Friday, November 20, 2009

Make Sure You Can Get Back in the Boat

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.
  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.
So you don't think this is an issue when you are racing and there are some rescue boats around? Well, I hope you are right. But, as happened with that incident at the Star North Americans, there may be all kinds of reasons why a safety boat may not be immediately aware of your predicament or may be too busy attending to other sailors to reach you quickly. Please take some responsibility and make sure that you can look after yourself if the boat capsizes or you fall off the 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?


Antolin said...


you are right on all accounts. we carry a life sling on the Lippincott 30's stern rail which has a drop down ladder that anybody can climb (very good design Lippincott people. My wife also knows to drop the main and use its halyard to hoist me just in case I am hurt.

On two people dinghies, I use the "whomever gets in first helps the other" method..on the windmill (and 420, etc.) it is easy for the first in to lean the boat over towards the person on the water, that person lays on the gunnel when it comes down and then the "in" person leans the boat back, effectively lifting the one overboard back in...not graceful but it works ( I know from experience).

And the last comment...your second to last paragraph is so true...if you think you cannot survive one more capsize/recovery...head in. It happened to me recently on a windy day race...I capsized several times (gaggillion comes to mind...the last recovery I was exhausted and once I got on the boat I debated whether to "man it out" or sail in and forget about the race...I sailed in, no heart attacks, no rescue effort to come and get me, no line at the beach to clean the boat and line at the bar!!

be well


Brian said...

I think I've experienced (almost) each of these scenarios. I think the one other is losing my grip in the cold water. Even in a drysuit I find my forearms get wet and that leads to my hands "locking up"- not able to grip anything. This was a serious problem during a capsize at midseast one year and I used my hand as a hook under hiking strap to pull myself back in. Frightening experience though not to be able to grab anything in the goodsize waves!

O Docker said...

Great article about this by Kimball Livingston, writing for Sail here..

As you suggest, most people now agree the hardest part is not getting back to the victim, but getting them back on board. West Marine and some others have conducted tests with live 'victims' of various equipment and techniques.

The Lifesling seems everyone's first choice these days, but it, too, is supposed to be almost useless unless you've practiced using it first.

Carol Anne said...

True story: When I was training for the Adams Cup, one of the other would-be helmswomen got a boat as a gift from her boyfriend. Dumbledore gave her a Lifesling as a gift for her new boat. The next weekend, one of her crew went overboard. Dumbledore was on board as coach and so knew how to use the Lifesling.

The next day, all the Adams Cup trainees got a lesson in how to use the Lifesling.

Some years back, Pat and I were in California for sailing lessons, and one of our instructors had tested and reviewed the Lifesling for a sailing magazine when it first came out. To test it, he and his 9-year-old daughter went out in their thirty-something-foot yacht and he went overboard. Even though he was a pretty big guy and pretended to be unconscious, the 9-year-old was able to rescue him with the Lifesling. Of course, this was a very boat-savvy 9-year-old, as she had been sailing since she was 3, but still, 9-year-olds don't exactly have a lot of mass or strength.

Brent J. Burrows II said...

In Sunfish worlds, there were a few people who had to retire due to:
-not being able to right the boat
-Not being able to get into the boat

I thought it was rediculous

Ole Eichhorn said...

When sailing in heavy air, always tie the sheet around your ankle. That way if you death roll, when the boat sails away the sheet will pull the sail in, and stop it. A laser can go a long way with the mast on the water and the boom in the air. And it is really tiring to swim after it fully clothed.

When trying to get in/on the boat, if you're too tired to pull yourself up onto the board, let the boat turtle and climb onto the hull over the stern using the rudder. Once you're on the hull, you can un-turtle pretty easily by standing on the rail, and then get on the board.

The hard part is ending up in the boat after it rights itself, and not flipping back over the other way. Practice makes perfect on this.

Sam Chapin said...

Anyone else been tying the sheet to their ankle? That could be a good thing if it doesn't cause other problems.

Yarg said...

Tying the mainsheet to your ankle – I was sailing in a regatta where a very good sailor, leading the race, righted a spinnaker capsize without either crew or skipper in the boat, only to have the boat take off under three sails, towing the skipper by his ankle. We lost a good friend and a good sailor that day. I would think many times before tying myself to a possibly moving boat, but I would never, never, never, did I say never, tie a line to my ankle!

Getting back in – In coaching last year, we had a two girl team where neither girl could get back in the boat – a coach’s nightmare. The omnipresence of rescue boats alleviated most of the real danger, but we spent some time working on the problem. The girls did push ups. We tested various types of PFDs for their propensity to catch on the gunwales. We learned the importance of a good swim kick from other light, seemingly not very strong girls who had no problems getting back in. We did what Tillerman suggests here: we worked on the problem and found solutions.

Too light – I have many 420 sailors who are too light or small to right the boat with only their weight. We practice capsize recovery at the beginning of every season and try to get each sailor to understand his capacitates, and work around them. The lightweights just need the other person to do the righting, or two lightweights need to work together on the centerboard. Once they know what works and what doesn’t, they rarely have problems.

Practice, practice, practice. It seems pretty obvious. One of the things I love about kids is that they will jump in to practice this stuff, where most adults will not.

Pat said...

Matching the sailor to the right boat is a real issue -- some people buy boats without the benefit of good advice or common sense.

We had one woman who bought an MC Scow and went sailing with another woman who had never sailed on a dinghy. They had a capsize and the skipper couldn't re-board without a lot of assistance from other boaters. Later, we found out that the skipper had a physical disability, fused vertebrae/disks that limited her mobility.

tillerman said...

Thanks for the warning Yarg. I also would not want to tie my ankle to the sheet. Quite apart from increasing the risk of getting my feet tangled up when tacking or gybing, I would be worried about a tangled sheet trapping my foot under the boat in a capsize. Having once being trapped under another kind of sailing dinghy in a capsize it's not an experience I want to repeat. Also in that incident where another Laser sailor's sheet hooked me round the neck and pulled me off my boat I dread to think what would have happened if I had also been permanently attached to my boat which was sailing off in another direction.

my2fish said...

in retrospect, I had a pretty decent scare this summer. I've been trying to get more use out of my Sunfish, and took it out for the 2nd time this summer on a local lake. after sailing a while in heavy winds (for me), I picked up my 8-yr old son. we ended up dumping the boat several times, but he was able to swim fine (wearing a life jacket probably helped him a lot). we were able to right the boat each time, and get back in... and ended up sailing great for a while after that.

but, while I was driving home, I started to get really sick to my stomach, worrying about what I would've done if he had gotten trapped under the sail or something like that. I realize now I should've talked things over with him in advance. I've resolved to make sure to spend more time with him (and any other young riders) explaining (and practicing) how to deal with the boat capsizing, righting the boat, and climbing back up in.

you can read more about this sailing trip here

Gallant Shepherds said...

OK. I have a problem getting back in my laser. I'm a little on the heavier side and when I try to get back in the Boom swings over and re capsizes the boat. What Do I do in a case like this.

Tillerman said...

Gallant Shepherds, one thing that might solve your problem is to make sure that your Laser is positioned across the wind and that you are boarding from the windward side. Then grab the toestrap and pull yourself into the boat as quickly as you can. Hope that works for you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I'll Try shifting the boat across the wind and board windward. I was just too slow pulling my self up and in. I'm new to laser sailing and practiced capsize recovery in light winds. I thought of using the outhaul or cunningham lines which I loop at off position to prevent the lines bugging me in the cockpit. I didn't try it though. I figure if I have any problems in the future I could try this to see if it gives me the toe hold I need when exhausted or unable to pull myself in. It would be closer to the front of the boat. My instructor wound up just holding the boat down for me so I could get in. The day before I had been on a 420 and sailed 6 hours in 25+km winds with 50 km gusts. And then another 6 hours in the laser the next day, Needless to say I was quite bruised and exhausted by the time I did the laser capsize recovery work. So I'll put your suggestion to the test this weekend.

Chris said...

Gallant, I have the same problem, so what I've learned to do is to climb in over the stern. It makes for a longer climb, but a surer one.

Anonymous said...

i do agree with your article--went overboard onmy 19' runabout and it was a struggle to get back---now
i also have a 14'jon boat and can
not find any advise as to how to re-board---the bottom line is all
coast guard boating classes should
make it a mandate for boat mfg to
supply info---i dont believe boater give it much thought--until
it happens

Anonymous said...

With havin so much content and articles do you ever run into
any problems of plagorism or copyright violation? My website has a
lot of exclusive content I've either authored myself or outsourced but it seems a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my authorization. Do you know any ways to help stop content from being ripped off? I'd definitely appreciate it.

Tillerman said...

All the time Anonymous. I decided to deal with it by publishing this Copyleft Notice on my blog. Feel free to use it yourself.

Except where otherwise noted, all of the artful arrangements of the 26 letters of the alphabet into insane ramblings and utter nonsense on this blog were created by me (Tillerman). You are free to copy and distribute any such arrangements of letters, and if you are so inclined you may rearrange said letters and make and distribute derivative works based on them. You can feature them on your blog or website. You can print them in your newsletter. If you want, you can hang a framed copy of them on the wall of your pie shop, clam shack, massage parlor, or yacht club. If you would be so kind as to mention where you copied them from I would appreciate it, but if you are too mean to do so I will forgive you.

Vince said...

If you think you won't be able to do it when the situation comes, better not go on sailing anymore. Never risk yourself for anything.

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