Overboard: Stories from off the boat

Published on January 20th, 2020

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. Keith Burhans shares his incident:

Back in February of 2002, our team was racing in an IFDS Regatta at the St Petersburg Yacht Club Sailing Center. Our Sydney 2000 Paralympic teammate, Corky Aucreman, had retired so we were in the process of ‘trying out’ new people to find the right crew person to join our three-person Sonar team.

Saturday was a typical Tampa Bay race day. We showed up after a relaxed breakfast, then killed time around rigging the boat, chatting with coaches and competitors and patiently wait for signs of a sea breeze. I don’t even recall if we even sailed that day. Tampa Bay was quite often a millpond.

But overnight, a SE breeze kicked up and Sunday morning we arrived to a fresh halyard-pinging 18 to 20 knot breeze. It was game on. We rigged the boat and set out of the sailing center, into the inner harbor, and toward the harbor entrance.

Just to paint a clear picture, the harbor entrance is just south of ‘The Pier’ and just north of the ‘SP Airport Runway’. With the fresh overnight SE wind, it is a lee shore washing machine in its tumble cycle. Nasty, lumpy confused seas in a confined area with a rip-rap shoreline surrounding us to leeward – tossing dirty waves into the air and daring us to screw up.

A few months after the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games, Paul Callahan and I talked about whether or not we were going to continue campaigning. We both felt that we had unfinished business with a seventh place finish and committed to compete together for Athens 2004.

In our Sydney campaign, as our skipper, Paul was strapped into his seat on the starboard side of the cockpit. We were very competitive in a breeze on starboard tack – but not so much on port – which is only half of the time when course racing.

So I committed to design and build a seating/steering system that would allow Paul to switch sides when we tacked. I spent a lot of time in 2001 building and fitting, rebuilding and tweaking what I was now calling ‘The Gold Medal Seat’. By the 2002 season in Florida, we had tested it in sailing practice sessions and it was ready for testing in real racing conditions…

Paul was in charge of recruiting potential crew to try out for our team. On this weekend, he had invited Mike to come and sail with us. Mike looked like a good fit for our team. He stood 6+ feet and weighed about 200 lbs. He sported two good arms and legs and was an experienced sailor in New England. He was a ‘7’ on the IFDS Classification Code, which would give our team the maximum number of points to qualify. Mike was visually impaired and a ‘B3’ on the ‘Blind Sailing’ scale.

Back to the harbor entrance…

So by now, the 2.4mRs and Sonars have all followed the Race Committee out into the maelstrom. We’ve been reaching back and forth inside the flat-water inner harbor, acclimating to the puffiness and allowing Mike to get familiar with the boat and learn where all his sail control lines are in the front of the cockpit. I’m busy in the back of the cockpit tacking Paul in his seat and trimming the overpowered Sonar mainsail.

We are the last boat – it is time to go out. We approach the entrance on a starboard reach and harden up above the pier to close-hauled. The confused seas have absolutely NO rhythm and in just minutes, my worst fear is realized. We have made it as far as the airport runway and Mike has gone overboard.

It was a back ¾ somersault, flailing position, degree of difficulty 1.3, and based on the splash at entry, probably would have been a fail dive in competition.

Luckily, he didn’t cleat the jib sheet so we were able to tack around for our first MOB approach.

This is a good time to review our situation. It is blowing 18 to 20 knots from the SE. We have angry and confused, lumpy seas on a lee shore. Our visually impaired crew is bobbing in the waves, not knowing where to look, and waiting for the quadriplegic skipper with his brand new seating/steering system to attempt a man-overboard recovery without running the bobbing crewman over with the 2000 lb., 23-foot boat.

We did our figure 8 approach, tacked over and stalled out just a few feet to weather so that I could pull Mike aboard over the leeward rail. We recovered him on our first attempt. Whew!

I chased Mike out of the stern so that we could get underway and not end up against ‘The Pier’. We tacked away to port and just after our second tack toward the racecourse, Mike went overboard again for his second swim of the day.

We managed to pull off a second MOB recovery on the first attempt and then called it in for the day. I was physically spent and I had tweaked my back during the second MOB recovery.

We thanked Mike for trying out with us and explained that he was probably not the optimal solution to our teammate puzzle. I suggested that he should try out for the Paralympic swim team. He didn’t think that was funny but he did wish us well.
Scuttlebutt wants to feature your overboard experience. Send to editor@sailingscuttlebutt.com.

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