Yachtsman describes his overboard ordeal
Charles A. Samuelson has sailed thousands of sea miles. He owns a 42-foot racing yacht equipped with safety and navigational equipment.
But on a short solo trip from South Dartmouth to Edgartown the experienced sailor fell overboard. Naked and alone in Nantucket Sound, with no help in sight, he crossed his arms to conserve body heat and tried to remain calm.
"The likely outcome for me was not good," Mr. Samuelson told The Times in a telephone interview last week from his home in Cohasset.
Mr. Samuelson, 60, is grateful to be alive. That he is able to tell his harrowing tale has something to do with luck, in the form of an alert fisherman who just happened to pass by.
A story published in The Times on June 21, "Retired Bruins star makes a save," described the circumstances of Mr. Samuelson's rescue. Because Mr. Samuelson could not be reached prior to publication, the story contained no firsthand account of what happened.
Charles Samuelson at the helm of Yaquina.
In an e-mail to The Times following publication, Mr. Samuelson wrote, "I believe one of the real stories here is safety at sea, prevention of accidents like this and being prepared in case of the ultimate catastrophe - being separated from your boat."
Mr. Samuelson, an engineering manager for Motorola Corporation, said he has campaigned a racing sailboat avidly and somewhat successfully for many years in the New England area, participated in several Bermuda races and made a number of deliveries to the Caribbean.
His 42-foot Beneteau, Yaquina, meets the stringent certification requirements of the Ocean Racing Club and is fully equipped with safety, radio, and navigational equipment. A comprehensive life harness system on board includes an auto-inflating PFD (personal floatation device), a tether, a waterproof radio, a flare, a knife and a whistle.
Mr. Samuelson sailed from South Dartmouth Saturday morning, intending to anchor off the beach in Edgartown for the night. His wife planned to join him Sunday.
His inflatable dinghy was on a 50-foot towline behind the boat. "Because if I fall off, the dinghy is my last line of defense," he said.
Mr. Samuelson was making for red nun number 2, the outer marker for the channel to Edgartown Harbor, about three nautical miles northeast of State Beach in Oak Bluffs and two nautical miles from Cape Poge Lighthouse. He was sailing along at a good clip and had gone up to the foredeck when the unexpected happened. He fell overboard.
Mr. Samuelson was wearing a manually inflatable life belt and a knife. When he went over he grabbed a lifeline.
"The boat is sailing along at seven knots, and the current ripped that belt off, it ripped my shoes off, it ripped my pants off, they were all gone," Mr. Samuleson said. "I mean I lost everything."
His plan in that type of emergency was to grab the dinghy towline and cut it. But he had also lost his knife.
"I tried for I don't know how long, to get my feet back up on the deck, and I just couldn't do it," he said. "So my next step was to let go and grab the dinghy line, which I did."
But the rubber raft moving swiftly through the water that Mr. Samuelson considered his "last line of defense" was no help.
"I slide down the dingy line and now the dingy is being towed over me. I am holding onto the dingy painter but its being towed at seven knots through the water. And I knew if I let go of that, that's it. There is nothing left, but I couldn't stay under there. I was under water."
Mr. Samuelson let go of the line. His yacht continued to sail southeast under the control of the autopilot in the direction of Cape Poge.
Alone and with no help in sight he floated in the survival position, on his back with arms and legs crossed to conserve body heat.
Mr. Samuelson said he knew that his chances "for a positive outcome were pretty nil."
"Every wave that came along, I took a mouthful of water but what do you think about? I mean I didn't panic. Every five or ten minutes I would get up and tread water and look around to see if there was any chance of a boat coming along."
He does not know how long he was in the water when he spotted a powerboat speeding along. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon and there was nobody around.
"I am screaming and I am waving my arms and I don't know how far I was out of the water, because I was getting pretty cold and they went past me," he said. "The next thing I see all of a sudden the boat dropped in the water and started to stop. The next thing I knew these guys were trying to grab hold of my hands and get me out of the water."
Mr. Samuelson was not wearing a stitch of clothing, having removed his shirt to reduce dead weight while he floated. The men wrapped him with towels. One of the men, an EMT, took his vital signs. Remarkably, he was in good shape.
His rescuer was Jay Miller, a retired professional hockey player turned Cape restaurateur. Mr. Miller had participated in the John Havlicek Celebrity Fishing Tournament.
Mr. Miller was returning from a fishing trip off Nantucket on his 38-foot Intrepid with a group of Exxon Mobil executives, when one of the crew saw something white in the water.
"Thank God he was there," said Mr. Samuelson. "I certainly appreciate what he did and want to at least go have dinner in his restaurant and leave a big tip. It is just a miracle"
Mr. Miller contacted the Coast Guard and brought Mr. Samuelson to the Oak Bluffs harbormaster's office. Tow Boat US Falmouth pulled the sailboat undamaged from the beach at Cape Poge, and the next day Mr. Samuelson, accompanied by his wife, returned to his South Dartmouth marina.
In the aftermath of his experience, Mr. Samuelson said his story is about safety at sea and lessons learned. Even the most careful boater needs to take precautions against falling overboard because once off the boat and in the water the probability of survival is greatly diminished.
"I am always very careful," he said. "You watch where you put your feet, you think about what you are going to do and why you do these things and what can happen, but you know, the boat took a wave, it got some water on the deck and it lurched and I was free floating in space."
Mr. Samuelson said solo sailing carries enhanced risk. But he thought he was prepared. He was wearing a knife and a life belt and was towing a dingy.
"I thought if worse comes to worst I have my little life belt thing and at least had some floatation," he said. "You don't think it is going to get ripped off."
Mr. Samuelson said that had he been wearing his survival vest, which includes a radio, his situation would have been less dire, because he could have called for help.
During frequent sails off the southern New England coast, he rarely sees anyone wearing any type of a life vest. But time spent floating alone on the ocean has given Mr. Samuelson a new perspective that he hopes to share with others. He said people should contemplate what it would be like to float on the ocean without a PFD before deciding not to wear one,
"It's going to be a cold day in hell before you see me without mine on," he said. "I'm wearing it to bed."