Man Overboard: The Most Important Race

Published on April 30th, 2016

It was a record-setting year for the Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race, with overall elapsed and monohull times being eclipsed on the 125-mile course from California to Baja Mexico. But following the April 22 start, the race for Gordon Leon’s Farr 40 Foil became about a rescue. Here Gordon tells the story…

Foil was having a great sail during the 2016 Ensenada race. Peter prepared another stellar sailing meal and had just cleaned up as we reached the Northern Coronado Island. The wind subsided a bit and I handed over the helm to Val so that I could have my dinner. By the time I finished, it was dark so I put on my foulie pants and came on deck to relieve Val at the helm.

The wind picked up again and Val was surfing 12-15 knots in about 20 knots of breeze. The Farr 40 is a very strong and powerful boat and everyone was having a great time going fast. Then, disaster struck. Foil took a bad wave which kicked the stern causing a spectacular round down. Val lost his footing and tumbled through the port lifelines and into the water, after dark, with no lifejacket!

The reason to relive the incident here is to both clarify the events in our own minds as well as act as an object lesson for Foilistas and others. A combination of events led to one of our crew being in mortal danger and we were all very lucky that it had a happy ending. I have asked several crew members to give their accounts so that you can hear the story and the lessons from more than one perspective.

Our Foil crew of six had three regulars and three new crew members (3 men and 3 women). Two of my regular crew had to cancel at the last minute and some of the other regulars had prior commitments on other boats. I was the only experienced Farr 40 driver, but all of the rest of the crew were experienced sailors.
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Val: As we heading to Newport, Gordon was going over the start times, boat responsibilities and I noticed the boat had a Dan Buoy and I asked him about it. He explained the theory of how it is supposed to work and then goes into the man overboard procedures. I half heartily listened much like when the flight crew on an airliner goes over the seat-belt and oxygen mask procedures. I’ve heard this a thousand times, I’m never going to need it, but okay let’s get going.

We had a typical light air N2E start, but the wind quickly built to 10-15 knots. It was a fantastic Southern California sailing day. We sailed all afternoon making distance down the course.

Gordon went down to grab some food after the rest of us, and I was given the helm. I’m not sure how long I was driving but we started getting a rhythm. We would surf and our speed got up around 15+ knots. The boat handled well, accelerating with every wave and gust of wind. We were all having fun watching the speed with each wave. But we broke our rule. We were having too much fun sailing and forgetting about safety.

It was around 8pm and no one was clipped in. Patricia made the comment she was going below to get her vest and asked if I wanted one. I told her no. My thought was to give Gordon more time before I asked him to take the helm. He had been doing the bulk of the driving and I was feeling “in the groove”. But overconfidence got the best of me and we rounded down. My foot slipped off the block. The last thing I heard before I hit the water was “Oh my God he’s gone.”
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Gordon: Patricia, who was the only one with a life jacket, ran back and grabbed the tiller and stabilized the boat. I rushed up from below and took over the helm and started to direct the rescue. I called for the Dan Buoy to be thrown to Val as Foil was drifting away with our chute wrapped around the head stay, and our boom in the water.

There was nothing that we could do to get back to Val until we doused the flapping spinnaker. The wind was still blowing about 20 knots with breaking seas that did not help. After throwing the Dan Buoy to Val, Lisa came back and pointed at Val while the rest of the crew got to work removing the spinnaker.
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Lisa: I found my life’s direction in that moment. It was so very clear and unmistakable. My entire life’s experience, my loves, my losses, the tears, the smiles, everything, absolutely everything, came down to this moment.

This moment in time off the coast of the continent where two countries borders meet, miles from either border, I came to see an unexpected destiny. I was meant to point at Val and never lose sight of him until he is back on board the boat. No matter what happens, my only reason for being on this or any planet is to have my index finger dead on the spot where he is or I last had sight of him.
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Val: When I surfaced I had a searing pain; my left arm would not move. Then I heard someone yell, “There he is, throw the buoy.” When the buoy hit the water, it took only a few seconds for it to deploy but it was the longest few seconds of my life. My first thought when I only saw the splash was, “Oh crap – no buoy and no life vest, I’m screwed” (actually I used other words you can fill in the blanks).

The Dan Buoy did as advertised; it inflated, the strobe starting pulsing. Now I had to get to it. I knew I was hurt and not sure how bad, but I needed to secure myself to the buoy. It was the only flotation device I had. If I lost it, my survival chances go down dramatically.

Fortunately it was only a few feet from me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold on to it with one arm so I straddle it like a pool toy and rode it. Here’s where I think a lifetime of surfing and playing in the ocean paid off. I’m very comfortable in the water and having been rolled by 1000’s of waves, I didn’t panic because I knew I would surface.
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Gordon: To everyone’s credit, there was no panic and everyone focused on their jobs. The only way to get the spinnaker down was to blow the halyard and put the spinnaker in the water. Foil was in irons and drifting slowly, but it still took three people to haul the spinnaker and lines on board.

I couldn’t start the motor until everything was clear or we would have wrapped the propeller and had even bigger problems. By the time we cleared everything and got the motor started, we were over 500 yards from Val. We could just see a strobe every few waves in the distance.
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Val: As the boat approached I could hear the spotter saying I see him. Gordon yelled out and asked my condition, giving me instructions on what he was going to do to get me with the Life Sling and pick me up. They made a pass tossed the sling a little too far from me to get, so another pass would be needed. On the second approach the sling came within a few feet. I was able to reach out and lock onto the sling and get it around my head and get my right arm through it.

Unable to move my left arm it was the best I could do. Gordon, unable to stop the boat because he needed to keep steerage way, was able to slow it down enough to where the crew attempted to pull me to the stern of the boat.

As they pulled they must have felt like they were pulling 300 plus pounds of weight. I’m about 200 pounds dry, but now in wet foulies, and with my legs in a death grip around my new best friend “Dan Buoy”, they were dragging all this weight through the water. Knowing I couldn’t shed my clothes, I had to lighten the load. I had to let go of the only thing keeping me from slipping into the sea if I were to fall out of the sling.

Getting on the boat was my only real shot at survival so I let go of my new best friend “Dan”.
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Gordon: The next job was to get a wet and injured man out of the water. The advertisements all show lifting a man from the end of the boom with sunny skies and calm seas. That was not the case on Friday night. We couldn’t even pull him up to the transom by hand so we used a winch to get him to the back of the boat. Two women and a man struggled to get him aboard. Adrenaline is a great thing when you need it.

Val was able to use his good arm to help and was wrestled on board. After a little rest in the back of the cockpit, we helped him below where he stripped out of his wet clothes and was bundled in sleeping bags.

We retired from the race and headed back to San Diego to get medical care for Val. We called the Coast Guard to report a free floating Dan Buoy with strobe after we picked up Val. They were very helpful, offering medical assistance when we reached the dock, but we were out of danger at that time and didn’t need further assistance.
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Lisa: Val kept apologizing to the point where I thought he might be delirious. I asked him a few questions to confirm he was lucid. I looked at him for a second then I said, “Val, you didn’t f— up our day. You’re here, alive. We couldn’t be happier. If you had died…that would have f—ed up our day.”
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Gordon: We have had several days to reflect on our accident. There are so many things that we could have done and should have done. Let me start the lesson section by complimenting the crew for keeping focused on the task at hand and Val for keeping a level head while he was injured and in the rough sea, as Foil drifted away into the night. Disasters seldom happen when there are ideal conditions and they certainly were not ideal this time.

Things we did right:

• Held a safety briefing before starting the race.
• Had a Dan Buoy, Life Sling, and throwing lines ready on the stern of the boat.
• When disaster struck, everyone kept their cool and focused on the jobs at hand.
• Organized quickly to start lifesaving operations.
• Kept Val in sight (we could only see the strobe when it wasn’t hidden by waves).

What we could have or should have done:
• First and foremost, we should all have put on life jackets and tethers much earlier. I, as skipper, should have set an example. There should be no fuzz on the dusk-till-dawn life jacket rule. And, life jackets should be worn offshore in big breeze.
• Always choose to hold onto the boat first, even if it means losing a tiller, a sail, or whatever.
• Ping the MOB GPS position ASAP!
• It would have been helpful to have a personal AIS or EPIRB system on board. With only 5 of us, we were all too busy to really use one, but it would have been a good back up system and essential if we hadn’t gotten the Dan Buoy to Val.

We were all very lucky. I know of only one ocean racing incident where a sailor went overboard after dark and survived. And, I know of several that have occurred in California in the past couple of years who did not. This has been a valuable lesson to me and I hope by sharing it we can keep others from perishing needlessly while we pursue our favorite sport.

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