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Man Overboard At Night


When an incident at sea turns potentially deadly, quick thinking saves the day.

Illustration by Brian Miller

Oh, I hated the pounding and thrashing. My Cal 39 had been unhappy most of the night, and therefore so was I, anxious about the strain on every part of the rigging and all parts of the boat. It was 4 a.m. and I was on watch alone, my life harness hooked in, while my friend Carole was below catching some well-deserved rest. But now, something had changed. Suddenly the boat had gone quiet and still, an eerie sensation after the hours of bashing into waves. Then, I saw why. A white ghost hugged the starboard topside, holding the boat hostage. It took me seconds to realize the ghost in the water was the headsail! The big genoa was still attached to its Profurl roller-furling gear, which was all in the water now beside the boat.

Carole Heller and I had been sailing together for two years. Both in our 60s, we met shortly after my husband Walker died suddenly. He and I were happily realizing our retirement dream, living aboard Ginny, our beautiful Cal 39, which Walker and I had spent three years refitting to become a double-handed ocean cruising home. We’d been cruising the Caribbean with plans to sail many oceans. Shortly after his death, I made the decision to keep the boat and continue the dream, and was fortuitously introduced to Carole by a mutual friend. We hit it off instantly. In real life Carole is an experienced licensed captain and navigator; I had sailed all my life and was very comfortable onboard. One year after Walker died, we took the boat to the Bahamas and back to Southport, Connecticut. Four weeks later we began a transatlantic crossing spending six glorious weeks in the Azores before heading east, bound for Cascais, Portugal.

Cascais is 625 miles northeast of the Azores, situated on the mouth of the Tagus River that leads to Lisbon. We knew of the southerly current and were determined to sail north as much as possible to make good on our destination. On a warm quiet day in late August, we left Sao Miguel and motored out of the harbor, wishing for more wind as the sun set, but happy to be back at sea.

Ginny Vought aboard her Cal 39.

Be Careful What You Wish For

After three days of light breezes, with us wishing for more the whole time, the wind blew in. Starting at 20-25 knots, it began to clock from west to north, waves building, squalls surrounding us. We reefed the main and rolled in the genoa, trying to keep the boat on her feet. We reefed twice more and rolled in more genoa.

It was almost daybreak when I noticed that ghost. Yelling to Carole, “Our headsail’s in the water,” she was on deck in a flash. “We’re OK for the moment. Get your foul-weather gear on. It’s wet out here,” I told her. In seconds she was suited up and at my side. We analyzed our situation, prioritizing our top concerns. We’d lost our forestay, that critical piece of rigging at the front of the boat that leads to the top of the mast, holding it in place and keeping it from falling backward. That forestay also carried our genoa, which was now in the water. Luckily, the mast was still up. Keeping it that way had to be our first priority. Preventing lines or the sail from becoming entangled with prop, rudder, or keel came next on the list. Both of us were calm and rational. “We’ll take halyards to the bow, jury rig a forestay, and secure that mast,” Carole suggested. “Then we’ll worry about getting the genoa out of the water.”

We were preparing the halyards to attach them to strong points near the bow when I slipped. I tried to grab the shrouds but saw them go by in an amazing passage through the air. Suddenly, I was in the water. It happened so fast I could hardly believe I’d fallen overboard. Everyone knows the rule: “Stay on the boat!” Luckily I splashed into the soft sodden sail, unhurt, as the tether of my life harness held me close. All my fears were anesthetized. I had to get back onboard, fast, before I drowned in the submerged sail. “Carole!” I screamed to my friend, up on the bow.

Only she can know the panic experienced with the revelation that I was overboard. Picture it. The boat heeled to starboard by the water-filled sail, a small, very wet woman in foul-weather gear desperately trying to get back onboard. With much heaving, concentration, and effort, it took the two of us and the help of a friendly wave to get me back where I belonged. Even a small woman is heavy when wet.

Neither of us lingered on this horrific event. There was too much to be done, and the time to analyze and “what if?” could come later. We spoke very little and got back to the work at hand. After securing the halyards to the bow to stabilize the mast, we turned our attention to retrieving the sail. Fortunately the forestay had let loose under the swage at the top of the mast, but the bottom was still attached to the bow. Many of the roller-furling extrusions were bent, but the sail was still attached to them. To get the sail back aboard, we had to recover the aluminum extrusions as well. The only way for us to save the sail was to take a sheet forward and place it under the sail, so the two of us could drag it a little at a time over the lifeline and on deck. It took us four hours, but we were able to secure the sail rather than cut it free. As Ginny’s mast extends 52 feet above the deck, and the boat is 39 feet long, the crippled forestay extrusion hung off the end of the stern by a fair distance. We looked like a backward anteater.

Change Of Plans

I’d adjusted our windvane to steer us on a broad reach. Long-term plans had been to winter in the Algarve in southern Portugal. We would miss Lisbon for now. Tired, aching, and mentally exhausted, we needed some gentle sailing. After resting and some food, we emailed the marina in Lagos to tell them of our disabled condition and our earlier-than-planned arrival. They responded and assured us that we’d be welcome and they’d be on the lookout for us when we were closer. We still had 330 miles to go and Cabo St. Vincent’s shipping lanes lay ahead. The winds continued, but now we were wishing for less!

Although our disability made us less agile, we managed to pass the cape and shipping lanes uneventfully, and three days later headed into Lagos. Dodging fishing nets and entering the unfamiliar harbor, we radioed as we approached and were greeted by warm smiles and the helpful hands of the Lagos Marina staff who took our lines, then helped us strip off the sail, folding it and putting it back on deck. They helped us place the furler and headstay on the dock.

We had had all the rigging checked before departing the U.S., but the weak cable that broke inside the swage was invisible at the top of the mast during inspection. Many of the extrusions were bent when they fell. The sail was OK with only a small hole the size of a quarter. The boatyard at Lagos Marina put us in touch with a sail maker/rigger, and although it took several weeks to receive the ordered extrusions and forestay, the boat was repaired and we enjoyed our winter months in Lagos.

I always feel mixed emotion when ending a passage. This had been a long one, but we’d sailed well, our seamanship had been tested, and we were proud of our abilities in a difficult situation, which renewed our confidence. And that tether? Well, it very likely saved my life.

Lessons Learned

  • Make sure you’re tethered to the boat, if you’re on a sailboat. It only takes a moment of inattention to end up on the wrong side of the lifelines. We were wearing life harnesses, of course, because this incident happened at night. Otherwise, it’s smart to always wear a life jacket or flotation device, as well as a personal-location device — whether you’re on a sailboat or powerboat, and especially offshore.
  • Reef early and often. Afterward, I kept thinking, “Why didn’t I reduce to the staysail?” If we’d done that, we probably wouldn’t have lost the headstay — the wire under the swage would have failed eventually. We believe the mast stood fast because the main was reefed below the top of the inner forestay.
  • Have a plan. Stay cool, analyze the situation, and fall back on your emergency plan. Prepare to improvise. Unless the boat or someone’s life is in jeopardy, take as much time as you need to think things through before acting and practice MOB recovery before you need it. Don’t turn on the engine. With the sail and furler in the water, we’d almost certainly have gotten something in the prop, which would have compounded the problem.
  • Stabilize the mast first. Move as quickly as possible to take extra halyards to replace whatever rigging has come down and keep the mast upright. Have tools onboard to cut away rigging.
  • Figure out how you’ll retrieve a person overboard. Even a small person will be very heavy when waterlogged. Gates in lifelines, a swim platform, or a block-and-tackle system to use with a halyard can make it more feasible.
  • If the rig is damaging the boat, cut it away. In our case, the headstay could do little damage to the boat, and it was cushioned by the sail. But in rough seas, a mast or spreader could easily puncture and sink the boat.

Ginny Vought

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine