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When safety-at-sea rules should be ignored to save an overboard sailor

2017 September 18

To paraphrase a viral White House comment about health care, nobody knew that safety at sea could be so complicated.

Some sailors think it can be simplified by applying rigid rules and rote procedures. A harrowing man-overboard story in the September issue of SAILING revealed the limitations of that approach.

Many readers reacted positively to the story of Mark Wheeler’s survival after pitching overboard in extreme weather in the Chicago-Mackinac race on the night of July 15, giving credit to the seamanship of the crew that rescued him and Wheeler’s fortitude in enduring an ordeal that would have caused many to despair.


Others found fault. Some blamed Wheeler for failing to be clipped to the boat with a safety harness tether. Some blamed the crew for failing to execute an immediate quick-stop maneuver. 


In classroom theory, both measures should have been taken. In reality, it is fortunate they weren’t, because each could have had fatal consequences.


You had to be there to make that statement with authority, and it happens I was. My boat Main Street sailed in the same Chicago-Mackinac race section as the Farr 400 Meridian X, the boat out of Hampton, Virginia, that Wheeler was on, and was knocked down in the middle of Lake Michigan by the same freakish weather phenomenon that resulted in Meridian’s MOB experience. 

Both boats were sailing with their biggest spinnakers in a freshening southwest wind when they were hit by what meteorologists later identified as a heat burst.

Radar showed thunderstorms 35 miles away, but because they were sliding south over land and weakening, we judged them no immediate threat. Then a blast of astonishingly strong wind, a dry downburst that in rare situations can be spawned by thunderstorms, struck without warning. 

Main Street was laid on her side and stayed there until the spinnaker tack could be released. Once back in more or less vertical mode, the boat ran off before the gale, mainsail plastered against the shrouds, 2,600-square-foot spinnaker whipping from the masthead, boatspeed display registering 20-plus knots.

Meridian’s situation was similar. Wheeler was thrown through the lifelines. The out-of-control boat left him at high speed. He would not see it again for more than an hour.

The quick-stop maneuver that major offshore races require competitors to practice—a choreographed return to the MOB that usually involves a tack and a jibe—was an impossible option. The boat would have broached violently. Injury to crewmembers, damage to the boat, spinnaker and sheets wrapped around the rudder, propeller and keel, even other sailors overboard could have resulted, further hindering the rescue effort.

When the crew tried to turn Meridian after dousing the spinnaker, the boat was knocked down by wind that was reported to have been stronger than 50 knots.

Wheeler was right when he later wrote, “With boats getting faster and asymmetrical spinnakers getting larger, the traditional safety-at-sea-seminar quick-stop maneuver is no longer a viable reaction when sailing downwind in a big breeze in a fast boat.”

Nor was a tether a viable option. A tether clipped to the jackstays running along the deck would not necessarily have kept Wheeler aboard. Even if it had been possible to secure a tether in the quick-developing emergency, he would likely have been overboard in greater peril than he faced floating away in his inflatable life vest.

Sailors have drowned while being towed on their tethers. After that happened to the skipper of a 38-foot boat in 2015, a British study concluded that drowning at the end of a tether could occur in a little over a minute. 

The tether-drowning threat is so real that safety regulations governing the Chicago-Mackinac and other major offshore races require participants to carry knives for the express purpose of cutting a tether in a MOB situation. It’s a good rule, but the notion that a person being pulled through the water at 18 knots, Meridian’s estimated speed at the time Wheeler went overboard, could manage to find and use a knife or fish out the tether-cutting hook with which some inflatable PFDs are equipped while inhaling water and, probably, being injured by the extreme kinetic forces involved is foolishly optimistic. 

Onboard Meridian, a crewmember activated the GPS-MOB function, but not instantly. Though there were four GPS devices available, it took some time in the chaotic conditions to get to one. It didn’t help that the man in the water was the navigator who knew where the tablet used as the primary navigation computer was stowed.

It was a mistake that the MOM (man-overboard module), which would have given Wheeler more flotation and a light if he could have reached it, was not deployed the second he went overboard. The crew was wise not to use it later, however, when it was unlikely Wheeler could have found it and its light could have misled rescuers. 

In cold, choppy Lake Michigan, Wheeler inflated his life vest with the manual pull tab. He had adequate buoyancy, but it was a struggle to keep the PFD from riding up—in his haste responding from below to an all-hands call he hadn’t buckled it.

He concentrated on staying calm, and, knowing that hypothermia was a deadly threat, kept his foul-weather clothing and boots on. He activated his emergency light, but the brand new ARC-C model failed in short order. 

“The next 15 minutes were discouraging to say the least,” Wheeler recalled. “I was floating in the middle of a pitch-black, moonless Lake Michigan with no light and no boats in sight.”

Meridian had traveled about two nautical miles before the wind eased and the boat could be turned. In a fine piece of seamanship, the crew put the boat on a reciprocal course calculated from the GPS track and then on a search pattern that took them close enough to Wheeler to hear a faint whistle. (“I just wailed on that whistle,” Wheeler said.) And then they made a life-saving rescue.

Wheeler’s experience is both a gripping survival story and a cautionary tale. These are the lessons I take from it:

Be aware that circumstances, rather than rules, should determine how to react to a crew-overboard emergency. Carry an extra distress light on your life vest. Know that instantly marking the exact location the person went overboard with the GPS-MOB function is a crucial life-saving measure. (I plan to have a remote MOB button, wired to the main GPS computer, installed in my boat’s cockpit.) And finally—never give up.

The last applies to sailors on the boat and in the water. Both have to take responsibility for a rescue. Wheeler is 64 and it has been a long time since he flew F-14s for the U.S. Navy, but he showed by surviving for an hour and six minutes in cold, rough water in spite of being exhausted and hypothermic that he still has a plentiful supply of fighter pilot’s grit.

Click here to read the complete story of Wheeler's man overboard experience and how he was saved.