It's time for #4 in Tillerman's Top Five Tips For Making Sure You Don't Die on Your Laser. In case you've forgotten, the first three tips were...
Tip #4 is Make Sure You Can Get Back in the Boat.
Actually for any boat that can capsize, like a Laser, the tip should really read Make Sure You Can Do a Capsize Recovery AND Get Back in the Boat but today I'm going to provide a public service for sailors of all kinds of boats, big and small, by having a bit of a rant on the general issue of getting back in the boat.
Start of rant...
As I am sure you recall, the incident that triggered me to start writing this series of posts was when Thorsten Cook fell off his boat during the Star North Americans. One of the factors that contributed to the seriousness of the situation was that, although Mr. Cook's crew did manage to sail the boat back to him, the two of them were unable to get him back into the boat.
How often do we hear of stories like this? Sometimes it's the classic "man and wife go for a day cruise in their yacht... man falls overboard... wife either cannot sail the boat back to man on her own or even if she does they cannot get him back on board." (Sorry to sound sexist but it's usually that way round.) It happened on the waters right in front of my house a year or two ago in weather conditions that weren't at all extreme. The husband fell overboard. The wife was unable to recover him. She called out the Coastguard but he drowned and his body was washed up in front of our favorite local restaurant a few days later.
I'm sorry but I can't understand the mentality of people who go sailing without any kind of clue as to how they are going to get back on board if they fall off. I know it's not as easy on many kinds of boat as it would be on a Laser but I think you should have a plan for getting back on board... and practice it.
There's a great Yachting Magazine article on this issue, Man Overboard, which discusses what equipment to use to retrieve a crew member in the water, and why a swim platform is worse than useless in anything except calm conditions.
And, while I'm ranting, let me have a go at those sailing schools that purport to teach "man overboard" drills. A few years ago, my son and I did one of those fully certificated Bareboat Chartering Level courses with intensive three-hour emphasis on man-overboard recovery. We had a lot of fun learning how to turn a 40-foot yacht around in wind and waves and find our way back to the "man" in the water. Except it wasn't a man. It was a life jacket which we picked up with a boat hook. The instructor didn't even explain to us how one of us could magically pluck a 200 lb real person out of the water in heavy seas.
So do yourself a favor. Think it through. Worst case. If the most experienced member of your crew goes overboard, how will the rest of the crew (your wife, your kids, whatever) recover him or her? Then practice it. Make Sure You Can Get Back in the Boat.
End of rant...
So is this an issue on a little boat like a Laser or a Sunfish? It can be.
In my experience there are three reasons why a sailor of a small single-handed dinghy may be unable to do a capsize recovery and/or get back in the boat.
- The sailor is too light to do a capsize recovery. It takes a certain minimum weight of person on the daggerboard to right any given capsized boat. If the sailor (usually a child) is too light to achieve this they will not be able to do a capsize recovery. Simple physics. I've lost count of the times I've had to jump in the water and help some kid who has got themselves into this situation. That's one of the reasons why, when I was teaching sailing, I usually had the kids do capsize recoveries relatively early in the syllabus. I'm sorry but if you're too light for the boat, then find a more suitable boat.
- The sailor does not have the arm strength to pull themselves up on to the daggerboard to do a capsize recovery. Sorry to sound sexist again, but it's usually women who have this problem.
- The sailor is too heavy to be able to pull themselves on to the daggerboard and/or into the boat. I guess this is really the inverse of #2 but I have seen overweight people of all ages and both sexes who have had this problem. I remember one friend, a Sunfish sailor, who capsized during racing one day. He was unable to climb back into his own boat. When the safety boat, a small whaler, came over to help him he was unable to climb into that and the crew of the rescue boat couldn't pull him in either. There was much discussion afterwards as to what kind of rope tricks might have been employed to get this dude back into his own boat or the safety boat.
Speaking for myself, I am not yet so old, so weak, or so fat that I can't usually do a capsize recovery and scramble back into my Laser. But I do confess that each such event does drain some of my strength and energy away. There have been some windy race days when, after doing way too many capsizes, my arms became so tired that I felt that I wouldn't have had the strength left to do even one more recovery. That's when it's time to head for the beach, the showers and the bar. You can always win the race to the bar!
Comments please. Want to pass on any tips or techniques for getting back in the boat? Are you sure you can do it on your boat?