Saving Your Fellow Sailor

Saving Your Fellow Sailor

We all call it the law of the sea – you must go rescue someone in distress.  It is reinforced in the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea that mariners must go to the rescue of others (with a caveat as long as they don’t have to put their own boat or crew at peril, at which time they can pass on making a rescue).  The Racing Rules of Sailing also reinforce this with the requirement to provide all possible help.

But for some of us, it just is who we are.  We don’t need anyone telling us we are to do this, we just do it.

I’ve been involved in five rescues through the years.  Two were straight forward, my Dad skippering the two person boat went overboard, I U-turned the boat, got to him and pulled him out of the water where the boat deck is close to the water to begin and easy to pull aboard.

Another was interesting on a 43′ boat at night time in the middle of Lake Michigan out of sight of land.  A crewman grabbed onto a collapsed sail, it refilled instantly taking him over the side of the boat  The skipper made the right move by turning the boat up into the wind to slow the boat down which had the crewman disappear under the water.  The sail refilled momentarily which by then other crew had moved into position, and the crewman was still hanging onto the sail and popped up right in front of their faces, they grabbed him falling backwards into the cockpit.  In less than a minute, all was well.

Do you remember how big Tip O’Neil was?  Well, one time a racer in front of us fell overboard on their two person boat.  He and Tip could have been twins.  His 11 year old son, not that familiar with sailing was sailing off into the distance not knowing how to turn the boat around.  A sailor in between us and the victim tried to grab him, but lost their grip when their sails filled.  We were up next, so we sailed passed the victim, tacked hoving to.  What hoving to means is that you do not move the jib sail from one side to the other and tack the boat, leaving the jib on the wrong side.  This stops the boat from moving forward, heals the boat over sideways as it sails sideways.  We came right up to Tip’s twin and I pulled him head first across the deck like a whaling ship.  We then re-adjusted the sails and took off for his son, transferring the Dad (now with a life jacket on provided by us) back to his boat.

The sport has gone through a lot of innovation in the past 30 years providing equipment for rescue and methods we practice to rescue our fellow sailors.  The success at rescues has increased appreciably, it is a compliment to those who performed experiments, and designed the devices.  The following story incorporates these modern rescue features –

When I was 23, my parents decided to go to Mexico for their anniversary.  The crew disbanded for the weekend knowing that they weren’t going to be around.  Then my Dad told me to put the 43′ boat into the race off Chicago’s lakefront for that weekend.  I had to go high and low to throw together a crew, most who haven’t sailed on the boat before.  While I have skippered the boat previously, this would be my second big boat race skippering the entire thing.  It was blowing 30-35 knots, with 4′-6′ seas with Lake Michigan water temperatures at a balmy 68-degrees (which is considered on the hypothermic scale as dangerous depending how long the victim is in the water).

While other teams were well honed, I knew we had to play the day conservatively not to injure anyone.  Going up the first leg of the course, we didn’t have things trimmed right and rounded the mark near last.  Others were now making changes to their sails, while we were happy with the sails we were using.  This allowed us on the 2nd leg to move into 3rd place passing a lot of boats.  The two boats ahead of us put up their spinnakers.  We didn’t and were moving along just fine at 12.5 knots.

The second place did a “death roll” where the boat flips over the wrong direction, stuffing its spinnaker underwater, and spinning like a top with the spinnaker pole being the axis.  Eventually the boom jibes going from a vertical position and slamming down into the water.  It was a thing of beauty, even the Olympic Russian Judge would have given them a 10.

One of our crew shouted, “They have their man overboard gear in the water.”  I said, “Look for one or more in the water.”  They said, “We see one.”  I said, “Any more?”  They said they didn’t see any.  I said, “We’re going for him!”

We sailed past the victim, as we did he disappeared under the water.  There was a “high pitched scared shreek” that came out of the crew and I couldn’t think of a way to break the tension other than say “Shut up.  We have to get him.”  Refocused, we u-turned to slow the boat down, got up to his position where he came back to the surface.  We tossed him the Lifesling to pull him alongside the boat, and a bunch of us grabbed and lifted him up onto the deck.

We radioed the Olympic Death Roll boat to learn that they had lost only one overboard, and we had no more search to conduct.

The victim had this huge looking bruise on his head, but it turned out to be a birthmark.  The once over assessment couldn’t find any injury, other than being cold.  This was this man’s second time racing.

We turned the boat back to the race course passing the second place boat that was still in shambles, and saw the first place boat couldn’t get their spinnaker down and had sailed past the next mark going the wrong direction, it looked like we could move into 1st.

Then I turned to the victim and said, “It is your call, can we continue in this race, or should we go to shore.”  He said, “Take me in!”

The crew volunteered dry clothing and we took him ashore.  Once there, he ran straight up off the dock, up and over the hill so fast we figured never to see him again.

For this last rescue, the entire crew of the boat was awarded a national rescue medal.  The crew did very well that day and was happy that it worked out the way it did, but recognizing a lot of the success came about due to the new procedures and equipment we all used that had been developed in recent years.

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