When you’re talking about the thorny but important subject of onboard safety it’s easy to come across as pedantic and condescending—after all, as sailors we are imbued with a healthy respect for water and weather that arguably does not extend to many of our powerboating brethren, who can use horsepower to get themselves out of situations that sensible sailors would not get themselves into.
Finger-wagging lectures on the importance of wearing lifejackets and harnesses are so common that many of us pay little attention to them. I recall fighting to stay awake through a safety-at-sea seminar during which speaker after speaker went through subjects so familiar to me that I blanked out almost everything I heard. This is not an attitude I would recommend. And yet, you could distill the most important rule of sailing safety into just three words: don’t fall overboard.
A clonk on the head from a wayward boom is survivable; rope burns are painful but heal soon enough. So do the bruises and boat bites many of us come home with after a day or a week on the water—a toe stubbed on a deck fitting, a cut from a poorly taped cotter pin, a bruised forehead from a low doorway. Fall overboard, though, and you will most likely die.
I recently read the Chicago Yacht Club’s report into the loss overboard and subsequent drowning of Jon Santarelli, who fell overboard from a TP52 at the start of last year’s Chicago-Mac race in strong winds and rough seas. It is sobering stuff. Santarelli was wearing an auto-inflating lifejacket that didn’t auto-inflate, and he apparently made no attempt to inflate it manually. The highly experienced crew appear to have done everything right in their quest to retrieve him but were hampered both by the conditions and the type and setup of the boat—I did not know that dropping the main on a TP52 involved six crew and a time-consuming sequence of steps, for instance.
They came close to Santarelli three times, but the skinny foils on these designs stall out at low speeds, leading to a loss of control, and on the last attempt it appears the bow blew downwind and the boat went over him. Soon afterward, Santarelli was seen to raise his arms and slip under the water. His body was recovered a week later.
This is the shortest of synopses of that tragic incident, and I urge you to read the full report at cycracetomackinac.com/the-race/safety/. There are lessons in there for anyone who spends time on the water.
Crew-overboard scenarios don’t always end that badly. Take the case of Arne Murke, who was knocked overboard by a swinging boom off the New Zealand coast back in March. He was not wearing a lifejacket, but remembered some survival training from his youth. Slipping off his jeans, he tied knots in the legs and inflated them by dragging the jeans over the water. The makeshift PFD kept Murke afloat for two hours before he was spotted by a rescue helicopter, proving that presence of mind is as important a safety aid as the equipment you carry.