Overboard: Stories from off the boat

Published on July 22nd, 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. Zachary Noepe shares his experience.

I took up sailing in earnest as an adult, and as I had no boat for the first few years, this meant I had to crew if I wanted to sail. But nearly useless as a big old novice, I would tend to work around the mast and would be sent forward when no one else would go.

This was in Maine, and on the way out one autumn day we had a buster building for our J/24 outing. During the second race, our bow person put the pole up without the foreguy attached, and the wind was such we were about to go Mary Poppins right up out of the water into the sky. I got the call to fix the situation, but as I got one hand on the pole and started to pull down and reach for the foreguy, the boat gybed, broached, and put the mast in the water.

I slid along the pole until I found myself off the boat which solidly on its side, showcasing its big wide underbelly and tiny little keel to the wind which was holding it over – and pushing it at me. All I could see was the wall of a deck approaching, and while I’m a good swimmer, there were so many ropes floating around I was afraid to kick much and get tangled.

The boat looked like it was sinking and I was trying to figure out how to stay out of the sails and lines as it went. We were near the mark, hulls were planing in from everywhere half under control, and I remember thinking terror is not a kind of fear, it’s a thing of its own, and I know what it is now. I couldn’t believe I’d gotten myself in that situation with no lifejacket and with two little kids at home.

With the onboard crew scampering to the high side, and the boat rotating around a little, it stood up after what seemed like eternity. Thank God for locked lazarettes, it was that close. I got myself back over that big freeboard and under the lifelines the old fashioned way; because I had to.

When we got to shore I found other dripping bowmen smoking cigarettes and shivering in a circle of stories near the cars and joined them – for the long haul as it turned out. I’ve wound up as a bowman, still more because I’m willing than because I’m good at it, but I do put a PFD with a crotch strap on at the dock and take it back off there every single time I go out.
Scuttlebutt wants to feature your overboard experience. Send to editor@sailingscuttlebutt.com.

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