Man Overboard!

Two Stories on Everybody’s Worst Nightmare. What Did They Learn?

By Bob Adriance

Let’s start the year off with a couple of good man-overboard stories, the first one from Rick Saber, a member in San Rafael, California. On a flat-calm day, Rick was by himself on his trawler Eagle and had been getting lines and fenders ready for docking when his “well fed center of gravity” shifted and he suddenly tumbled into San Francisco Bay, about 400 yards east of Alcatraz. The inflatable life vest Rick had been wearing inflated with a reassuring whoosh and he quickly bobbed to the surface. Eagle kept plowing through the water toward its eventual encounter a pier (Claim #1014005). He said watching his boat heading for the horizon without him was devastating.

Rick is by nature very safety conscious; he is the safety officer of two yacht clubs, and, ironically, had recently given Coast Guard Auxiliary seminars on Man-Overboard procedures. In 50 years of boating this was his first accident. But while he was familiar with techniques for getting other people back aboard Eagle, he was still a little fuzzy on how to get himself back aboard a boat. Any boat. Rick remembers thinking “This is going to be a very interesting day.” He reached for his iPhone, which, after 15 seconds underwater, was kaput. That left him with only one signaling device, his arms, which he waved occasionally to attract the attention of boats passing in the distance. Finally, after bobbing up and down for maybe half an hour, he attracted the attention of Alma, a well-known sailing scow built in 1891. As Alma hove-to a few yards away, Rick asked sheepishly if they had any Grey Poupon aboard. One of Alma’s crew responded by asking, “Where’s your boat?” 

Nobody can accuse Rick of not learning from his mistakes. While he has always been diligent about wearing a life vest, he is now planning to carry, at a minimum, pocket flares, a strobe light and maybe even a waterproof VHF. If he were ever to go overboard again, other people are going to know about it. Of course no one expects to tumble overboard, but as he said, “If the safety officer of two yacht clubs can fall overboard on a calm day, it can happen to anyone.”

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When Ian Becker fell overboard several miles off the California Coast, his first reaction was to notice how beautiful his boat looked from the water. His next reaction, naturally, was to try to swim after it, but that quickly proved to be futile.
Like Rick Sabre, Ian had been alone. Unlike Rick Sabre, he wasn’t wearing a life jacket.

Ian had been using a boat hook to try to free some kelp that was tangled in his 38-foot sailboat’s prop and rudder. In over 40,000 miles offshore, he’d done it many times before but this was the first time he’d gone overboard. Yes, he should have been wearing a safety harness and, yes, he should have been wearing a life jacket. He’d been careless. There should also have been a line trailing astern, but that was a moot point. Even though it was summer, the water was a chilly 66 degrees, so he left his clothes on, including his shoes and socks, to serve as a makeshift wet suit for whatever warmth they might provide. Fortunately, floating comes easily to Ian.

It’s what he did next that is curious: Ian relaxed and enjoyed himself. He remembers seeing seals and birds. The sun was shining. There were times he thought, in a detached way, that he would die and other times he believed he’s survive. Whatever thoughts were running through his head, he never panicked or even felt afraid. “The experience was really quite nice,” he said in his native South African accent.

Almost three hours later, a small motorboat happened by and Ian was saved. Now, after plenty of time to reflect on his experience, Ian says that remaining calm saved his life. Especially in chilly water, swimming or thrashing about would have been futile and, more to the point would have burned calories, which would have hastened the onset of hypothermia. “If for whatever reason you find yourself overboard,” he says, “you have to remain calm. It’s something I can’t stress enough.”

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Bob Adriance is the Editor of Seaworthy, the BoatUS Marine Insurance damage-avoidance publication, which is free to all BoatUS insureds. For an insurance quote, please call 1-800-283-2883 or apply online at BoatUS.com.

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