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Tragedy Hits Home

August 21, 2002
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In 33 years of ocean racing, neither of us had experienced a man-overboard situation of this magnitude: on Friday, May 24, soon after the start of the Block Island Race aboard the 66-foot Blue Yankee, our bowman Jamie Boeckel, 34, was lost at sea as a result of being injured and knocked overboard when the spinnaker pole broke during a sail change. After hours of searching, we were unable to recover his body, but the events of that night will stay with us forever, as will the lessons we drew in its aftermath. Jamie’s memory is best served if we can help prevent future catastrophes.

Before leaving the dock in Stamford, Conn., Blue Yankee’s owner Bob Towse held an in-depth, thoughtful meeting covering safety and strategy. We discussed our man-overboard procedure, the need to wear lifejackets (we were all wearing them at the start), the location of safety equipment (a list was posted), and communication procedures. Although safety harnesses were available, no member of the crew felt the relatively mild conditions (offshore winds and smooth seas) warranted putting one on. Following this pre-race session we headed to the racecourse.

Blue Yankee won the start and set a fast pace. Just after sunset, 25 miles from the start, the wind increased from 12 to 18 knots, triggering a call to change from the Code 3 asymmetric spinnaker to the Code 5 asymmetric. As the new spinnaker was hoisted, the wind built dramatically. Standing at the bow, Jamie struggled to release the shackle holding the tack of the old spinnaker. Something was preventing the shackle from opening, and as seconds passed, an unseen gust caused the boat to round up. Both spinnakers luffed violently, the spinnaker pole broke, and it hit Jamie hard. He immediately went into the water.

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As Jamie slid past the leeward rail, crewman Brock Callen (who’d been at the mast hoisting the spinnaker) saw that he was floating face down, unconscious. The boat was sailing at 13 knots, and Brock made a split-second decision and dove in. Neither he nor Jamie were wearing lifejackets.

Brock reached Jamie in seconds and tried unsuccessfully to revive him. Meanwhile the crew launched the man-overboard package on the transom and worked feverishly to douse the two spinnakers as the broken pole slashed across the foredeck and the wind built to 35 knots. We then started the engine and tacked toward the blinking man-overboard light, returning in about six or eight minutes. As we did so, we alerted the U.S. Coast Guard on the VHF.

After a brief search, we found Brock near the man-overboard gear, but Jamie was missing. The water temperature was 53 degrees, and Brock was near hypothermic shock when he was pulled aboard. He told us he’d held Jamie afloat for a few minutes, but that Jamie was unresponsive and eventually he’d been unable to keep Jamie from sinking.

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Five boats retired from the race to assist us when they heard our call on Channel 16. At least 15 other boats also came to our aid. We were still in Long Island Sound, not far from Bridgeport, Conn., and the Coast Guard and local police arrived within 15 minutes of our call. We were impressed by the quick response, which included a helicopter to help with the search.

At midnight, Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection officers led by Sergeant Jim Wolfe boarded Blue Yankee. They were businesslike yet cordial while taking statements and surveying the scene. Just before departing Sergeant Wolfe said, “From what I can tell, you guys did everything you could–especially Brock–I’d have him as a shipmate any time. I hope this incident won’t discourage any of you from racing in the future.” It was a soothing comment at a time when we were feeling considerable anguish.

It was eerie returning to Blue Yankee’s berth in Stamford near dawn with one crew missing. A few words were spoken, and we went home.

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Sailing can be hazardous, so we have a responsibility to prepare our crews, our boats, and ourselves to react swiftly and efficiently during an emergency. A live situation is always tougher than the theory, but preparation can make a critical difference. In the weeks that have passed, we’ve developed a list of thoughts and recommended procedures for ourselves and others in similar situations. We encourage all sailors to think through, in advance, what you would do.

1) Make sure the crew understands how to launch the lifesaving/man-overboard gear quickly, and where all safety gear (life jackets, radios, etc.) is located.

2) Make sure the entire crew understands the man-overboard procedures (e.g. shout “man overboard,” spot the victim, jettison life-saving gear, etc). Pre-assign positions in case of an emergency.

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3) When performing a difficult sail change, such as a spinnaker peel, bear away enough that broaching is not a concern–especially if “locking off” a spinnaker sheet to free up a primary winch.

4) Wear your lifejacket any time you like and certainly on deck at night or other times conditions warrant. Expand the window of what you consider to be “lifejacket” conditions and spread that attitude. If your lifejacket is uncomfortable, get one you’ll wear–even if that means choosing a float coat, vest, or other non-Coast-Guard-approved device.

5) At night, carry a pocket strobe or at least a waterproof flashlight.

6) Have a big knife in a sheath readily accessible in the middle of the boat, as well as a personal knife.

7) Have a working GPS on deck with an easy-to-operate man-overboard button.

8) If a man-overboard occurs, release the man-overboard gear immediately. Spot the victim, and if they appear to be in trouble, have someone grab extra flotation and jump in with them. This advice runs counter to conventional wisdom and many man-overboard “manuals,” but if the victim is really in trouble, extreme measures are in order. Of course, if the boat is short handed or conditions are too difficult, then weigh the possibility of losing a second crewmember against the boat’s ability to return promptly.

Do all you can to keep the victim in sight; assign one crew member this duty. At night, the man-overboard gear should have a light, making returning easier.

Get the boat turned around as fast and effectively as possible. Usually that means dropping headsails, but not always. It may mean cutting away sails, but not always. Each situation is different and requires a cool assessment of the big picture. The worst thing you can do is panic. For example, after dropping headsails, the crew of Blue Yankee took an extra few seconds to ensure all ropes were out of the water before engaging the engine. Wrapping a line in the propeller would incapacitate the engine and severely limit the boat’s ability to return in strong winds.

When problems occur, immediately make an emergency call on VHF channel 16. In a race, other boats will be nearby.

9) Any time you hear a call for help on the VHF or see a dangerous situation, stop and assist. Everyone on the water has a responsibility to themselves and each other.

10) During sail changes and maneuvers the most experienced sailors (watch captain, skipper) should watch the evolution carefully and calmly point out solutions to problems as they occur.

11) Maneuvers should be discussed in advance, particularly the course to steer and a plan if something goes wrong.

12) Treat every day on the water as if it were special–really special–because it is.

Blue Yankee had a talented crew. The boat was well prepared and was sailed in a normal way. The crew performed well in a tough situation, but we do have lingering questions: What if Jamie had kept on the lifejacket he wore at the start? What if we could’ve predicted a rapid, near tripling of the wind speed? (In daylight we’d have seen the gust coming, eased the spinnaker sheet before locking it off, and borne away further to minimize heel and risk of broaching.) What if we had changed spinnakers earlier or been able to release the snap shackle faster. Could we have cut away the spinnakers and returned sooner?

This sad event deserves on-going study with a look at both gear and procedures.

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