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Man Overboard! Practical tips for a safe rescue and survival

Incidents in Marina del Rey, Newport to Ensenada course serve as reminders of potential perils of sailing.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA — You are enjoying a pleasant day out at sea aboard a vessel and suddenly the day takes a turn for the worse. The vessel hits a swell awkwardly or strikes an object underwater to cause your boat to take on water. Perhaps you drop anchor 1 or 2 miles offshore but idled your boat in the wrong direction in relation to the swells. As a direct result of one of these situations one (or more) of the boat’s occupants falls overboard and into the water. What do you do to make the person is brought to safety?

In the past few weeks there were two specific man-overboard incidents in or near Southern California waters. Those involved with a man overboard during the recent Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race and sinking boat near Marina del Rey provided insight as to how each incident occurred. Each event also provided practical advice of how to respond whenever your boat is in trouble and/or people are overboard.

Newport to Ensenada Race

A detailed post on California Yacht Club Racing’s Facebook Page provided first person accounts of what happened aboard Foil before, during and after the man overboard incident that occurred during the Newport to Ensenada Race in April.

Foil,a Farr 40, was apparently sailing near Northern Coronado Island when winds hit about 20 knots, according to the series of first-person narratives posted on the California YC Racing page. The Farr 40 and its six-member crew were heading north after what was described as “a great sail during the 2016 Ensenada race.”

At the helm was a man named Val, who was guiding Foil through the winds at 12 to 15 knots, according to one crewmember

“The Farr 40 is a very strong and powerful boat and everyone was having a great time going fast. Then, disaster struck,” the narrative on Cal YC Racing’s Facebook page stated. “Foil took a bad wave, which kicked the stern causing a spectacular round down. Val lost his footing and tumbled through the port lifelines and into the water, after dark, with no life jacket!”

Falling overboard was likely the result of overconfident sailing and not taking the proper safety measures, according to Val.

“We were all having fun watching the speed with each wave. We broke our rule. We were having too much fun sailing and forgetting about safety. It was around 8 p.m. and no one was clipped in,” Val explained through the narrative. “I was feeling ‘in the groove.’ But overconfidence got the best of me and we rounded down. My foot slipped off the block. The last thing I heard before I hit the water was, ‘Oh my God he’s gone.’”

As soon as Val fell into the water the rest of the crew went into save-a-life mode.

One crewmember, Lisa, wrote it was her life purpose to serve as Val’s spotter and ensure he was kept in sight at all times during the rescue.

“I found my life’s direction in that moment. It was so very clear, unmistakable. My entire life’s experience, my loves, my losses, the tears, the smiles, everything, absolutely everything came down to this moment,” Lisa wrote. “I was meant to point at Val and never lose sight of him until he is back on board the boat. No matter what happens my only reason for being on this or any planet is to have my index finger dead on the spot where he is or I last had sight of him.”

Of course Val had to do his part to make sure he would be seen. Doing so, however, was hard since he could not move his left arm.

“When I surfaced I had a searing pain, my left arm would not move. Then I heard someone yell, “There he is, throw the buoy,” Val wrote. “When the buoy hit the water it took a few seconds for it to deploy but it was the longest few seconds of my life.”

Lisa continued to keep the rest of the crew informed of her sightline with Val as Gordon, another crewmember, gave the man overboard instructions.

Val was eventually pulled from the water, brought back aboard and taken straight to San Diego for medical treatment.

The narrative finished with the authors looking back at what they did right and what went wrong during the rescue at sea.

Foil’s crewmembers, according to the Cal YC Racing Facebook page, “Held a safety briefing before starting the race; had a Dan Buoy, life sling, and throwing lines ready on the stern of the boat; when disaster struck, everyone kept their cool and focused on the jobs at hand; organized quickly to start lifesaving operations; [and], kept Val in sight (we could only see the strobe when it wasn’t hidden by waves).”

The crewmembers identified four actions they could or should have done better.

Foil’s crew acted quickly when a crewmember fell into the water while sailing near Northern Coronado Island during the Newport to Ensenada race. They threw him a buoy, brought him aboard and took him to San Diego for medical treatment.California Yacht Club Racing Facebook photo
Foil’s crew acted quickly when a crewmember fell into the water while sailing near Northern Coronado Island during the Newport to Ensenada race. They threw him a buoy, brought him aboard and took him to San Diego for medical treatment. California Yacht Club Racing Facebook photo


“First and foremost, we should all have put on life jackets and tethers much earlier,” the Foil crew wrote. “There should be no fuzz on the dusk-till-dawn life jacket rule. And, life jackets should be worn offshore in big breeze.

“Always choose to hold onto the boat first, even if it means losing a tiller, a sail, or whatever,” the narrative continued. “Ping the MOB GPS position ASAP. It would have been helpful to have a personal AIS or EPIRB system on board. With only five of us, we were all too busy to really use one, but it would have been a good backup system and essential if we hadn’t gotten the Dan Buoy to Val.”

The authors finished their narrative by acknowledging how fortune they were for everyone to return back to shore.

“We were all very lucky,” they wrote. “I know of only one ocean-racing incident where a sailor went overboard after dark and survived. And, I know of several that have occurred in California in the past couple of years who did not. This has been a valuable lesson to me and I hope by sharing it we can keep others from perishing needlessly while we pursue our favorite sport.”

Marina del Rey

A little farther up the coast authorities and boat towing services were hailed to rescue not one but 12 people overboard as the 35-foot Baja they were on was sinking more than a mile off the coast of Marina del Rey on May 1.

Capt. Brian Wood, owner-operator of SeaTow Santa Monica Bay, said the 35-footer was idle in the water and parked stern to swell (as opposed to bow to swell), causing the boat and engine to take on water. The 12 occupants on board likely did not know the boat was taking on water until it began to sink.

Wood told The Log he received a Mariner’s Notice of a boat taking on water and immediately headed toward the location. When he arrived the first thing he noticed was the vessel’s bow was down. He then noticed all 12 of the vessel’s occupants in the water and wearing life vests. He was able to rescue eight people out of the water by the time Sheriff’s deputies arrived. The other four people were taken aboard Sheriff’s craft to safety, according to Wood.

The SeaTow owner and operator said one of the most important rules is to make sure there are enough life jackets for everyone aboard the vessel and they are either wearing them or can easily access one in case of emergency. If there is indeed an emergency and you are not wearing a life jacket then be sure to put one on as fast as you can (and without panicking).

Trying to swim to shore once you are in the water is probably the worst thing to do. Not only is it harder for another boater in the area to see you but also it would be difficult for any arriving rescuers to find anyone who wades away from a sinking or submerged vessel. Wood said finding a human in the water after a boat sinks is like looking for a watermelon floating in the water.

Stay as close to the boat as possible and remain with or near the vessel as long as you can, Wood said. A boat is a bigger target and easier to see, whereas most of your body is underwater and finding a head in the vast open space of water is far more difficult.

SeaTow reminds boaters to issue a mayday call through VHF; not a cell phone.
SeaTow reminds boaters to issue a mayday call through VHF; not a cell phone.

If you are still on a vessel as it starts to sink and you can call for help then be sure to call for mayday on the radio. Do not call 911 from your cell phone, as you will be connected with emergency services on land. A mayday call through VHF increases your chances of another boater or maritime organization (Coast Guard, Harbor Patrol, SeaTow, Vessel Assist) receiving your distress call. Also make sure the radio is on 16 for emergency transmissions.

Radios can be a life saving device, Wood said, as you are more likely to get a hold of someone quicker.

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