Most of us are pretty laid back on our boats. After all, thatÂ’s why we learn to sailÂ–to relax and have some fun. No one wants to think about using Captain Bligh as a role model when weÂ’re on the lake or even coastal cruising.
Still, there are times when itÂ’s vital for everyone on board to have a clear understanding of whoÂ’s in command and must be obeyed without hesitation or question. There are also the legal and moral obligations of being the captain of any vessel, either on inland waters or the ocean. Most mega-yachts are captained by a hired professional whose word, in matters of ship handling and safety, is law. The necessity of this system was once shown to me very dramatically.
Alan was getting married and I was co-best man. My counterpart, Eric, and I discussed giving him a bachelor party. After some consideration, we concluded that none of us were really topless bar guys. Alan and I liked camping, sailing, and outdoor activities. Eric liked camping and hiking, but had never been sailing. We decided to go to ArizonaÂ’s Roosevelt lake for a weekend of camping, sailing, and war stories.
We arrived on a Friday afternoon, rigged and launched Si Bon , an OÂ’Day 192, and motored across the lake into Salome Cove, our chosen camp site and sailing base.
Saturday morning we set out on the lake. The winds initially were light but quickly built into the 15 to 20 knot range. Even with three of us on the weather rail, we soon had to trade the 150 Genoa for the 110 jib.
We sailed up the lake and found a nice cove for lunch. Because the wind was continuing to build, we put a reef in the main before setting out again.
The reefed main alone was good for 4 to 5 knots as we started out. Looking for more speed and maybe to impress Eric, we unfurled the jib and soon made 5.5 and sometimes just over 6 knots.
This was as fast as IÂ’d ever seen the OÂ’Day sail. Considering that it was a pocket cruiser with a lot of weight on board, I was impressed. Even Eric admitted speed thrills could be had sailing.
As we were preparing to return to our camp, we had to enter a narrow neck of water created by an isthmus aptly called Windy Hill. Alan was at the helm as heÂ’d been most of the day. It was his party, after all. I pointed out an approaching gust so he could head up a bit if needed. We were already sailing close hauled on a starboard tack with all of us on the weather rail. As I looked for the small entrance to our cove, the gust shifted angles just enough to put it on our port side, leaving all of us on what was now the lee rail.
Si Bon quickly dipped her starboard rail into the water, several gallons pouring into the cockpit. My first concern was for Eric, who might not have the sailing reflex of moving to the other rail. Not to worry, he beat me to the port side by a comfortable margin. Alan was curled into the stern corner of the cockpit, holding the tiller as 60Âº lake water ran down his neck. As I offered him a hand, he gently rolled into the lake.
Putting my astonishment aside, I started the quick stop method for crew overboard. I threw Alan a life cushion, turned Si Bon into the wind, and uncleated all sails. Alan was still only about 30 feet from the boat and the throwable landed right in front of his face.
He gathered it in and, grinning at his own predicament, began paddling toward the boat. We were blowing downwind toward him and he was soon only about five feet away. Just as I was ready to reach out and help him aboard, Eric cleated the main sheet. Si Bon squirted away from Alan. In retrospect, the look on his face was a comical mixture of surprise and dismay.
I turned to Eric and calmly shrieked, “What the #@$% are you doing?” Alan had been within our grasp; now he was rapidly receding astern.
“I thought I was supposed to,” was EricÂ’s apologetic response.
“Keep watching Alan,” I yelled as I started the motor, uncleated the main, and furled the jib; all in record time. Meanwhile, a group in a pontoon boat came by and pulled Alan from the water. We matched speeds with them to retrieve Alan. “WeÂ’ll give you 50 bucks to keep him,” I yelled, relieved that he was safe.
“No thanks, he doesnÂ’t look like heÂ’d be cheap to feed,” they laughed. With the wind chill factor on AlanÂ’s wet skin, his lips were blue by the time he made it aboard Si Bon . Luckily, heÂ’s about my size and all my gear was in the cabin. By the time heÂ’d toweled off and put on dry clothes, he was fine. We were at the entrance to our cove, so we motored on to our camp.
The person most shaken by the incident was Eric, who probably felt that some of this was his fault. It wasnÂ’t. All of it was my fault. Even though Alan is an experienced sailor and had sailed Si Bon many times before, I was still the captain. It was my responsibility to keep control of the boat and the crew. So what could I have done differently?
Emergencies Do Not Always Wait For SomeoneÂ’s Second Sail.
First, I should have explained sailing procedures to Eric, particularly crew overboard routines. Second, itÂ’s important for the captain to make it clear that, in certain situations, everyone is to do only what theyÂ’re told, either right then or via prior instructions. They are to do it instantly without argument, discussion, or debate.
This was EricÂ’s first sail and I didnÂ’t want to alarm him with discussions of disaster. Unfortunately, emergencies donÂ’t always wait for someoneÂ’s second sail. A description and demonstration would have prepared him. It would have taken ten minutes out of our day and we were just sailing around anyway. A crew overboard drill with a cushion in the water would have been informative, good practice for all of us, and reassuring to Eric that we were ready to handle emergencies. He was, after all, the one I would have thought most likely to fall overboard.
The most important lessons can come from the most unpleasant events. Here, two things come to mind: The captain has to be the captain all the time. Then there is Universal Truth # 16, “The difference between adventure and disaster is preparation.”
Never take an inexperienced person on board without discussing crew overboard drills and the importance of following orders in all situations.
Small Boat COB Solution
After the one crew overboard incident, I knew that a better solution than a throwable cushion was needed. On larger boats, several products such as Life Sling were available. The idea behind all of them was to connect the person in the water to the boat as quickly as possible.
To this end, I designed a simple way to use this same idea on dinghies and other boats too small to allow a Life Sling or even a horseshoe ring.
The main component is a small bag or pocket that can be mounted with Velcro Â© type fasteners. A light line is flaked in the bag with the bottom end led through a hole in the bottom of the bag. Attach this end, with a snap hook on it, to a cleat or padeye on the boat. Clip the other end to a throwable cushion with a carabiner clip.
When the cushion is thrown, the line pays out of the bag. If the COB reaches the cushion, simply reel him in like a big tuna. (Try to remember not to filet him once heÂ’s on board.) If the cushion lands away from the person in the water, circle him with the boat until he catches the line.