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Flotation buys time when the unthinkable happens to sailors

2014 November 10

When we reached the man in the water and made eye contact, it was clear to the entire crew that we would only have one chance and a few minutes at rescue. He was still treading water and aware of his predicament, but was taking breaking waves over his head and showing obvious signs of panic and exhaustion.

We were 10 boatlengths behind the leader on the layline to the windward mark on a boisterous fall Saturday eight years ago. A two-day 20-knot southeaster was full on, producing short, breaking three- to six-footers. The racing was rough going and wet, but the water was warm.

The crew on the leading boat set their spinnaker pole and the bowman was rigging the kite on the leeward rail when a wave shoved the boat and tossed him head-first into the water. We didn’t see him go overboard, but noticed something odd when, instead of rounding and setting, they jibed before the mark, pole and jib still up, to try to pick him up.

They had the dual disadvantages of coming to the sailor in the water from upwind with a tangled mess on the bow. We watched their 36-foot racing sailboat power up downwind, and in a flash, surf by him with little hope of tacking and getting back quickly.

So it would fall to us to pick him up.

Our pole hadn’t yet been rigged, so ours was a simpler approach: head down a few degrees to be able to come up underneath and get a line to him. I handed the helm to an experienced driver and took the throw-rope myself. I’d packed the bag and tried it on shore, but others on our crew had not.

Our attempt didn’t go as planned either. As we approached, I misjudged the wind velocity and the boat’s inertia and threw our rescue line a bit early. It hung in the air and came up about 8 feet short. At the same time, our new driver, concerned that we might also sail by, had called for jib down and luffed up. One wave stopped all forward motion and our lightweight boat began to slide backward in irons, dragging the rescue end of the throw rope away from the increasingly desperate man who needed it.

One of our crewmates declared that he would go in and save the man. That idea was quickly scuttled. Putting another person in the water is almost never the
right move.

We couldn’t retrieve the throw rope, restart sailing and reboot the process. We didn’t have the time.

Our last hope fell to the man himself. Could he reach the line? At least five of us began to holler at him to wake up and start swimming. The shouting roused him from what looked like the beginnings of lethargy and resignation. He began to swim. He took about 10 strokes, each one more difficult, and then lunged and missed the line. We yelled louder and he found the energy for two more long strokes and with the last, grabbed hold of the line and wrapped it twice around his wrist, and then sank underwater.

We hauled him to our transom, though his head never reappeared en route. Two of us each grabbed an arm and dragged him into the cockpit, where he coughed and spit up lake water, gasped and gulped for air, and then groaned a long sigh of relief. 

I was overcome with emotion and gave the guy a giant bear hug and told him he’d done a great thing, hanging on and helping to save himself.

We were out of the race with time for introductions and reflections on the way home. He explained that he’d lost his balance on the bow when an odd wave hit. In a blink he was in the water. Athletic, fit, and a good swimmer in his late 20s; he thought he’d be fine. He started to worry when his fanny-pack-style inflatable PFD didn’t inflate when he pulled the lanyard. His boat and crew mates sailed by. Then the waves started to roll over him and he couldn’t shed his sandals, which seemed to be pulling him down. He was out of energy and swallowing more water than air. The waves were too big and too close together to allow any sort of timed breathing or emergency floatation.

I’m sure the minutes seemed like hours to him. We needed every second.

I’m also sure that by telling the story here, I’m inviting a lot of feedback—criticism perhaps—for the way we handled it. 

Years later, I still wake up thinking about how close we were to losing him, and the many things we could have done better. In the end, you do your best with what you have, and we didn’t have one measly extra second.

The next week, our team voted unanimously on a mandatory foam-core life jacket rule while racing, with rare exceptions for the tamest and warmest weather. It remains in full force to this day, because everyone on board that day learned that floatation buys time. And time is everything.