it has rather remarkable holding power and can definitely slow if not stop the yacht with adequate scope and, the yacht lays rather better stern-too than it would bow on while one fiddles with sails, lines et al.
Any/all of the foregoing may be applicable or useful to one or another. Or not. But one thing I think is applicable to all is to be realistic with one's own capabilities. There was a time when I was younger that I thought nothing of carrying two sacks of cement, one over each shoulder, and often did so while working for a building supply company while in college. That is no longer the case. Now I have to think about what I'm doing and plan my efforts with some care. There will be a time and age when I, and everyone, will be better served enjoying my sailing in a small boat or dinghy again, as we might have done as kids; or, as "deck cargo" on a younger man's/woman's boat (while they do all the work!) That might be the case with the victim in your event, eh?