Harken Derm

Overboard: Stories from off the boat

Published on May 16th, 2019

Falling overboard can occur unexpectedly and end tragically. Staying onboard is always a priority, but even the most experienced can find themselves off the boat. Howard Chesley shares his experience.


It was on a California winter race from Marina Del Rey to Pt. Dume and back. I had an Olson 30 back then, and when we made the turn for home and set the chute, the wind was in the 20 knot range, windy for Santa Monica Bay.

The boat reared up nicely with the crew as far astern as we could get and was seeing regular 14s on the knotmeter when ninety-pound Elise bravely went up to the foredeck to jibe the pole, wearing heavy white foulies, boots and a PFD. But when she was on the bow, the boat went down a steep trough and then popped up again hard, literally catapulted Elise off the bow and over the port lifelines into the cold winter water.

We were leaving her at a rapid 10-14 knots so I barked something to the crew as I spun the boat around in a 180 so we were head to wind with the spinnaker plastered to the mast and making a racket. The pit man had the best eyes and I asked him not to do anything but keep her in sight through the steep waves and point at her. My great crew dropped the spinnaker and peeled it off the mast and rigging and we soon clawed back to weather maybe five hundred yards under main only.

Elise had let her boots go and was head above water and looking really cold when we got to her maybe five minutes later. We threw her an attached horseshoe buoy that we kept on the stern and reeled her in with the floating line. Elise was so light it was easy for two guys to yank her into the cockpit. She was shivering, weak and looking bluish.

We had another woman (a friend of a friend) with us as a passenger who had sailed but had come to learn about racing and she went below with Elise and helped her get out of her foulies and then onto a bunk under some sails where she snuggled Elise to try to get her warm.

Underway again we thought of using the motor to get Elise home quickly, but clearly the fastest way home was to put up the chute which we did. It was an Olson 30 surfing kind of day, and we actually trophied in the race when we got home, losing only to another Olson 30.

Elise, warmed up a bit, came up to watch us get the horn. The awestruck woman for whom this was her first race asked me on the way to the dock if this sort of thing happens often and I said, while suppressing a grin, “Oh yeah. Pretty much.”
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