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Lessons from a man who fell overboard and lived to tell about it

2017 April 1


Back when parents sent kids away to weeks-long all-outdoor excursion camps, one could choose to go to a sailing camp; if you could call it that. A half dozen kids between 10 and 15 years old would join a counselor (usually a college kid on break) to cruise from port-to-port aboard a sailboat just large enough to sleep them all. They would carry their own cash, watch their own weather, pick their own destinations, cook their own food, and generally care for themselves. They’d leave on a prescribed date and return in time for the fall semester, but in between, they were on their own.

These were not just daysails or motor-driven deliveries, but fully provisioned self-sufficient voyages, in daytime and night, so that the kids would learn seamanship, celestial navigation, dead reckoning, heavy-weather skills, and the rich lessons that come from hard work and team work.

Late one summer evening off the New England coast, a sailing camp skipper made a series of fateful decisions.

Since the weather looked mild, he decided to send the kids to their bunks after dinner, and then sail through the night solo. When the hatches closed and the last murmurs subsided, he lashed the tiller and gazed up to study a sky full of stars. After a few hours on a cool reach, the wind backed and the boat began to labor, lacking sail area for the deeper apparent wind angle. He decided to change from the genoa to a spinnaker, but not to wake the kids.

He planned the familiar maneuver carefully. He would rig the pole and run sheets, guys and halyards, then ready the kite to be launched from its bag. He dropped the jib, lashing it to the foredeck, and returned to the cockpit. He looked again to make certain that his lines were proper and ready to run. Soon, he’d be scooting downwind!

Without a crewmate jumping the halyard, it would take twice as long to set, but that would be fine, he thought. Hand over hand he hoisted. Then, halfway up, the spinnaker began to fill and the work quickly went from slow and easy, to urgent and effortful. He pulled harder and so did the halyard. As more kite filled, the boat sped up. He couldn’t stop or the sail would drop into the water and be overrun, so he hunched into a full scale tug-of-war and put his shoulders, back and quads into it. He would grab a breath, pull with all his strength, pause and repeat; each time taking a small step backwards, like a lineman coming off of scrimmage. Just as he tugged the shackle to the sheave, he backed off the transom of the boat now accelerating away with full spinnaker and a lashed tiller, and with all crew sleeping soundly!

I’ve told this story and been accused of creating the stuff of nightmares but, alas, I am not its author. The storyteller is the late Norris D. Hoyt, the once-young skipper who fell off his boat alone at night and lived to tell about it almost 50 years later in the 1987 book Addicted to Sail. It is a book worth finding at the library if only to read this incredible chapter.

I’m not writing about it to create mystery or spoil the ending, but to draw attention to two subtle takeaways.

1.) The lesson learned in this tale isn’t learned by the kids, but by the adult. He calls it the “Night to disremember,” then goes on to live a life of celebration and gratitude worth writing about. Indeed, he didn’t tell the kids until his fine book was published.

2.) Hoyt writes with the tone of normalcy. Don’t all young people sail alone at night? I’m guessing that he’d be sad to learn that today, people don’t send their kids off-grid for weeks, facing all their own choices and all their own consequences, with only one young skipper and his wits.

Think of the stories, and the endings, we’re not writing.