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Two times is too many for a sailing career to be almost snuffed out

2009 December 1
I blame it all on the zipper. I had been standing at the stern of the yacht in the position of sailing men immemorial, taking care of business, when I suddenly toppled overboard.
The gods must surely have been giggling uncontrollably when they created the physiology of men and women. In the process, they made it remarkably easy for men to kill themselves by falling overboard while relieving themselves from the stern of everything from Grecian triremes to the very latest ocean racing yachts. Women, clearly the smarter sex, always go below to the safety of the head. Men go over the stern.

In this case, my excuse was that damn zipper. Fumbling inside my foul weather gear to zip up, I chose that particular moment to let go of the backstay.

At the same instant, the helmsman gave the tiller of our careening sled a quick shove to help take off on the face of a swell. The stern of the boat jumped sideways a few feet and I launched into the blackness of a midnight sea far from shore.

Let me be clear: it was not a pleasant experience. I surfaced just in time to see the white stern light disappear over a swell and then I was quite alone in a cold and very black sea.
The crew swears to this day that I didn't yell, "HELP!" as I claim but, rather, used the F-word with such loudness and clarity that it even woke the offwatch.

As must be obvious since I'm here to write this column, I survived my overboard experience. This was long before the GPS had even been a glimmer in Mr. Garmin's dreams, so there was no button to push to give the crew my position within inches.
Instead, one of them grabbed a big orange horseshoe-shaped life preserver and lobbed it over the side which, in the process, dragged a floating light with it. This was before modern strobes, too, so the light was really just a glorified flashlight and not a blindingly powerful beacon.

Our crew had actually practiced for just such an eventuality, so they were able to blow the spinnaker and get the boat turned around quickly, although it seemed to take months as I paddled clumsily toward the dim light. I managed to get rid of two very expensive sea boots by only swallowing a third of the ocean and, when I saw the red/green bow light coming toward me, I was clinging to the horseshoe.

I give them credit for good crew work, although it's only fair to point out that because I'm not a good poker player, I owed several of them fairly large amounts of money. I've always believed that debt, more than training, was why I was rescued so quickly.
And, of course, they had to finish with the same number of crew as when they started.
Let me digress for a moment about the telling of time. When I moved to Florida from California, I discovered that Floridians tell time differently. When asked how long I've lived in Florida, I no longer say "six years." I say, "five hurricanes." It's much more accurate, and completely clear to other Floridians.

As I reach the point where I've been sailing for half a century, I realize that there is a better (or, perhaps, worse) way of counting the time under sail. Instead of using years or decades, I might better say, "Two."

Because that's the number of times that I've been on the edge of ending my sailing career rather abruptly. It's not a number that I'm particularly proud of, and I can only hope that the modern generation of sailors will be able to reach a fine old age and say, "Never."
My second time was when I borrowed a Finn to race on San Francisco Bay. It was a breezy day on the Bay, which is to say that dogs were being blown off their leashes and the incoming tide was creating square-edged seas.

I wasn't a complete novice to Finns: I'd actually seen one before this regatta. So it was with some surprise that I found myself at the first weather mark in the companionship of some class champions. We took off on a screaming reach and I realized I was in trouble as the first three boats each capsized at the jibe mark.

The difference between an experienced Finn skipper, who spends so much time in the water that he has webs between his fingers, and a first-timer like me, is that they know how to quickly recover from a capsize.

Of course I capsized: I'd never jibed a Finn in calm water and this was a maelstrom. So there I was with a slippery upside-down Finn and, because the board had fallen back into the trunk, no leverage to right it.

I decided to hang onto the rudder while I considered my options, and quickly discovered two things. First, I was drifting rapidly away from the race course and, second, I had no options except to hang on.

And so I did. I saw the fleet finish the race and head for the clubhouse, and I imagined the steamy heat of the shower and the crisp rustle of dry clothing. I was in a full wetsuit, and pretty damn cold.

Eventually, the owner of my boat realized that I wasn't just last and he organized a search for me. By the time they found me, I'd drifted past Alcatraz and was at a point where I couldn't feel my fingers clenched on the rudder. Or my toes. Or my face. Or much in between. Later, after I'd inhaled several brandies, I realized what a very close call I'd had. There's last, and there's dead last.

Remember the sergeant on Hill Street Blues who always warned his men, "Hey, let's be careful out there"? He was right.

Safety at sea isn't just about life jackets and flares: it's about a constant awareness of the dangers. It's about never letting yourself be lulled by the sea.

I've had my Two. I'm a lot more cautious on the water than when I was younger, partly from experience and partly from self-preservation.

And part of it is from the childhood memory of what happened when my father counted all the way to "Three."