“I’m a bloke. I just took it out of the box and attached it to my life jacket,” says Andrew Taylor, who nearly died after a wave swept him overboard in rough seas in the North Pacific in the 2013-14 Clipper Round the World Race. “I didn’t read the instructions.”
A London sporting events caterer, Taylor, now 47, survived 100 minutes in the 52-degree water. He was hypothermic and hallucinating and likely near death when the crew of the 72-foot Derry London-Derry Doire hoisted him back aboard. Taylor, who spoke at a webinar hosted by McMurdo, the British manufacturer of emergency alert products, was carrying a Smartfind S10 AIS man-overboard beacon on his life jacket, but he never read the instructions for its use, so he was in the water for more than an hour before he realized the internal GPS had not engaged. Had he turned the beacon on properly, it would have activated the GPS, and his position would have flashed on LondonDerry’s chart plotter. It would have transmitted his real-time GPS position and repeated the transmission every two seconds. It would have given the crew a range and bearing to his exact position.
“I hadn’t tested [the beacon]. I hadn’t trained with it,” Taylor says. “I should have read the instructions.”
LondonDerry was racing across the Pacific from Qingdao, China, to San Francisco when about midday March 30 last year he and skipper Sean McCarter were at the bow changing headsails in a 35-knot wind and 15- to 20-foot seas. They were having trouble unhanking the sail, so Taylor knelt down and unhooked from the jackline to go below for pliers.
Just as he unhooked, a third man volunteered to get them. “I stood up, and we got hit by an enormous wave,” Taylor says. The boat rolled sharply, and when it righted, “I wasn’t on deck,” he says. He had been thrown across the balky headsail and over the rail into the water, 3,000 miles from land.
“It happened so fast,” he says. “There was no loss of balance, no chance to steady myself or grab anything. One second I was on deck, the next I was in the water.”
He felt the rush of water, but it wasn’t because the boat was dragging him along by his safety line. He was no longer clipped to the boat. “A rudder ran over my legs, spun me around and took me under the water. The pain was excruciating.”
Taylor’s life jacket inflated, and the dry suit he was wearing gave him some protection against the shock of the 52-degree water. He took the AIS beacon out of its pouch, saw an arrow on the orange knob, pulled a cotter pin, twisted the knob and the beacon began flashing. He may have turned the knob counterclockwise, activating a battery test. Whatever happened, the GPS did not engage. The beacon, which sends a locator signal to all AIS-enabled equipment within a four-mile radius, did not transmit his position — or any signal — to the boat.
Meanwhile aboard LondonDerry, McCarter had rushed to the helm shouting “man overboard” and punched the MOB button to register the location where Taylor went in on the plotter. The crew swung into action, as they often had practiced, dropping sails, starting the engine, swinging the boat around to return to the MOB position and posting a lookout on the first spreader to keep Taylor in sight. As they went into action, Taylor drifted away at what McCarter estimated to be a speed of 1 or 2 knots. He would later find out the drift rate was 4 knots. After 200 meters, the crew lost visual contact with Taylor. Having no position update from his beacon, they began to search.
“I watched as the boat disappeared,” Taylor says. He thought it would be back to pick him up in a matter of minutes, but it wasn’t. The next 100 minutes were brutal. “I was wondering if my legs were broken,” he says. “The pain was unbearable.”
He became colder and colder, and drifted in and out of consciousness. He lost all concept of time. He decided that to stay alive he had to stay focused, so he thought about friends and family at home — his mother and his daughter, Siobhan, 18. He worried that he hadn’t left any instructions for his funeral but decided that wasn’t a good thing to think about.
He remembered it was his mother’s birthday. He hadn’t sent her anything — no gift, no card, no greeting of any kind. This renewed his strength and helped him focus. “I wasn’t going to die on my mum’s birthday,” he says.
Eventually he stopped shivering. He stopped feeling cold, no longer felt scared. He began to feel euphoric; he heard voices but didn’t see anything. His mind was playing tricks on him. “I realized this was a bad place,” he says. “I was in an advanced stage of hypothermia. … I even thought this could be a nice way to go.”
Black clouds bore down on him. Fifty-knot gusts whipped the sea into a froth and lashed his face with rain and hail. After 10 minutes the storm subsided, and he caught fleeting glimpses of LondonDerry’s mast. McCarter and the crew were searching for him, but he couldn’t understand why. “If you have someone up the mast, it means you must be looking for me. It means you don’t know where I am. I wondered why. Everyone knows I have AIS. I should be up on their screen. They should know where I am.
“I looked at the AIS — and I still to this day don’t know why I did this — I turned it off, and I turned it back on again. When I did, it flashed differently.”
Properly activated, Taylor’s McMurdo Smartfind S10 works this way, according to McMurdo’s marketing manager, Sean McCrystal: “You simply pull the pin, pull the orange knob, twist [clockwise] and release to lock on to GPS. Turn in the opposite direction to test. The orange knob pulls out, turns, then drops in [to activate], whereas with a test it turns in the other direction but springs back into place.”
Taylor had been in the water for more than an hour, according to McCarter. He was more than a mile from the boat. The crew had begun to worry that they might be looking for a body now instead of a man overboard, but when Taylor’s position appeared on the chart plotter, LondonDerry shifted from search mode to recovery mode.
“I was hearing voices again,” Taylor says, “but this time I turned around to see the boat bearing down on me.” It comes off a wave. “Now I’m scared the boat is going to run me down.”
Crewman Jason Middleton, wearing a safety harness clipped to a halyard, went into the water with Taylor. They wrapped their arms around each other, and Middleton tried to slip a helicopter strap around Taylor, but it fell off. The boat had to make a second pass and then a third to get the strap around him so they could lift him aboard. “I wonder if I have enough strength to do this now,” Taylor says. “I shout to myself that I need to focus. I need to get out of this. I’m not going to have another chance. I pump myself up.”
Taylor successfully passed the safety line to Middleton, who clipped it to the halyard. “It’s a noise I’ll never forget.” The crew then hauled him in.
Aboard LondonDerry, Taylor drifted in and out of consciousness for four hours as the boat’s medic rotated him in and out of dry sleeping bags stuffed with warm water bottles to slowly bring his body temperature back up and treat the shock and hypothermia. Taylor had nearly died from the cold but recovered and completed the race. His legs had not been broken; they were badly bruised.
Had LondonDerry’s rudder hit his head, the end to this story likely would have been much different, Taylor says. His life jacket kept him afloat, his dry suit saved him from a hypothermic death, the AIS beacon led LondonDerry back to him, and the crew’s MOB training got him out of the water.
“I do consider myself a very, very, very lucky boy,” he says. He learned a major life lesson, as well: “Read the instructions.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue.