Overboard: Stories from off the boat

Published on May 29th, 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. Dave Ellis shares his experiences.


I was blasting along on an estuary of Tampa Bay in Florida on a Taipan 4.9/ Formula 16 catamaran when I hooked a crab pot. The boat made a quick stop and an abrupt turn, throwing me into the water off the trapeze. I really tried to hang on to the main sheet, but predictably it slipped through my fingers. Happily, the cat flipped before too long, but it was well out of reach to try to swim faster than its drift.

I always wear a type 3 PFD that includes a whistle, and when I noticed a Sunfish off to leeward, I tooted five blasts on the whistle, hoping that he knew what that meant. Lo and behold, the Sunfish immediately turned, came expertly alongside and deposited me with great skill at the daggerboards of the sideways cat.

Impressed by his skill, I asked who he was. “I’m a crew on the Bounty,” was the reply. “They let us sail the club Sunfish when we are in town, and aren’t you the Sailing Master of St. Pete Yacht Club?” “Um, yes, I humbly replied.”

Another time was when singlehanding a 22-foot boat called a Suicide and capsized in a small thunder squall. Instead of just letting the boat float on its side until the storm passed, macho took over and I righted the boat. It had turned mast to windward, so the neat way to handle that is to get on the daggerboard to right the boat, but hang on and go under the water with the inevitable re-capsize and then take care of it when the mast is to leeward.

So that’s what I did, except as I rolled under, I realized that the water was shallow and I was going to be pinned by the board in the sand. Adrenaline took over and I wrenched the daggerboard but I also pulled it out of the bottom of the boat! So now the long, light boat drifted quickly onward and I was forced to use the wooden board as a raft to pursue it.

I reached the shoreline and walked along, with the boat drifting out there in the tide. I noted that there was a lot of sirens and flashing lights on shore. Later I learned that a homeowner thought it was a big boat in trouble and all the tied-in gear floating with the boat were people.

When Eckerd College Search and Rescue came along, they knew me and got a good laugh as they took me to the boat. They only asked that I go to a nearby dock so that they could ‘count’ the rescue, but before getting to the dock a Fire Boat with an official-looking fellow came alongside and commanded me to board his vessel.

When I refused his command, he got on the radio to his boss and didn’t like the boss’ answer, for he took off. A couple of years later I found out that Eckerd was sued by the Fire Department for ‘Interfering with real rescue craft’. My case was used, but I was not called. The court decreed that Eckerd Search and Rescue was, indeed, a real rescue entity.
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