Man Overboard! / Skipper Overboard!

From: George B. Harvey

Sent: 10/6/2008 11:01:26 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time
Subj: Foulweather Bluff, MAN OVERBOARD!

Foulweather Bluff is a nice Saturday day race from Edmonds ( about 15 miles north of Seattle ) to the Foulweather Bluff buoy, then to Schachet Head and back to the marina. It’s a reverse start, meaning the smaller boats start first. With a reverse start you’re passing smaller, slower boats throughout the race, and the larger faster boats are passing you. This makes for some interesting boat-to-boat passing situations and it’s a lot of fun. It’s the first distance race of the fall racing season, and we’ve sailed it a lot and always enjoyed it. This year would be different.

The weather report called for temperatures in the high 50’s and winds building to 30 knots. When we started it was overcast and warm. Winds were southerly about 10 knots. We set the chute on port jibe at the start and began a broad reach to the mark.

The winds began to build.

It wasn’t long until it was blowing 20 knots. By that time we were near Point No Point and were sheltered from the rollers that the heavy winds would create. We were still broad reaching and the Skipper was running off in the puffs. We didn’t have any control problems, but we could see other boats rounding up. We were at hull speed, sometimes higher. Roxanne zoomed past us to leeward, surfing and throwing up spray and spume and a roostertail. Tachyon was creeping up on our stern, and eventually went over us. We toyed with the idea of making it difficult for them, but didn’t. 20 knots isn’t the time for playing spinnaker reaching games.

The winds continued to build.

Soon it was 25 knots and more boats were rounding up. We continued to run down in the puffs and trim the chute conservatively. When we saw the mark we were a little too low, and it was blowing a little too hard to reach up with the chute, so we set the #3 jib and prepared to drop the chute. This would allow a nice, conservative rounding with minimum screwups and we’d be home in a flash. Smart, warm, dry.

The winds continued to build.

Now it was blowing 30 knots and it was past time to get the chute down. The skipper called for the drop. We released the topping lift, but the chute didn’t come down, so the bow couldn’t trip the guy. We tried grinding the downhaul but it didn’t move.

Then we were hit by a hard puff, maybe 35 knots, and were on the edge of disaster. The Skipper called to let the guy run. I was trimming the guy, and began to take it off the winch. The guy immediately fouled on the handle. Because we’d been on port jibe throughout the race we’d never taken the port lazy sheet out of the sheet bag and it fouled as well. I tried to free the lines.

Then we got hit by another, stronger puff, and we were knocked down. It was a fast, violent, vicious hit. Immediately the masthead was 6 feet off the water. The cockpit was vertical and the crew held on to anything they could. We were out of control, the spinnaker was thrashing aloft like a wild animal, thundering, jerking the boat around, making control impossible.


I looked aft and could see the Skipper in the water, rapidly disappearing behind us. We were still knocked down, we had the chute up, the guy hadn’t run, we couldn’t control the boat. No way we could get back to pick him up.

It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.

It was the most horrible feeling I’ve ever had.

We were out of control and helpless, and the Skipper was gone.


That line of asterisks represents what I remember of the chaos of getting the chute down and getting the boat back under control. I remember nothing. I don’t know if I was brave or cowardly, if I did my duty or didn’t, performed or didn’t. I don’t remember a damned thing. I’m really disturbed by that.

I do remember getting back to the Skipper. We were motoring, we’d dropped the jib because it was ripped during the knockdown, so we had a full main and the motor going. The deck was a confusion of lines. A smaller sailboat was maneuvering to try to pick up the skipper but when they saw us coming they laid off.

We had him on the starboard, leeward side of the boat, and some of the crew grabbed him. The Skipper is a tall slender guy, I’m guessing about 180 lb, and they couldn’t get him into the boat. I moved down to help and eventually, and slowly, we were able to get him under the lifelines, into the boat and down below. He’d been in the water for (I’m guessing) at least 10 minutes, and he was not very responsive. I’m not sure how much longer he could have lasted in the water. I was concerned that he might have had a heart attack, or was suffering hypothermia.

We began motor sailing back to the marina. The Skipper is a tough old guy, and he snapped out of it pretty fast. He told us his story of being launched over the rail and head-first into the drink where he swallowed a lot of seawater. He got into dry clothes and spend much of the trip back vomiting the salt water he’d swallowed into a bucket. We were motoring into a foul tide and 6 – 8 foot rollers and 35 – 45 knots of wind for what seemed like forever.

Usually after a disaster we’re all energized and laughing and full of ourselves for surviving and coming out OK. This time we sat on the deck, stolid, silent, unmoving, as the spray pounded us and the rollers rocked the boat and green water rushed over the deck. It was a time for quiet introspection: what could have been, did I do my duty, what should we have done differently, how narrowly we avoided killing the Skipper.


We’re a good boat, and a very skilled and experienced crew. I’d say we average 20 years racing experience per man. When you’re thinking of an overboard situation you always think you’ll just swing around and have the crew member onto the boat in a couple of minutes, no problem. I suspect, however, that nobody goes overboard in nice conditions. It’s always when it’s blowing too hard, the seas are too high, the boat is under marginal control at best, all lines are fouled, and THEN someone goes overboard. At the worst possible moment. It’s a sobering experience.

The Skipper’s a lucky guy.

George Harvey, Seattle, WA. Crew member S/V Snake Oil a Davidson 40

(Editors Note: George has been sailing and racing for about 35 years, many of those years on top placing boats)

Man Overboard!! Formatted for Printing (pdf):

( © 2008 )

This entry was posted in Safety Thoughts, Sailing and Boating Skills and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Man Overboard! / Skipper Overboard!

  1. roberto marcio silva says:

    Thanks for sharing these sobering lines with us,Captain,a very good site altogether.

  2. Pingback: Useful Web Sites and Information for Boaters and USCG Auxiliary Members | Boating Safety Tips, Tricks & Thoughts from Captnmike

  3. Pingback: Sailing Crew Class Resources–Fall 2011 | Boating Safety Tips, Tricks & Thoughts from Captnmike

  4. Bernd Minde says:

    My wife and I had guests out on our Catalina 30, adults and several children. T’wasnt too strong a wind, so, while I went below deck to do some standard engine checking, my moderately drunk brother in law asked my wife if we had the skills to turn the boat around. She gave him the affirmative, upon which he leaped, back flip style, into the middle of the Columbia River. Within seconds, he was half a city block from the boat! I assigned my thirteen year old son to find him in the water and do nothing but point at him. My wife grabbed the wheel and I ran the sheets to get us turned around. All others that were not imperative to the operation went below deck or out of the way.
    Stupidly, we had the inflatable dinghy tied to the transom ladder, without quick release straps. As my wife steered the boat, my seventeen year old son and an adult guest concocted a rope sling over the port side. As we reached my BIL, we threw the floatable preserver to him. The second he grabbed hold, he visibly collapsed from exhaustion. Mind you, this was a matter of five minutes at most. We got him to the makeshift sling ladder, and with the efforts of three adults managed to get him under the safety lines, where he collapsed quite completely. A few seconds rest, and we had him back on board.
    All came home that day, some rather humbled, others deeply unnerved. It was a stunning lesson in how quickly, on a mild, sunny day, things can go very dangerously wrong. It amazed everyone how quickly our MOB disappeared from our sights and reach.
    It amazed and pleased me that my “crew” – all “green behind the sails” – was able to react so quickly and act so appropriately in a very tense situation. It pays to pay attention to the pre-sail lecture.
    Did I mention, this was in our first year with a boat? Live and learn. Then live…
    Bernd Minde
    Capt. o’ Cuckoo’s Nest – Portland, Oregon

    • captnmike says:

      Good that it turned out well – I think I would have banished the drunk brother in law to a trash bin on shore – or if he is let on the boat again maybe tie him to something so he can’t jump overboard again –

      My boat is a must wear lifejackets all the time boat we are away from the slip – The Coast Guard Aux and Coast Guard are also Must Wear lifejackets & proper thermal protection (dry suits part of the year)

      Your experience pointed out the need to do some practice of person overboard recovery (use a fender or something it is safer)

      Also – Coast Guard search pattern guidance is that a person about 100 yards away can be seen I think about 95% of the time –

      The single biggest predictor of if you will recover a person or object in the water is how far you don’t get from the what is in the water – so a quick turn is best to stay in the area so you can keep in sight what you want to recover

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