Trip Reports

A Man-Overboard Story (14-Dec-2002-15-30):
3:30 PM local time (actually, I'm still using UTC), Saturday, December 14 (1530 Dec. 14 UTC) 13 41 N 052 27 W. Temp. 84, Humidity 65%, Cloud Cover 05%. Eighteenth day at sea.

Greetings from the crew of Maverick.

A finer afternoon at sea could not be imagined. Right now we're moving along at about six knots with about twelve knots right behind us and a three-foot sea on a pretty day with few concerns. We've got about 550 miles to go, and although the wind has dropped from the high teens down to 10-15, we hope to make this in four days. The boats behind and to the north of us have very little wind, but the crew of Maverick has been both careful in choosing our course because of our lack of ability to motor, and lucky. We're about sixty miles south of the great circle route we'd planned, but we came down here to stay in the wind and the boats up there only have eight knots or less. Further east, where the Azores high has weakened and allowed lows to march over the Canaries, people have light or even adverse winds, that, without motoring, may keep them under fifty miles a day for a week.

We've seen little wildlife with the exception of the dolphins who ignored us when we were becalmed, and the occasional Wilson's Storm-petrels and Tropicbirds. We're more than two-thirds of the way around, and we've yet to see our first whale. Since there's nothing dramatic to report I will comment this time on some safety issues that we have been discussing in part because of the death of the sailor a couple of weeks ago near where we were. This won't interest anyone except those readers who are interested in these things, if them, but I don't have anything else to do.

HARNESSES: We wear them at night and in heavy weather. Since in the case of Harvey Shiasky in the Doublehanded Farallones Race and this more recent incident, the sailors were tethered to the boat, this is obviously not fail-safe. Circumnavigator Alan Tyson-Carter on Karma, a singlehander, uses a harness at all times, and a tether only 3 feet long. This seems pretty extreme, but on the other hand, the sailors mentioned above died because their harnesses didn't keep them out of the water. You drown real quick when being dragged at speed underwater. Our tethers have shackles that can be released under strain, but that would only work if you were conscious. Rethinking exactly how far off the boat you're going to go when tethered in seems like a good idea.

LIGHTS: A lot of cruisers use an anchor light or worse at sea, figuring to save electricity. Another group thinks they must show every light on board, including the strobe, to make sure they're seen. Among these groups are sailors who in other ways are admirable seamen. It's up to you if you want to endanger yourself with this doubtful practice, but I don't want to run into you. If you're sailing on the ocean, what advantage is gained if you're giving other vessels a misleading idea of what you're up to? Say the weather's rough and you've got two or three ships and a cruiser in sight. It is hard enough to figure whether you're on a collision course with any of them without someone giving you the idea he's moving away when he's really heading right at you. What if one of the ships has to change course to miss another one, and they have you in sight but believe they're seeing a stern light? Even if they see you on radar (see below) the bearing they have for you will now change. You've already given them the impression you're heading away, and now they're concentrating on not hitting the container ship on their bow. Alternatively, you've got so many lights on that they've had to go to a reference book to see just what those lights are indicating. You may say you'll switch to normal lights when you're near traffic, and maybe you'll remember to do that, but it's very possible that by the time you've switched, the other vessel has already gotten an erroneous impression of what you're doing, or if he sees the light change, may think you've turned. In all cases, you've made the job of the watch aboard the other ships more difficult. You want to give them a PUZZLE to deal with? Lights are a form of communication between vessels, and in order to understand one another, we have to use the same words as the other guy. If there were an incident, it's pretty unlikely that the lawyers for the insurance company of the tanker would fail to produce several witnesses who would testify that you weren't observing the 72 COLREGS.

RADAR: In the above situation, the heavy ships will produce "side-lobe" echoes on the radar screen, so that the ships look like semi-circles instead of single targets. This is because they are huge, steel objects. To achieve better resolution, a radar operator may turn down the sensitivity or gain. When they do this, your little blip on the screen disappears, even if you were a reasonable target in the first place. I don't know it for a fact since I've never used the radar on say, a US warship, but I assume this problem arises to a degree even on bigger radars than we have on board. With a lot of traffic, there's more clutter. It's not wise to assume you show up clearly on the radar of a big ship in the middle of a lot of traffic. Which brings us to

SHIPS: When we left home I had read lots of cruisers' accounts of how some big ship didn't respond to hails on sixteen and just ignored them, so I was prepared for the worst. This hasn't, however, corresponded to our experience. As a rule, when there is a question of a collision course, I have hailed the bridge of supertankers and freighters and been received with courtesy and professionalism. The rule at sea is, the sailing vessel is the stand-on vessel. Every captain out here has passed some test to get the job, and you can bet the rules of the road were on the test. Generally, if there is a question of collision, the captain will, believe it or not, ask you what you want him to do. Twenty minutes ago I hailed a supertanker and in a very cordial conversation informed the captain that I had headsails poled out, could not easily change course, and was a little uncomfortable with our projected closest point of approach. He without hesitation said he would take our stern, and then asked us where we were headed and wished us a pleasant voyage. It's an impressive sight to see a 900-foot ship turn on a dime and head out of your way, when you're a 39-footer. I realize there are counter-examples, but this has been the norm. When ships do not respond to a hail, it is possible that the person on watch has limited English skills (English is the international language for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communication, like it is in the airline industry). Remember, sailors are not calling the vessel name, but something like "big ship on my port bow, do you see me?" This is a confusing way to hail a ship, even if the helmsman speaks English. Personally, I'm more concerned about cruisers, who often do not have any person aboard who speaks English. In the rough weather earlier in this passage, a big sloop crossed our bow (we were leeward) about 1/8 of a mile away, which is too close when in heavy weather and not racing. They wouldn't respond to a hail on VHF.

MAN OVERBOARD: When I teach man-overboard procedures back at Tradewinds Sailing School, I always tell the story of how Mr. Shrode went overboard. It's not something I'm proud of but it was a good lesson. The accident was a result not of heavy weather, but complaisance about easy conditions and doing the same thing you had done scores of times before without incident. We had sailed the Bay on a perfect afternoon and had returned to our harbor at Marina Bay. We rolled up the Genoa and Mr. Shrode went forward to douse the main. I ducked below to switch to the starter battery, and in the five seconds that took, a wind shift caused an uncontrolled jibe. The boom came across and grazed Terry on the top of the head hard enough to knock him out and send him overboard. Had he not been crouching, the blow would have been fatal. As it was, he woke up in the water with the sail ties still in his hand, stalwart crew that he is. Meanwhile, I had come out of the companionway to see Mr. Shrode's heels clear the lifelines, like in a cartoon. The thing I try to impress on my students is that my mind, at this point, went blank. I had a profound, almost irresistible urge to turn the boat in Mr. Shrode's direction. Yet some other part of my brain set me on "automatic" and the rote process of the maneuver to get the boat back to him under control, which requires the counter-intuitive move of turning away from him to begin with, took over. I did what I had practiced seemingly thousands of times, perfectly executed a figure-eight, and parked the boat just to windward of him. Since, fortunately, he was conscious, if bloody and bruised, all that was required was to deploy the swim ladder and he was aboard. The point being that simply knowing what you're supposed to do is not enough, because practice is the only thing that will give you the clarity of purpose you need when the time comes.

But out here, when you strap your boat into downwind mode and have strings and poles all over the place, it's not so easy to stop the boat or turn it around. Mr. Shrode and I reviewed the whole procedure recently, we think we can do it fairly quickly. We don't have the confidence practice brings, however, because I don't want to risk shredding a light wind sail, which may happen, to rehearse the routine. But the fact is that at sea, your chances of survival if you go over the side are not very encouraging.


Not since our piece on penis sheathes in Vanuatu has a subject so inspired our readers as the recent missive entitled "The Bung." Neither geology, nor world history, nor local culture, nor derring-do, has the power to move the readership to passion and poetry the way that references to genitalia and bowels do. Science has no explanation of this phenomenon

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