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Two Overboard

2008 December 1
Contributing editor Betsy Crowfoot experiences a sailor's worst nightmare

The scene replays over and over, like a news clip. The boat, a blurry swathe of white deck and sails and seas, rounds up to starboard. In ultra-slow motion two figures catapult off the boat, tumbling through the air into the water.

Rewind. Repeat.

Another instant replay flashes through my mind. I'm on the stern of the boat, which is pinned on its side. Sue is in the water to my left, grappling at the stanchion that's plunging in and out of the sea. Judy is to my right, about five feet astern.

I shout. I point. For who's benefit? It's just us. There are just two of us left onboard and we have two people in the water. We can't rescue them both at once. We have to choose.

A wave lifts Judy high up on the crest, and for a moment she's lost in the trough. She slides up the next swell and I stare at her. "I'll be OK," she says and shrugs, and at that instant, time stands immortally still. "Please don't let this be the last time I see her," is my silent plea. I squat down and start tugging at Sue, struggling to get her onboard. The next time I look up, Judy is gone.

Experiencing a man overboard, or two, like we did on the Santa Barbara to King Harbor Race, is a frightening, humbling, gut-wrenching experience. Nothing can fully prepare you for an emergency like this. By the grace of God we all made it home and our experience taught us a lot, which we share here.

For 37 years Santa Barbara and King Harbor yacht clubs have run this 81-mile race on the first Friday of August. Years ago it was an overnighter but these days the big boats can get in before dark. The record, set by the 52-foot catamaran Afterburner, is just six hours 41 minutes.

Six members of our team "Nauti Chicas" are scheduled to do the race on Rattle & Hum, an Antrim 27 owned by Sue and Barry Senescu, but due to the weekday start, two drop out. No problem: the remaining four, Sue Senescu, Judy Karlsen, Valerie Navarro and myself, are experienced offshore sailors with eight Transpacs and probably 50 Ensenada Races between us; we can easily handle the 2,600-pound sprit boat in what we hope will be a swift 14- to 18-hour slide to Redondo Beach.

The course begins off the beach in Santa Barbara, at the same time the nation's largest equestrian "Fiesta" parade starts on State Street. The overcast skies seem to foreshadow a disappointing race as the fleet starts in a dull oscillating breeze, and the first several hours follow suit.

The channel is 26 miles wide here, and about one-third of the way out we pass a string of oil platforms and finally approach a stretch called "Windy Lane." Sure enough the breeze clocks and builds as we get south and soon we're on our ear. Without true wind instruments on board I can only guess at wind speed, but we're hustling along at 12 to 13 knots. Within a few hours we parade past the rocky west end of Anacapa Island with the rest of the fleet, then crack off to run the length of this string of islands. With the breeze now farther aft, we change to our biggest asymmetrical kite, a three-quarter-ounce behemoth we call "Kiwi."

Time goes by. We alternate tricks at the helm, the main and spinnaker. Occasionally someone hands up food or goes down for a one-hour nap. We haven't bothered with a watch schedule, nor a formal log; using instead a spiral notebook to jot down LAT/LON, wind direction, and whatever other observations come to mind, not excluding dolphin sightings, or somebody's particularly bad hairdo. We are, after all, four very good friends having an absolutely thrilling and perfect day on the water.

Late in the afternoon, I'm the last to go down for a nap. Mostly I just need to add a layer, but I crawl into the port aft "torpedo tube" and try to sleep. Try hard. But planing at the speeds we are, the boat begins her lyrical hum (hence the name Rattle & Hum) atop the clatter of noise. As if that isn't enough, we're burying the bow and green water is careening down the cabintop, trickling in around the companionway hatch. It's like sleeping inside a garbage truck under Niagara Falls.

And they are having all the fun on deck. All I can think is, "It's going to get dark … the wind will die … by the time I get up the sailing will be a drag." I put on my waterproof bottoms, shove our sleeping bags and duffels away from the dribbling companionway, and climb on deck behind Sue.

It's an outrageous ride, the boat humming her eerie tune; us gals squealing our yippees and yahoos as we watch the speedo jump from 14 to 15 to 16 knots. As I cling to the aft stanchion and Sue drives, Judy trims the main and Val trims the spinnaker. We are making excellent time. The sun is shining; it's euphoric.

The mind is a fascinating thing. In an accident, time seems to slow down. Scientists from Houston's Baylor College of Medicine studied this phenomenon and found that the amygdala-the part of the brain that kicks in to high gear when we're frightened-lays down "richer and denser memories" at these moments. This excess data merely alters the way we perceive time, a mechanism some evolutionists profess is designed to increase chances of survival by helping you make observations, and decisions, and react.

The boat begins a graceful but swift round up. Judy flogs the main as Sue calls for the spinnaker to be eased and Val blows the sheet. Yet suddenly, the boat kicks, a jarring knockdown that slams Rattle & Hum on her side and pops Sue, the driver, and Judy, the main trimmer, right off the boat.

It's this scene that my mind replays over and over.

"This isn't happening," I think, and for a second I freeze. And then it hits me: this is happening. Ten miles offshore, we have two people in the water, and just two of us on board to effect the rescue. We're pinned down by the massive spinnaker. And sundown is less than an hour away.

Hanging off the port stanchion (I swear my fingerprints are imbedded in the aluminum there) I yell "Man overboard!" (To whom?) I have taken the US Sailing Safety at Sea courses, read (and written) countless MOB reports, and keep up-to-date on my CPR and First Aid. Somewhere in the inner recesses of my mind is a bucket load of information that automatically, unconsciously spurs me to action.

The Man Overboard Module is inches away so I pull the pin and scramble down to the tiller where the horseshoe ring is, not realizing until later that the MOM actually does not deploy in a horizontal position, and remains impotently tucked in the canister until the boat rights.

I unhook the rusty clip from the horseshoe, uttering a string of profanities that I'm sure make Davy Jones himself blush, then throw it toward Judy. Although she has surfaced close behind the boat, the spinnaker sheets, which had been eased in the roundup, and are now lashing about wildly underwater, and grab her foot like a tentacle. One instant she's on the surface, the next she's dragged underwater. Amidst this turmoil she doesn't see me throw the horseshoe and it starts drifting away.

"I'll be OK," she says. But none of us has PFDs or harnesses on, and we are acutely aware of the danger Judy is in. Still: we are pinned on our side, immobile. Every drill we've done, video we've seen, has presumed one person in the water, not two. A handful of crew to perform the rescue, not a pair. Pushing aside feelings of helplessness and hopelessness we understand we must keep our wits about us and do what needs to be done rapidly.

Sue has made her way back to the stern pulpit. Clinging with both hands, and being closer, she is our first target to get on board. Despite her situation she shouts to Val to first dump the spinnaker halyard, which she believes will create a sea-anchor effect. But soon it becomes apparent I can't get Sue on board alone, so Val rushes back and the two of us attempt to pull her on.

As the boat thrashes in the short-set seas Sue is repeatedly plunged underwater. I try grabbing her pants to get her legs up, but this exacerbates the dousings. Swallowing a lot of water, getting battered by the waves, her fortitude is melting away. In a small voice she concedes she can't hang on much longer, and fearful, Val clutches her with a death grip, while I scramble up to grab the tail end of the running backstay. It's just long enough to reach under and around Sue and secure with the world's fastest bowline, and soon she's safely on board.

The instant Sue is on deck she shifts from victim to rescuer. Judy is drifting dangerously away in the rough conditions and we want as many eyes as possible looking for her. Our VHF and GPS have been tucked away in the navigation station to keep them dry, but are completely out of reach. Finally free to grab them, Val passes up the radio and GPS, plus our inflatable harnesses, which we don at once. Sue fires up the GPS while we hail the Coast Guard on Channel 16.

"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday … We have a man overboard …" We announce our emergency clearly, identify ourselves, and shout our coordinates into the radio.

At that very instant, less than two miles astern, Dr. Bill Webster is sitting at his nav station eating dinner. Bill's crew aboard his J/37 Sidekick has already eaten, so he takes some time to relax and click on his radio …

"… 33 57.7 NORTH! 118 59 WEST! …"

Being a clever guy, Bill writes down the numbers as they're read off. He has no clue what's going on, but soon catches the gist of the transmission. Then he looks at his GPS and says to himself, "Gee, that's where we are."

Alerting his crew to the possibility of a MOB, they spot Judy almost immediately. They fire up the engine and douses the sails, then use the Lifesling to bring her to the boat and onboard. Their seamanship is superb and the rescue swift and without hesitation.

Later I would meet the crew of a race boat who told us they saw us on our side, and had even radioed us, but sailed on.

"We thought you were just cruisers," one crewmember said.

"Just cruisers?!" I thought. "It's OK to pass a boat in obvious distress if you think they're just a family out for a holiday sail?"

Then I remembered their call, the boat with the blue spinnaker behind us, and asking them to look for our MOB.

"Well, you said 'blue' spinnaker but ours is more 'purple,'" the captain said. "So we thought it must be someone else and we kept going."

We have a person in the water and this guy is dicking around with the nuances of lavender versus periwinkle?!

"I wanted to stop, but he's the captain," the crewmember piped in. "Besides," the captain added, "Sidekick was right behind us."

After hearing this, I vowed to be the sailor that does respond, that does observe, who sails the extra distance to check on someone in distress-like the crew of Sidekick, and several other boats who doused their sails and/or diverted course when they heard our radio call.

But onboard Rattle & Hum, we don't know Judy's rescue is already in progress and we're frantic to get the boat turned around and go back for her. With Sue cold, wet and exhausted, Val and I are left to retrieve the big kite and haul it in from the water.


Taking my very sharp knife I slice the halyard, then the tackline, then scurry back to cut away the sheets that have wrapped themselves around the rudder. Sail gone-10 seconds flat. We're underway again.

Val grabs the helm. We know our precise heading to our waypoint so she flips a U-turn onto a reciprocal course. We furl out the jib, and bash our way into the seas.

Along the way Sidekick radios that they have rescued Judy. Her calm demeanor, confidence and strength are formidable, and afterward she tells us, "There was no doubt in my mind that the Nauti Chicas would be back to get me." Adrift, alone, in the open sea, she attributes her survival to, "My faith in God, in you, and all of the other racers on the course." Days later, reading the official incident report, I note it's about 20 to 25 minutes from when we hailed Channel 16 until Sidekick reported they had Judy onboard. Miraculous.

We also hear on the radio that a trimaran has capsized about six miles away. Although the U.S. Coast Guard is underway with a helicopter and 41-foot rescue boat, the competitor Profligate is able to rescue the three people clinging to the hull of Existential Blowout, while several other boats stand by. It is a banner day for good samaritans.

After a rendezvous with Sidekick to ensure Judy is onboard and safe (we have to see her with our own eyes), it takes us another five hours to get to King Harbor. Around 2 a.m. we finally side-tie to another competitor, coaxing them out of their last few drops of tequila. Offshore we race dry and I'm again thankful for this policy; and that we were all operating at 100 percent during this emergency.

We pick up a voice message from Judy: "What's taking you girls so long?" Sidekick has motored in, the first time in 18 years Bill and Judy Webster haven't finished the SB-KH race. She tells us laughingly she, "got her own ride home," and will meet us at the club for breakfast.

Happy ending.

We know we should have been wearing our inflatable harnesses, and should have reduced sail. We also should floss daily, eat our vegetables, and do our taxes on time. We readily admit, we are not perfect. The last perfect guy, to my knowledge, could walk on water so a MOB wasn't a concern. The rest of us mere mortals have to muddle through, learning from our mistakes.

Since the MOM incident I now wear a PFD. Other funny little things also have cropped up. I make sure I always have my knife in my pocket; and I wear a zip-up fleece instead of a pullover (easier to take off if you're in the water. Fleece is heavy when wet!). One day, before a race, I ask if we can rig the reefing line in the main.

"But this is a downwind race," someone says.

"Until you have to sail upwind to recover someone," I reply.

We rig the line.

We tell our story, suffering criticism from some; but mostly we get lots of love from sailing friends around the world who are overwhelmed by our near-disaster and thankful for our successful outcome. I get calls from Ushuaia, Singapore and London all in one day.

One month later, we're back on the racecourse in the Antrim 27, doing a similar but not quite as long (or gnarly, we presume) offshore race.

Prior to the start, it begins. Other boats circling around, shout out, "Now you girls make sure you wear your life jackets." Boats and people we don't even know chide us. "You too," we reply and they chuckle, as if this is some sort of maritime oligarchy-that there are an elite few immune to the whims of the sea.

The race is light, for the most part. Whenever the wind puffs up Sue, on the helm, and I, on main, deliberately de-power the boat. Any sensation of heeling is too acute. At one point I turn and ask Sue, who has become silent, "Do you want your thing?" and she says, "Yes"-knowing exactly what I mean. I ask another crewmember to pass up inflatable harnesses and we slip them on. But just us. No one else puts on their PFDs. They sit happy-go-lucky on the rail, just like we did that day, before it all happened. And I wonder-is that it? Will no one learn from our experience, what I know now?