Overboard: Stories from off the boat

Published on June 3rd, 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. Stuart Munro shares his experience.

I was foredeck on Jamerella, a Farr One Tonner (40 foot) in 1987 and we were in the Admiral’s Cup trials for the British team, so that meant a lot of thrashing around the English Channel.

In one of the races (I think it was the Morgan Cup but it was long time ago), we were on the wind, at night, about 30 miles south of Isle of Wight when I went forward to change the #1 headsail to the #2 as the wind was increasing.

As I went forward, I steadied myself against the medium #1 (with my foot braced on the spinnaker pole). However, it was evidently already stressed as the next thing I knew, I was through the sail and over the side.

I did manage to grab hold of the spinnaker sheet as I went over but even at 6+ knots, I would have drowned if I had hung onto it so I let it go and watched as Jamerella sailed on, albeit a bit slower than before as it had a man sized hole in #1.

Wise people had said that there are three things as foredeck you should avoid: going over the side, going over the side offshore, and going over the side offshore and at night. I had done all three in one go. As it was past midnight, it was definitely night. No harness (well it was only just over 20 knots with three to five foot seaway), and, no, I was not wearing a personal buoyancy aid. However, I was wearing a dry suit.

Fortunately, the rest of the crew had lots of talent (Lawrie Smith and Rodney Paterson to name but two of them) and they threw the Dan buoy with the strobe over the side. Even though the seaway was not much, I never saw the strobe light until I eventually got back on the boat.

They managed to keep an eye on where I was (the reflective strips on the dry suit were very effective as was the inherent buoyancy in the dry suit) and they turned the boat around pretty sharpish whilst taking down what remains of the headsail.

As they sailed back to me, I just managed to avoid being hit by the bow and eventually was scooped up over the stern (it had an open stern) and was back on board in less than 10 minutes. What took another twenty minutes was picking up the Dan buoy and the life ring which I could then see flashing very clearly.

All thoughts of winning the race were gone as we were at least 30 minutes behind our rivals (including my brother on Yeoman XXIII) but Rodney buffed up his gold medals and said that we should take the inside route back to the Needles from a mark off Anvil Point so as to avoid the tide as the wind was now dropping.

We also picked up a favorable tide, and by St Catherine’s Point (so halfway back to the east part of the Isle of Wight), we were in the lead and won the race. My brother was not impressed but then why would I care as we had given the rest of the trialists a 30 minute break and they still blew it.

I can’t say that I was converted to either using a harness or a buoyancy aid after that incident (except in heavy weather when it seemed eminently sensible), and I remember feeling dispassionate about the whole experience in so much as I was in the water and there was nothing else to do but hope they would get back to me quickly.

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