A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol crew simulate a chase and man-overboard situation with a dummy as part of an exercise off Panama City, Fla. The Oct. 7 drill brought together the Coast Guard, Coast Guard Auxiliary, Customs, the Panama City Fire and Rescue and Police departments, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Trouble can find even experienced sailors
By Greg Coppa
Some of my friends and I have been sailing together for 50 years. We still love the sound of a hull cutting through waves, sleeping in quiet harbors and harvesting the energy of a brisk wind to take us wherever we want to go.
We have every intention of continuing to enjoy our passion, but this year I experienced two incidents in the space of a month that reminded me that sailing is a sport that requires all of us to always be prepared and to be in good mental and physical shape. And a reality was brought home during these incidents: Age changes the game for an older sailor, and it must be factored in anytime you leave the dock or mooring.
Shortly after July 4, three of us who have been sailing together for those five decades were joined by a casual sailor for an “old geezer” cruise. The plan was to take a four-day trip from Wickford, R.I., to Sag Harbor, N.Y., with a short offshore component.
We left Wickford with light winds and used the iron jib more than we wished because we wanted to get into unfamiliar harbors before darkness. After 10 hours under way, approaching land but still in open waters, a thunderstorm over the mainland made an appearance. It looked as if it were going to slide harmlessly behind us, which it did. But the air suddenly turned cool, and a freshening breeze was noted, causing us to strain our eyes to see what was approaching. I didn’t have to strain my old eyes for long because a skittering waterspout made a rapid, unexpected and impressive appearance. It wasn’t an immediate threat, and in truth I found it rather entertaining, but I knew something was amiss.
Sure enough, I could see the horizon disappearing as spray whipped off the waves and created a white mist. Seas built quickly. The three of us who were sailors did what we were supposed to do: head up into the wind as much as possible, drop and secure the sails, resume a comfortable sailing attitude and — as two more waterspouts danced around — hold on for dear life when knocked down by a gust estimated at 50 knots.
I was at the helm, but the reassuring fact was that three of us were completely interchangeable and capable of dealing with the conditions. The “reserve” was available to monitor the radio and pass up PFDs and liquid nourishment. As far as moving the boat along was concerned, very little conversation was necessary. The person for whom some required action was easiest to execute always completed it without prompt.
The weather radio warning apparently came two minutes before we were struck. We didn’t hear it because by then we were too busy to play around with the radio. Not all of us had put on our PFDs because the squall came up chillingly fast and we got caught up doing what you would expect. But this is how tragedies happen to experienced boaters. If one of us had gone over the side, he was not going to be retrieved quickly or easily because, for starters, it was pretty bad out there, and that was before we noticed that the inflatable had turned turtle and was acting like a diving plane, fighting our efforts to retrieve it. Interestingly, we didn’t notice our submerged tender because we were going so fast that it wasn’t much of a drogue, but it sure as hell would have prevented us from going to windward to retrieve anybody.
One of the geezers went below and checked the chart for a port of refuge, which we found. It had a narrow channel that was exposed to the weather we were in, but it would have to do because darkness was approaching faster, thanks to the cloud cover. The wind relented briefly on approach, the inflatable was restored — minus a gas tank — and we slipped into the protected cove, anchoring close to a sheltering bluff. After making sure we were staying in one place, we enjoyed an expertly prepared canned corned beef hash dinner with green beans. We acquitted ourselves well and slept peacefully.
We had a good boat, a good crew, and we performed as we should have, making note of a few things we would do differently — such as having the life jackets more accessible, even in seemingly good weather. The rest of the cruise was perfect.
The second incident involved a daysailer a little more than 20 feet in length. I was skippering it with a person I’ve been sailing with for more than 30 years and a person who wasn’t a sailor but had been on boats more than a few times, usually as a passenger or directed crewmember. We proceeded downwind out of the harbor easily, using the main alone in a moderate breeze.
We sailed along contentedly, but the wind petered out when we had to return to port. I asked the experienced crewmember to put up the jib. I knew that this person had difficulty using fingers because of some prior surgery, so I asked the less experienced person to assist in hanking on the sail to the forestay. That was done and the jib halyard was attached.
Then a “black swan” question came from the foredeck: “How do I connect the sail?”
My first thought was to say, “The way you connect all jibs.” The person pointed to the bow, where I knew there was a permanent snap shackle not more than 3 inches from a grommet for the tack. I indicated that was where it should go, but I wondered why I was being asked.
As it turned out, the jib sheet snap shackle was secured in the same vicinity, and the tack was attached to that, unbeknownst to me. As often happens in these situations, the wind suddenly made an appearance 180 degrees from where it had been coming. This small foredeck was not a good place for two people, one weighing more than 200 pounds. The crewmember who had been sailing with me for decades knew something was wrong, but not what, and was waiting for more direction from me. Not understanding what was going on and with the wind getting squirrelly, I just wanted the jib attached, the two crewmembers off the deck and the sail raised with no fooling around.
After some reflection, which took far too long in the opinion of this helmsman, the deck crew realized a sail can’t be trimmed with the sheets attached to the tack. At this time I was still unaware of the confusion. I couldn’t fathom that the halyard could already be attached and that there could be any question on the part of someone who had sailed as long as this person about how the tack and clew would then be attached. If memory had failed, certainly logic would prevail.
We had another classic case of “let’s just get this done and talk about it later.” It had worked that way when we geezers were caught in the storm, but it was not working now in an apparently much simpler situation. The wind was strengthening and extremely fluky. Neither person on deck was capable of taking the helm to allow me to determine what the problem was.
We were not going to capsize, but a number of other unpleasant possibilities presented themselves. A gust could catch us and heel the boat enough for two people to go over the side. They could abandon the unsecured jib, which with the freshening air could flap vigorously, go over the side and present another series of challenges with additional risks.
Once the sail was raised and everyone was safely in the cockpit, the sail to the mooring was uneventful and fun.
The lesson of these two anecdotes is that older sailors must evaluate themselves and their crews even more carefully than when they were younger. This is true for a casual day sail or an offshore passage. Sixty-year-olds, in general, have neither the balance nor strength of a 30-year-old. One would hope they have the mental sharpness and experience to get out of dicey situations or avoid them in the first place. But that may or may not be true. Things change. People change. Why an experienced sailor had the above lapse is unknown. I may not ever find out why.
As a result of my experiences last summer, I’ve vowed to bring and keep accessible my own gear whenever sailing on another person’s boat — PFD, EPIRB, handheld radio, strobe, etc. I will also more carefully evaluate the qualifications of my fellow crewmembers.
Boating is a great sport, but there are risks. And as we grow older, the nature of these risks is not always the same as it once was, a fact that we must take into consideration for the safety of ourselves and those who may depend on us.
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue.