A few weeks ago, we had a situation aboard Wildcard and heard the words that all sailors dread.
The Big Daddy is one of the regattas we look forward to every spring. Usually the weather is mild and the winds light, but if it’s a stormy year – like this El Nino year has sometimes been – we can be in for some rain, or some big winds. This year, we had both.
Before we made the 3-1/2 hour drive “over the hill” from Gardnerville to Point Richmond, we checked the forecast and saw that it was going to be windy and raining. In the past, we would be skeptical of the “weatherman,” but now there are good programs – Mark uses http://www.predictwind.com/ and we also like the MyRadar weather app. They are pretty darn accurate.
We were planning to sail the smaller J70 Prime Number in the Saturday buoy racing, and then sail Wildcard in the Sunday pursuit race.
Come Saturday morning, it was windy, it was raining, and with just Mark, Peter, and me, we were one crew member short. In light winds, that can be a very good thing, but in heavy winds it’s a disadvantage because you don’t have enough weight to “hold the boat down,” to keep it from heeling over too much. If it heels too much, the keel can’t do its job as well and the boat slides sideways, making its progress upwind to the mark slower and requiring more tacks. All the other boats you’re racing against are guaranteed to beat you.
We watched small boats leaving the yacht club marina, wind whipping. Some of them came back in, and one entire class, the little Wylie Wabbits, canceled. I guess they didn’t want to do this all day …
My confidence was low. Besides not being competitive, what if something happened? For some reason, I envisioned all hell breaking loose and Mark ending up in the water.
Here’s a video of a “crash” on a J70, and then a quick recovery, in San Francisco Bay. This isn’t that big a deal, but the boat is even harder to control with only three people.
As I was trying to scrub these thoughts from my brain, Mark said, “If I fell overboard I’d probably have a heart attack or something.”
That was enough. I said, “I just don’t have a good feeling about this. It’s not worth it.” And as our friend and Wildcard crew Mike said, “Live to sail another day.”
We called Peter, told him we were bailing, and made plans to drive to Santa Cruz for lunch. It’s a really long drive from Point Richmond, but Mark wanted to go there and see the legendary Santa Cruz 70 downwind “sled” Merlin. It was something to do.
As we drove back north from Santa Cruz through San Francisco, it was raining like hell, and windy. I looked on Facebook, and people were posting photos of the carnage – like this torn sail.
Photo: Mark Howe
There were plenty of mishaps like this one, called a round-up or broach, where the wind gusts, the boat is overpowered, and heads up into the wind, out of control.
A worse case scenario is a round-down, when the boat rocks back and forth and wipes out on the other side, with the mainsail flopping over and the spinnaker pole in the water. The photo below is from the Internet; it’s a classic round-down, just beginning, before the boat spins and the mainsail, attached to the deadly boom, swings over, prompting everyone to call out, “HEEAADS!!”
Round-ups are pretty easy to recover from; round-downs, you usually have to take the spinnaker down. In either case, the boat is pretty much stopped dead in the water. Hopefully everyone hangs on.
We had lined up a crew of seven for Sunday including our “secret weapon,” a big guy named Bob Carlson who would help hold the boat down, making up for the fact that we were one or two people short. We decided to race, no matter what.
We recruited a guy at RYC that night, and a few more in the morning, including Joe, our regular bowman, who was going to sail this big ultralight catamaran called Adrenaline but with the weather, there was no way they were going out and breaking the boat.
Suddenly we had eleven.
We did a few practice tacks before the start, and I noticed that the deck was crowded and it was impossible for everyone to cross over the cabin top at once. Wildcard is wide in the stern and narrow in the bow, with a big panel over the cabin covering the halyards. It’s slick and there isn’t anything to grab onto as you cross onto the new “high side.”.
With the boat heeling, it’s a tricky maneuver, especially when it’s wet. You don’t want to cross too soon, or too late.
After a tack, I saw Bob slide across to the low side and almost go overboard. The feeling of foreboding returned. But all I could say is, “Stay on the boat!” and hope for the best.
The race was underway, the slower boats starting first. Finally we started, and headed into Raccoon Strait first. In this race, boats sail around both Angel Island and Alcatraz, in either direction. We were going counter-clockwise hoping for a big downwind push to the finish. We won it that way last year, albeit on Prime Number – and in a lot less wind.
It was gnarly out there, lots of wind and big seas. We clawed our way upwind through the Raccoon Strait between Tiburon and Angel Island, tacking within a few feet of the rocky point. I didn’t like being so close! Then we steamed across the Bay to Alcatraz, turned left, and put up the spinnaker. It was blowing about 18 knots, we were doing about 9, and talking about a gybe when, to my horror, I again saw Bob slide across the deck in front of me, feet first and out of control. He slowed down a little when he got to the lifelines but went right under them. He was now hanging off the side of the boat.
Wait, can he hang on? No, we were going too fast. A split second, and he was bobbing in the water behind the boat, getting smaller.
Brian, on the winch trimming the kite with me, called out, “MAAAN OVERBOOAARD!”
In that moment, I recalled another time I was on a boat when several people – including me, for a minute or two – overboard. It was a harrowing experience that I won’t recount here. Everyone survived, and I learned an important lesson. What do you do first?
“We have to STOP THE BOAT!” I said. “Joe!” He was already there. “Halyard! Ready? Kite down!”
Mark was starting the engine, but keeping it in neutral. We’d had an issue with lines overboard a few weeks earlier at the Corinthian Midwinters, and the spinnaker sheet had got caught in the prop – luckily, Mark was able to reverse and unwind it but that was sheer luck. Yes, Bob was getting further away, but taking those few seconds to check and be sure that you’re ready for every maneuver is imperative. You don’t want to start making mistakes. Mistakes can cost lives.
Bob was holding up his hand, indicating that he was OK. I knew he would be fine – both he and Peter are avid whitewater river boarders, used to being in cold, fast water. We had a crew member, Jamie, assigned to spot him – to maintain the visual at all times. If you get too far away, you hold your arm out to mark the direction where you last saw the MOB.
Kite down, we came about and motored upwind to pick Bob up. As we approached, Peter started squawking, “Bob! Don’t swim away!” Apparently it looked to Bob like we were going to run him over!
The hardest part was getting Bob back onto the boat. Fortunately, Wildcard has an open transom but still, it took about five guys to haul him up. Brackets on the transom for the swim ladder were catching on his life jacket. Would the swim ladder have helped? Probably not much, in those conditions. It would have been mostly in the way.
When we finally had him back on the boat, sailing home downwind under mainsail only (running the engine in gear disqualified us from the racing) and everybody had cracked open a beer, Bob said that it really wasn’t that bad. The water was 20 degrees warmer than the American River water he’d been in the weekend before, and he floated high because he’d elected to wear his whitewater life jacket instead of his lighter sailing PFD. But he did acknowledge that a person who wasn’t used to being in the water, and who wasn’t wearing as much flotation and couldn’t get his head above the waves, could panic and aspirate water. And would be harder to see.
Here’s a video of river boarding – Bob designs and manufactures the Carlson River boards. He’s quite famous in the river rat world.
Any time something happens, there are lessons to be learned. We have already removed the swim step brackets, we have a floating throw rope for rescue, and we have a little clip-on step that might help a person get a knee up to get on board. We are thinking about ways to make the cabin top safer – handles or jacklines to hold onto.
And I have been thinking about this: one reason we were able to execute such a smooth rescue was because it happened when the boat was under control, and everyone was calm and in position. That’s not always the case. I wonder how many overboard situations occur when all hell is breaking loose, versus how many happen because of a bit of carelessness. Bob was just – let’s be honest – not paying enough attention. He thought we were gybing. We weren’t. We were having a discussion, but we didn’t make the call. Which is another point. Always make sure your crew is prepared for a maneuver, and the call is clear – every time.
Before we even hit the dock, Bob was groaning, “I’ll never live this down.” He’s right; he won’t. Name jokes aside, these stories do live on forever. But never mind, because Bob’s been making the best of it. The story is in the April Latitude 38 magazine, and Bob is autographing copies!
Cheers, thanks for reading, and stay safe.