Continuing my series of posts of Tillerman's Top Five Tips For Making Sure I Don't Die on my Laser, my third tip is... if you fall out of the boat for any reason, Hang on to the Mainsheet.
I guess this piece of advice is really just a means to following that instruction given to all beginning dinghy sailors: Stay With the Boat. I used to drum that into my little Opti students right from the first day on the water. If the boat capsizes or you fall out of the boat, stay with the boat. Do not under any circumstances try and swim to the shore. From my coach boat I can see an Optimist in trouble a mile away. I may not see a little head in the water 50 yards away if it's choppy. Also your boat floats so hang on to it.
Where was I? Oh yes, how to stay alive on a Laser. Or rather off a Laser.
In most capsizes it's not too difficult to maintain contact with the boat...
The best of all is the so-called "dry" capsize. The boat goes over to leeward; you step over the windward rail on the daggerboard; you right the boat and step back into the cockpit without ever getting your feet wet. The youngsters do this on about 90% of capsizes; with my slow reactions I do this on about 0.05% of capsizes.
Next best is when the boat goes over and you fall in the water next to the boat. You can swim round to the daggerboard while still in contact with the hull. No problem.
But there will be times when the boat decides to eject you in a way that will initially leave you some distance from the boat.
One method the boat uses to achieve this is when you have just completed a perfect tack to lee-bow "that guy" and as you hike out on the new windward side you realize (too late) that the boat has tricked you into not putting either of your feet under the hiking strap and so you fall backwards headfirst out of the boat and everyone around including "that guy" laughs their socks off.
Another favorite way for your Laser to eject you is the famous "death roll". This is a windward capsize when heading downwind which can happen so fast that you don't even know it's happened until you notice that you are totally underwater and the boat is sailing off without you.
It's occasions like these that you need to hang on to the mainsheet. Your Laser probably won't sail very far away without you in it, but some days it can go even faster without your 200+lbs of weight slowing it down. In particular, a Laser that has done one of those pretty death rolls where the boom stays sticking up in the air can sail surprisingly quickly downwind in a good blow.
So it's important to hang on to something that connects you to the boat. Now, of course you are already holding two things that connect you to the boat: the mainsheet and the tiller extension. For many beginners the instinct is to hang on to the tiller extension. Do not follow this instinct. When your body weight levers the tiller extension against the gunwhale of the boat as you fall in the water, only two things can happen, both of them bad: the tiller extension can bend (if made of aluminum) or it can break (if you have one of those fancy schmancy ones made of carbon fiber.) Either way it's going to be expensive, and either way you probably aren't going to be able to sail very well with it in its altered form. Worst case you are suddenly floating around on your own holding half of an expensive carbon-fiber tiller extension with a nasty jagged end while your boat runs away downwind on its own at a rate of knots.
So hang on to the frigging mainsheet. Say this mantra to yourself ten times every night before you go to bed.
Even if you do hang on to the mainsheet your troubles may not be entirely over. Nine times out of ten the boat will round up, capsize if hasn't done so already, or just generally behave itself while you reel it in and regain contact with the hull. I do recall one day though when I fell out of the boat (don't ask how -- some stupid mistake or other) and as I hung on to the mainsheet the boat carried on sailing downwind at great speed... dragging me along underwater as it did so. That was a fun ride I can tell you. It wasn't so much fun when I surfaced and realised that my involuntary underwater speed swim was so fast it had sucked my expensive prescription sunglasses (which were of course secured by a croakie) right off my head and they were now sinking into the depths of Lake Ontario and I was now as blind as a bat. There are days when I wish I wore contact lenses.
Anyway hang on to the mainsheet. I do pretty much all the time these days... except when I forget to, or when I am too busy using both hands to try and disentangle myself from the mainsheet of some other dude who is trying to strangle me.