Upon reflection: saved by a miracle, a sailor reassesses preparedness
Probably the worst nightmare for a sailor is to go overboard. This is compounded infinitely when you are sailing single-handed. Watching your yacht sail away while you are floating in the water is an extremely unpleasant experience. Trust me on this one: it just happened to me. The chances for survival in this situation are nil. The fact that I am writing this is nothing short of a miracle.
Before you read any further, let me again review the situation and the expected outcome. You are sailing alone. You have fallen overboard. You and your yacht are separated. Nobody knows this has occurred. The water is cold – you have perhaps an hour (with or without a life vest). You are miles from land. It is late in the day. There are no other boats to be seen. In all reality, you know you will die – it is just a matter of minutes. One of the more frequent questions I’ve been asked subsequently is, "What were you thinking while you were floating in the water knowing you would die?” Think about how you would answer that.
I’ve been sailing for more than 35 years. I’ve done Bermuda races, I’ve delivered boats to the Caribbean, and I’ve raced competitively on boats ranging from dinghies to 12 Meters. The boat I now own has won the Bermuda 1-2, sailed by a dear friend and previous owner. I mention these things because I want the readers to realize that I am not inexperienced nor have I undertaken sailing lightly and without considerable forethought. It didn’t make any difference.
That being said, I made several mistakes and/or there were things I could/should have done. At the very least, this could have changed from a life-threatening situation to a really bad situation. I also did some things right, but the events as they transpired removed my options one-by-one until there were no positive ones left.
Let me start with the first and most important mistake. I own a serious offshore sailing harness. It has an automatic inflatable life vest, an integral safety harness, a tether, a submersible VHF-FM radio, a water proof flare, a knife, a whistle and a strobe light. I was not wearing this, and as a result I was also not tethered to the boat.
Do not make this mistake.
Since the incident, I have been wearing this apparatus to bed with me every night. The strobe light does annoy my wife. But there’s no harm in being over cautious. Always, always, always wear the appropriate PFD and harness. Make sure that if you are sailing alone you also have a radio or other communications device such as a personal EPIRB that is permanently attached to you.
Second, I was on the bow with the boat under full sail at about seven knots under autopilot. I was repairing a problem with the Genoa roller furling. However, there was no immediate danger of damage and it certainly wasn’t necessary to be sailing along at seven knots with the autopilot engaged to complete the repair. I could have/should have hove to or even waited until I could have anchored. This was clearly a lapse in judgment.
I mentioned I did some things right, and I think they are worth mentioning – both from the perspective of knowing what to do and understanding why, in the end, they didn’t work.
First of all, I didn’t panic. I’m not sure that panic is something that you can control or place on the dresser when you get up in the morning. If you are the type that panics, I would certainly be very thoughtful before I went to sea single-handed (or multi-handed, for that matter).
Going overboard happens in an instant and you have absolutely no control once it starts. The boat took a wave, the deck was awash and the bow dipped at just the right moment. Even though my feet were braced and I had a strong grip on the headstay, I was no longer physically "attached” to terra-firma. I slid right under the lifelines before I even realized what had happened.
I had a floatation device and a knife with me when I went overboard. My floatation device was a "life-belt”. It was one of those packs that you wear around your waste with a little handle you pull to inflate. My knife was in my pants pocket. I was quick enough to grab the life lines as I went overboard. However, I was being dragged through the water at seven knots. The water quickly pulled my life belt, my pants (and knife) and my shoes right off. Lesson: attach your knife to your wrist or around your neck. If you have a life belt, donate it to the dump immediately. It is worthless in an offshore situation.
I worked my way hand-over-hand down the life lines to the transom of the boat. I tried until I was exhausted to get my feet over the toe rail. It just wasn’t going to happen. Lesson: attach a line loosely from each stern quarter to a point on the toe rail about mid-ship. Let the line droop enough so you can use it as a "step” to climb up to the deck.
When I’m sailing alone, I tow my dinghy about 50 feet off the transom. This is my "last resort.” When finally a wave tore my hold on the lifelines, I lunged for and caught the dinghy tow line. I reached for my knife to cut the painter and create a life raft out of the dinghy. But – no knife. It was in my pants and my pants were long gone. I slid down the dinghy painter. The dinghy was being towed through the water at seven knots. When I reached the end of the painter, the dinghy was being towed on top me. I was under water. I knew I couldn’t stay there. I knew that if I let go, that was it. I would most likely die of hypothermia.
I’m now in the water, watching my boat sail away. My next action was to buy as much time as I possibly could. I had already lost my pants and shoes. I had a knit shirt on which I removed – it was wet and heavy and certainly would not keep me warm. I relaxed as much as I could and maintained the "HELP” (Heat Escape Lessening Posture) position. Essentially this involves floating on your back with your hands folded over your chest and your legs crossed. My biggest concern was minimizing swallowing and breathing sea water each time a wave came along. You absolutely do not try to swim in this situation – that only uses energy which is critical to conserve heat as long as possible. Every ten or so minutes I would roll over, tread water and look for boats in the vicinity. Something began to happen that I did not expect. My breathing became labored. As I took more and more salt water down my esophagus and trachea, my lungs became congested and my breathing very raspy. As much as the cold, it became difficult to force saltwater water out of my mouth and lungs. My arms and legs were numb and I was no longer floating very well.
Do everything you can to avoid being placed in this situation. Do whatever it takes to never separate from the boat. Use a harness and a tether. Always.
Obtain and wear an appropriate PFD. Make sure it is the type that will not be ripped away if you are being dragged through the water. The models with an integral safety harness and automatic inflating PFD are really good. After a bit you don’t even know you are wearing it.
Have the following firmly tethered to you or your safety harness: submersible radio or communications device such as a personal EPIRB, knife, strobe light, flare, whistle.
Rig a safety line along the freeboard of your yacht so you have a fighting chance to climb back aboard.
Practice all these things. Practice does several things: it gives you experience on what to do, it identifies things that you need to do different or better and it minimizes panic.
Test your equipment: make sure the strobe and radio have good batteries. Make sure the radio works after it has been submerged. Make sure the flare is sealed and hasn’t gotten wet. Make sure your knife is sharp and can be opened easily.
Finally, I would like to sincerely thank the person who rescued me. It truly was a miracle that this person happened along in the right place at the right time and that he saw me floating in the water. I had very little time left. This person knows who he is. I don’t think there is anything one can do to show enough appreciation to someone for saving one’s life. Being the one whose life was saved, rest assured that the full force and effect of my appreciation is unbounded.
Charles A. Samuelson, an experienced sailor and engineer, sailing alone two weeks ago, fell from his yacht off the entrance to Edgartown. As his yacht sailed on, he did what he could to preserve his life and attract attention. The crew of a passing motorboat saw Mr. Samuelson and plucked him from the water. This is his account of the event and the lessons he takes from it.