This is not a commercial; rather it’s a lesson learned the hard way.
Those of us that work at UK Sailmakers are keenly aware of the importance of safety-at-sea, and particularly the need to understand, practice, and prefect the art of man overboard recovery.
The Chicago Yacht Club just released a 60-page report with its findings and recommendations following the death of a sailor who fell overboard in the 2018 Chicago Mackinac race. As a Safety At Sea instructor for the Storm Trysail Club, I would like to give you my takeaway from the report.
On July 21, 2018, about a half hour after the start of the 330-mile Chicago Mackinac Race, Jon Santarelli, an excellent swimmer, slipped overboard from the cockpit of the TP 52 IMEDI. The wind was blowing 18-25 knots and the waves were 6-8 feet in height. There was an all-hands effort to get Jon back on board; unfortunately, after three passes, Jon slipped under the water.
His inflatable PFD was set to auto-inflate...but it didn’t, and he didn’t manually inflate it. The boat executed a Quick Stop maneuver, and then circled around but the boat had too much speed to stop near Jon. On the second attempt as they got close to Jon, a wave forced the boat up and over Jon and he went under the boat from starboard to port. IMEDI circled a third time, and this time they were able to stop the boat very close to Jon, but as they tossed Jon a line and he raised his arms, he slipped below the water and was not seen again.
Rewind to the headline and the opening paragraphs about how the STC helps teach and train MOB recovery with a Lifesling. The Lifesling, with its floating collar at the end of a 150-foot floating yellow polypropylene line, removes the need for pin-point accuracy in returning to a MOB and helps recover the person on the first attempt. There’s no argument that it’s hard to stop a sailboat at a specific place in ideal conditions, let alone hitting a specific mark in high winds and waves. It’s even harder...nearly impossible...to do so when adrenaline is pumping and the crew is anxious because a friend is in peril.
The Lifesling, used by circling the victim as if you were picking up a downed water skier, doesn’t require that you to sail so close to the swimmer that you risk hitting the MOB. And, once the MOB puts the collar under their shoulders, they are mechanically attached to the boat and you are not depending on someone’s grip to hold on. Also you have the advantage of a powerful halyard winch to bring them back aboard. Even a small person can lift a soaking wet 250-pound person out of the water using a winch.
Had the Lifesling been deployed when Jon still had the strength to swim to it, there may not have been no need for a third attempt or perhaps even a second attempt. Once the person in the water gets hold of any part of the line, the boat can be stopped by luffing into the wind or by using the engine.
It’s easy for us to sit here in our office and proclaim these concepts, but we do speak from experience. I was on Andrew Weiss's Sydney 43 CHRISTOPHER DRAGON in 2014 when a crewman went overboard on a cold spring day just after the five-minute warning for a race. The story about the recovery was published in November 2014 and it is reprinted in the next article. Thanks to crew practice and training exercises, Weiss was able to maneuver his boat to effectively and efficiently recover the MOB with the Lifesling, and still start the race on time.
Weiss had learned through his training exercises that, like the TP 52 IMEDI, having a small profile fin keel makes the boat handle differently than a more traditionally designed boat, because they go into "irons" at slow speeds if the jib is lowered.
So, what does all mean? Simply that you can’t practice MOB recoveries enough. The most instructive practice sessions are when you can put a person in the water, so use those warm summer days. You should not be afraid to use all your MOB gear: Lifesling, MOM, Dan Buoy, Man Overboard Pole, etc. And don’t be afraid to throw anything over the side that will float. Give the person in the water every chance possible to grab one. Another benefit of a lot of floating items is that it is easier to see the person in the water marked with a "debris field." And, finally, make sure your inflatable PFDs work.
We, like the rest of the sailing community, were deeply saddened by the loss of Jon Santarelli; yet we know that such tragedies are possible regardless of how much training we all undergo. That said, we must all continue diligently to be aware of conditions around us. We must anticipate the worst-case scenario. We must do whatever we can to prevent this from happening again. In reality, that is a tall order from the "wish doctor;" but take the time to read this report from the Chicago Yacht Club. Share it, digest it, practice its recommendations. Most of all, sail safely. To read the full Chicago Yacht Club incident report, click here.