Monday, January 17, 2011

Man Overboard!

When we sailed the South Pacific, many passages were ideal–good winds and calm seas. But a few weren’t so great. One of the worst, between the Kingdom of Tonga and Hawaii, was the most difficult of our 14-month trip.

This leg of the journey was known for its difficulty. For one thing, the 3,000 miles was against the wind. When “beating” against the wind, the boat climbs each wave–and some of those waves were very high–and then comes crashing down. Beating makes for a really uncomfortable ride. It’s tough to manage anything on a constantly pitching boat.

On day 28 of a 32-day passage, we were holding our own, tired, but making it. After almost 10,000 nautical miles at sea, standing watch 4 hours on, 4 hours off, we could operate on personal autopilot much of the time, just doing whatever it took to keep going north.

At noon Bruce was standing watch, but I was in the cockpit with him. A squall had just hit and we desperately needed to reduce sail. During the last three days, we had passed just west of a tropical depression, and were getting even rougher weather.

Bruce clipped on his life-line and went up on deck to put another reef in the mainsail; I stayed in the cockpit to sheet it in. I had just finished securing the line when I heard a loud BANG!

I started to ask Bruce what that noise was, but I couldn’t see him. Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something yellow float by. It was Bruce in his foul weather gear! Oh, God! This can’t be happening!

We had verbally and mentally rehearsed the man overboard procedures many times. My mind reeled with what I had to do:
– Throw the man overboard pole equipped with a strobe light and flotation ring to him.
– Keep track of him. That’s hard to do with only one person left on board.
– Start the engine. Make sure no lines are dragging that could get into the propeller.
– Drop the sails since they will now be working against the boat.
– Get the boat turned around, following the reciprocal course–the exact opposite of the direction we were now heading. (To calculate the reciprocal course, add 180 degrees to the current compass course.)

This sounds difficult, but really, it’s even worse. It’s a big ocean. A person in the water very soon becomes hidden by waves–eight foot seas can block the view of someone in the water in just seconds.

To be perfectly honest, I’d always thought that if one of us had to fall overboard, I hoped it would be me. I knew Bruce could find me, but I wasn’t that sure I’d be able to find him.

All this screamed through my mind. Even with the mainsail down and with only the jib up, we were still charging along at 7 knots. I ran toward the overboard pole as I scanned the sea for him. There he was, right alongside the boat! I couldn’t believe it! When I had seen him before, I had assumed his life-line had broken, but no, he was being dragged by his life-line. He was still attached!

To back up a bit.... While Bruce took a reef in the mainsail, the topping lift, a line attached from the top of the mast to the end of the boom, broke. The boom fell down against the railing (making that loud BANG) and Bruce went head-over-heals over the boom and into the water, his right leg tangling in the life-line.

Bruce, working against the boat’s forward motion, struggled to the surface. I leaned against the winch so that I wouldn’t be pulled into the water, and grabbed Bruce’s hands. His eyes flooded with relief. Fortunately, he fell from the side of the boat that was closer to the water since we were heeled over. I pulled him over to a lower part of the rail, where he could get a hold. He reached up to the rail as I grabbed his harness and pulled with all my might. He pulled too and slowly, slowly, he climbed over the rail. I untangled his leg from the life-line and helped him into the cockpit.

We clung to one another. Safe! He was safe! We couldn’t get over how fortunate we were.


MinaW said...


What a story!

We never had any scary adventures like that; although Juanita did go sailing between islands in Hawaii with son Chris and his friends. And when she was telling me about it, about being awake at night with one other person, sailing in the dark - I said "Wait a minute, everyone who knows how to sail was asleep!" And she just said "Yes, so?"

She bought us our little sailboat, a Pelican, a wooden boat. I was in college at UW, and I took sailing, then came back to the lake for the summer and taught the others.

And we lived on a lee shore, and tied up at a buoy, so we had to practice with a "man overboard" drill our first time out each summer so we would be able to turn upwind and grab our buoy and stop easily instead of running aground. We would throw out a life-jacket when we were well offshore, and practice coming around until we could grab it easily. And 3-4 ft swells were largish for Priest Lake, nothing like the ocean,so it was fairly easy to keep in sight.

The summer we didn't have to practice, it was because my little dog liked to walk around the narrow outer deck of the boat, and she fell off. Luckily we left the harness on her, so she was easy to grab!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Mary, I am constantly amazed and impressed anew as I learn about your various adventures! What a tale. Thanks for sharing.

Terri McIntyre said...

Wow, Mary! This was tense. Kept me on the edge of my seat. I love traveling, but no adventures, thanks! As Bilbo Baggins said, "Adventures make one late for dinner." But I'm glad there are adventurous people, like yourselves, who take such risks. That's where stories are born. Thanks for yours.

Mary E. Trimble said...

LOL! Well, Terri, I've been late for dinner more times than I care to think about.

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