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It Can Happen to Me

Years of sailing incident-free may lull you into a false sense of security that will cause you to disregard basic safety precautions. 

By Rick Evans

I've sailed since a child and the only times I've experienced a man overboard situation is when it was a planned event.  As kids and as young adults, we'd intentionally capsize our sailing dinghies just for the fun of it.  Or, at anchor in the Caribbean, like most sailors we enjoyed jumping off the deck for a quick swim in the azure waters.

Over these years, of course, I'd read various articles in various magazines about man-overboard episodes. And, of course, when taking formal sailing certifications to obtain bareboat qualifications, my entire family went through the man-overboard drill.  The classified ads always touted gear necessary to hoist dunked sailors back on deck, man-overboard poles, self-inflating life vests, and so forth.

I bet my reaction to all of this mirrors that of many sailors. Boring! Heck, I'd been sailing for 40 years with never a problem. I didn't even know a fellow sailor who had experienced or even heard of a true man overboard situation. I viewed the whole man-overboard issue like I do those life vests on airplanes. Something that really isn't taken seriously. Something of more hypothetical interest than practical interest.

With the all-important LifeSling nearby (not to mention the MOB pole on the backstay), these sailors feel more comfortable about towing a crew in the dinghy.
That all changed a couple months ago. I'm a believer now. Here's my story.  My wife, Rainy, and I were enjoying a lovely afternoon sail on Galveston Bay just a few miles offshore. We sail Supial, a Beneteau 321 out of Kemah, TX. With us were two other couples and their children.  The wind, if you could call it that, was probably six knots or less. Just enough to keep us moving and the temperature comfortable. Perfect beer drinking weather and sailing. 

One of my beer drinking buddies decided to go up forward and climbed on to the side deck from the cockpit. Was it the beer? Was it a sudden puff which heeled the boat?  It doesn't really matter why it happened, but the fact is he lurched a little and grabbed on to the lifeline. Well, as fate would have it, when we left port earlier that day, the lifeline had been snapped on but apparently the pelican hook didn't fully engage. As a result, when my friend grabbed it for protection, it instantly came loose and over he went.

One of the most important principles in the event of a MOB is to keep a good lookout on the victim.
For reasons I'll never know but surely appreciate, my wife's training kicked into automatic. She knew what to do.She knew that somebody had to keep a constant watch on my friend. Good thing, too, since even at just a few knots, we seemed to leave him far behind in a heartbeat. You'd be amazed just how rapidly he became a distant object in the water. Rainy kept her eye on him at all times and was able to tell me exactly where to go. Because the wind was so light, I just hit the starter, released the sheets, and motored back where we quickly picked up our sodden sailor who was laughing and unshaken by the event. And on we went to enjoy the rest of the day.

Let me share with you what I took home from this experience. And what you should, too. Forty years of safe sailing doesn't give you immunity from a potential catastrophe. When it happens, it won't happen with plenty of warning. Like accident victims always seem to say, "It happened so quickly."  Well, it does happen quickly. Instantly, in fact.  You won't be expecting it. And should it happen, you don't have time to think. 

In other words, you've just go to be ready at all times.  I shudder to think what could have happened had we been in 18-knot breezes and briskly clipping along with two to three-foot waves that would have obscured my friend's head as he bobbed down into the troughs. 

Just having the right equipment on board doesn't mean that you will be ready to handle an emergency should the need ever arise.
I have a GPS, but it wasn't on so I couldn't activate the MOB feature. I have a horseshoe life buoy, but it was so secured with sail ties that by the time we could release it, I had already turned around. I had already spent enough money on the boat that I didn't think to invest in a man overboard pole. I hadn't checked to make sure the pelican hook was properly engaged and secure. I didn't insist that everybody outside the cabin wear lifevests that were all neatly stowed below. 

All sins on my part which, fortunately, cost nobody more than some wet clothes, but under different circumstances it could have been a life. It could have been windier and rougher. It could have been a small child instead of an adult who could swim well. The day could have ended in tragedy instead of laughter.

In all candor, I doubt I'll insist that all adults who can swim wear life vests when sailing near shore at high noon in calm waters and winds.  I doubt I'll have my GPS running when I can clearly see my home port in broad daylight just a mile or two off the bow. I probably won't even buy that man overboard pole unless I do some serious offshore sailing. But all of us should rehearse the man overboard drill and be ready to act.  It's not of academic interest. 

In the case of small children it is particularly important to make sure that they wear a flotation device at all times.
Lifelines should be checked before depature since a defective one is worse than no lifeline at all because it provides false security. I'll have that horseshoe life buoy ready to deploy at an instant and the sail ties off it the moment we cast off from the dock.  Rainy and I will each take turns actually practicing the MOB drill a couple times each year by tossing something into the water to simulate a mock man overboard. When the weather kicks up, or dusk arrives, the GPS will be on and Rainy and I will be wearing our self-inflating vests and harnesses which we purchased soon thereafter. I'll actually use my tether in bad weather and run the jack lines out.

Forty years of safe sailing gave me a false confidence. I suffered from the "It can't happen to me" syndrome. That's something that happens to other sailors.  I learned a lesson at no expense to life or limb. I hope this article does the same for you.

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