Survival begins before the accident

Published on August 22nd, 2022

For his 44 years as a military pilot and Commercial airline Captain, Craig Warner has had the benefit of the most intense safety training available. He is also a 40-year-long racer (who was on the winning J/105 SEALARK – owned by Clark Pellet – in the 2022 Chicago Mackinac Race) and has always tried to bring his safety background knowledge and commitment to sailing. In this report, Warner shares a compelling case for prevention:

On the Chicago to Waukegan Race back in 1992, a good friend of mine, a fellow Soling sailor, crewed on one of the boats in the race. She had been racing for some 20 years, and she loved the sport. To quote her, “I can count on two hands the times I wore a life jacket. This year’s beat to Waukegan was not one of them.”

The skipper ordered life jackets, and she handed them to the crew while she was down below navigating. When she came on deck, she forgot to wear hers. At some point during the race, she went overboard.

When she hit the water, she began to find it increasingly difficult to breathe due to inhaling water. Her clothing quickly became saturated and impaired her swimming ability. As she struggled, she saw another boat pass by with crew members pointing at her. When they left without rendering aid, she felt despair. The survival clock started ticking, and for all practical purposes, it was fait accompli!

Cold water reflex instinctively caused her to gasp when she hit the water. Enough water entered her lungs, and her ability to get air had ended. In addition, her body quickly began to shut down. She described being fully conscious and able to see and think clearly, but it felt like light switches shutting off her body.

The water felt like it seared her throat. Within a few minutes, unable to swim, scream for help, and weighted down with her clothing, she sank. Minutes after entering the water, she was near death. She told me, “I was sinking and was helpless to stop it. The last thing I saw was a bright light and Jesus.”

The bright light was the sun penetrating the several feet of water above her, and Jesus was a crew member from her vessel that saw her go down. He jumped into the water, risking his life, and brought her to the surface and life.

Her crew took her to the nearest port, where she physically fully recovered. But maybe not, fully recovered. The episode disturbed her enough to quit her beloved sport of sailing a few years later. A happy life has followed. She married a fellow Soling skipper whom she met on the Mac race. They raised a son and are still married.

Had a PFD been worn, the drama of this event would have been far less. Safety training and accident analysis make it very clear that boaters need to wear a PFD at all times. It is frustrating that boaters resist this basic rule of safety.

Sailors who do not realize the risk of not wearing PFDs form a mental map of their environment. Their incorrect perception of reality lets them see what they want to see, but that made-up reality is not the actual reality. The water is very unforgiving to the unprepared.

Accidents will happen; prepare yourself for them. If you don’t, you may not survive! As the victim stated, “Near drowning was the most sobering experience … under nearly any conditions, wear a life jacket. If not for yourself – for the crew.” The article’s author would like to add, and for those who love you.

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