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Cold water, hypothermia and the realities of sailboat racing

by David Schmidt 5 Mar 08:00 PST March 5, 2019
Puget Sound on a rare sunny winter morning, as seen from Sunset Hill Park © Coreen Schmidt

I'll begin today's tale by acknowledging that I only caught a fleeting glimpse at a potentially life-threatening situation that unfurled during last Saturday's Blakely Rock Race here on Puget Sound, and that I'm admittedly light on details, facts and even studied opinions. But I can share what I saw, what our team did right, what other teams did right, and how a serious situation was handled - from my limited vantage point on a nearby rail - in a smart and seaman-like manner by all involved parties.

The day started off as perfectly as a March day on Puget Sound can start: Brilliant sunshine, a steady 12-14 northerly breeze that filled in as the hours unwound, and a cooperative tide cycle that got progressively friendlier over the course of the 21-mile race, which began off of Seattle's Shilshole Marina and would take the fleet north to a turning mark before the kites were hoisted and a postcard-perfect spinnaker ride to Blakely Rock ensued, followed by a mellow uphill leg to the finishing line.

What could go wrong?

While the RC had a small issue with a runaway mark that required a full-fleet recall and a restart most of the way through the initial starting sequence (ahem), we eventually got off the starting line and charged through the small chop to the turning mark, which was now roughly a single nautical mile north of the starting line.

Kites were soon filled, and Dark Star was off like a shot, easily hitting 13s and 14s on the fun-o-meter, carrying a full square-headed mainsail, an A2, and a J2. Sunshine fragmented in the spray coming off the bows, competing only with our smiles for the brightest thing around as we charged south along Bainbridge Island's easternmost flank.

We pulled off a few nearly flawless gybes but as we were setting ourselves up for a great rounding of the rock pile that regularly generates workflow for the local yards, we started to realize that things were not right in front of us.

We initially spotted a spinnaker trailing well astern of a 30/35-footer. We watched from the windward rail, trying to decode the situation as other boats took evasive maneuvers to avoid the sail or the struggling vessel, and it was at this point that we noticed a strange, orange-ish float (N.B. I'm partially color blind, so my reportage here could be flawed) that just looked wrong and fully out of place. I remember blinking through the spray, trying to properly image the situation, when someone from our cockpit yelled the words that I've feared for all 42 of my years sailing on this lonely planet.

"Man Overboard!"

In 45-degree Fahrenheit brine.

Our skipper, Jonathan McKee, quickly swung into recovery mode, calmly instructing someone to keep unblinking eyes on the MOB and ordering the foredeck crew to get the kite down in a hurry. Instantly, I was off the rail and down in the forepeak, helping another crewmember to haul down the kite as everyone on deck worked super fast and efficiently to arrest our boatspeed. Then, just as we were about to fire up the iron jenny, one of the other boats nearby made the rescue, plucking a presumably freezing cold sailor from the drink on a day that no one would ever willingly contemplate a swim.

Once we could see that the MOB was safely aboard, we quickly re-hoisted our kite and got back to business, but there was no mistaking a certain seriousness that washed over our crew as we enjoyed the final beat back home. Simply put, sailing on 45-degree water in late winter isn't beginner stuff. Not only can hypothermia become a serious concern for an MOB in a matter of minutes, but these are also the sorts of temperatures that can instantly cause shock-induced cardiac arrest.

In the time that has elapsed since hearing those scary words ("Man Overboard!"), I've had some time to reflect on what went right and why. First off, everyone on Dark Star stayed calm and collected. I'll chalk a lot of this up to McKee's superb leadership, however each crewmember performed their work well, stayed unemotional and worked efficiently as a group. We've practiced these maneuvers before, and our ability to instantly lock into this mode could have made a real difference if our vessel had been called on to make the save.

Moreover, and again from my personal perspective, it seemed as though the rest of the fleet also reacted properly by instantly slowing their boats, getting MOB gear into the water, and getting word out on the VHF. And, critically, the skipper of the boat that made the pick-up seemed to have done so with minimal fuss and wasted time. This later bit is as critical as anything else that happened out on the water that day.

While Seattle sailors understand that mere minutes count in terms of survival in these waters, all sailors in all latitudes and longitudes should consider this admittedly half-told tale and make sure that MOB drills are part of their regular crew experience. Better still, run through this practice in breeze-on conditions, with the kite up and other boats around, as that could very well be your real-world situation. wishes all readers a safe and happy season of racing sailboats, but this weekend helped illustrate that a good percentage of the happiness factor hinges on the timeless trifecta of preparation, seamanship and leadership.

May the four winds blow you safely home.

David Schmidt
Editor, North America

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