Two days later, I’m still reeling from the shock. I’m careful. I think ahead. People use the word pragmatic to describe me. And I royally fucked up. I’m not going to pretend that I did much of anything right. I did just enough not to die, and if my friend Julie hadn’t been there to lend a hand, it could have gone much worse. For the edification of others reading this, and of my future self (as memory tends to fade with time), I’ll bold the things I did wrong and the things I did right. Now that I’m back at the dock, I’m scrambling to buy additional safety gear that I should have had.
The plan that morning was to motor to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island from Spencer Spit on Lopez Island. The forecast had been for calm weather, but it was anything but calm. A stiff 15 to 20 mph wind was blowing straight at us from the north. Before untying from the mooring ball, I considered raising my main with a double reef to add some ballast, but hoped I wouldn’t need it. I should have raised it while the boat was still moored.
As we motored around the south end of the Spit, I could see large, four to five foot swells that the spit had protected us from. I revved up the motor and charged straight into them, knowing the ride would be rough. Normally I would have turned around at this point and found other accommodations to get Julie to work, but I wanted to give the engine and boat a little abuse in preparation for my trip up north. I knew these waters well and could always raise the main sheet and sail downwind if I ran into problems. We both put on our life jackets and I secured my safety harness to the mast. Ultimately, that was the move that would save my life.
Probably the most obviously boneheaded move was thinking I could power through the steep chop. Sailboats are designed to work *with* nature, not power through her. I thought that once we got to the main channel it would level out. If we could just get a few miles north, it should calm down and I could grab the dock at Orcas Island. Julie could take the ferry from there while I waited out the weather. As I put a little distance between us and Spencer Spit, it became blatantly clear that this was going to be a long, uncomfortable ride. This would have been another excellent time for me to turn around and sail downwind.When the motor died, I didn’t bother wasting any time with it. I immediately turned the boat around and started raising the main sail. It was too gusty for the full main, so I began struggling to put in the first reef point. In hindsight, I am now painfully aware that I need more practice reefing as that is how I ended up in the water.
Because we were sailing downwind in heavy gusts, I couldn’t get my quick-reefing ropes cinched against the force of the wind. I need longer quick-reefing lines. I was jimmying one of the reefing lines by extending it with a length of strap. I was tired and exhausted from struggling with the main, boat and weather. I was frustrated that reefing the main was so difficult, and was clearly not thinking straight. I leaned backwards, away from the boat to give the unruly strap a good tug when it snapped!
From the moment the strap broke to the moment I hit the water, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. I gripped the lifelines as best as I could with my calves and sprang forward, desperately reaching for the lifelines with both hands. They came up with nothing but air and my legs finally followed the rest of my body as I sucked in air in preparation of going under.
I popped my head out of the water and watched in disbelief as Solace sailed by me. I vainly tried to grab the railing along the stern, then suddenly the tension in my harness line pulled me under water and I swallowed a huge mouthful of salt water. I frantically tried to kick my feet and pull on the harness line, but couldn’t avoid getting drug through the water face first and couldn’t reliably take a breath.
Instinct from years of swimming kicked in and I rolled over on my back. The forward motion and life jacket combined to lift my head out of the water. I took several seconds to breathe reliably and force down some of the adrenaline. I was not in a good place. I had tied my harness rope too long. Instead of ending up next to the engine mount, where I had practiced climbing up, I was several feet behind the boat. I wasn’t strong enough to swim or pull myself through the water against the speed of the boat.
From my coast guard boat-safety training, I knew I had about ten minutes before hypothermic shock would set in and I’d have trouble moving. I needed to act decisively, but I needed to stop flailing around and think a couple moves ahead. I tried to shout to Julie to “Pop the mainsheet!”, to release all tension on the mainsheet in order to dump wind and slow the boat.
On one of our first outings, I had shown her all of the safety equipment on board. She asked what she should do if I went overboard. I wanted to keep the instructions simple and easy to remember, so I said 1) pop the mainsheet, 2) throw out the stern line, and 3) move the tiller to one side of the boat and keep it there.
Luckily, she remembered her training and sprang into action as soon as I hit the water. She let all tension out of the mainsheet. From the corner of my eye I saw her throw the stern line overboard and I felt the tension in my harness slacken. It’s one thing to shout “Good Job!”, it’s another thing to feel it from the depth of your soul.
I used the slackened towing force and the shape of my body to glide over to the stern line. I slowly pulled myself towards the dingy that was being towed close to the boat. I was able to climb aboard the dingy, catch my breath, and let Julie know I was OK. Shaken, exhausted, but breathing, I was able to step off the dingy, onto the engine mount of Solace, and back into the cockpit.I sailed the boat with a half-raised mainsail around the south end of Frost Island and back into the south side of Spencer Spit, where we had started that morning. I dropped the anchor, made sure it set, and fed out a huge scope. Breathing an exhausted sigh of relief, I went below and changed out of my soaked clothes.
As I stripped naked, I was amazed to realize that at no point had I felt cold. When we set out, I had put a thick layer of polar fleece under my light-weight Grunden’s rain-suit and Xtratuff boots. Even soaked through after climbing back in the cockpit and sailing through the driving wind for another twenty minutes, I was pretty comfortable. I was definitely wearing the right gear.
If I had been on my own, I would have had a much harder time getting out of the water. The clothing would have given me an extra, precious few minutes before hypothermic shock set in. If Julie hadn’t released the main sheet, I’m pretty sure I could have wound myself like a bobbin around my harness line and reeled myself closer to the engine mount. I was considering doing this while in the water.
At the time, I had forgotten that I had my knife on me, though I’m pretty sure I would have remembered it at some point. I try to always have my knife on me. If all else failed, I could have cut my harness line. I was wearing bright colors and the life-jacket would have kept me afloat, even if I was too far gone to swim the 100 yards to shore. I was in a high traffic area and the chance of being rescued was high. Of course, with the mainsail up and autopilot merrily humming along the boat would have crashed into shore after leaving me in its wake.
The shock of landing in the water stayed with me for a full twenty four hours. I’m not talking about hypothermia, I mean the emotional shock of having done the one thing on a boat that can kill you: fall overboard. It’s the shock of reflection and asking yourself the same question over and over: “How the hell did I manage to do something that STUPID!?”
Now that the shock is subsiding, I’m beginning to find solace in the fact that I managed to find a way to reliably breath while being towed through the water. And thanks to the great gear I was wearing I never felt cold at any point. I have a lot of room for improvement in terms of practice and equipment, but I did a few things right. Next time, if there is a next time, it will be a less drastic story.
This summer I plan to practice falling overboard while under sail. Of course, I’ll have someone with me to stop the boat if I don’t succeed in rescuing myself. I’ll practice with different lengths of harness rope as well as the new, short elastic safety lanyard I just bought.
I came across this passage today in the book Geography of Bliss:
She’s not talking about an adrenaline rush but rather a deep, timeless connection to nature – a connection that includes the prospect of death but is not defined by it.
I got about as close as one can get to that prospect of death without going over the edge. I have never lost the awareness of the risks of sailing. But that too is part of its beauty. At no time was I afraid. I was painfully aware at all times that death would be the result if I couldn’t save myself. Swallowing that first mouthful of water really drove that awareness home!
But I embraced that kind of death several years ago. I’ve contemplated it and concluded that I prefer it to the many other ways that people today meet their end. But now, for better or worse, it’s no longer speculation. I can honestly say that I will maintain that mentality if it ever happens to me, because it did. I don’t wish for it. But there are worse ways to die.