We left George Town early in the morning of May 28th for a day sail to Conception Island. Conception is uninhabited and protected as part of the Conception Island National Park and is absolutely beautiful. We dropped anchor in the afternoon with only one other boat in the anchorage. We went for a snorkel and walk on the beach before sunset. There wasn’t a lot of coral where we snorkeled but we did see a number of schools of fish. We only spent one night there before we headed out for the next leg. We had a few options for our next stop but were really hoping to make it to Mayaguana.
Unfortunately, the winds and waves weren’t cooperating so after tacking back and forth a number of times we decided to overnight at San Salvador. We anchored off Cockburn Town for the night. There are numerous dive sites in the area. We saw a couple of dive boats but we were the only boat in the anchorage for the night. Unfortunately, for me the most memorable thing about our stop there was the flies that took up residence in our boat. There were hundreds of them! It took a few days and much slapping with fly swatters to get rid of them all.
The next afternoon, we again headed out for Mayaguana. Since there wasn’t anything around to hit, we decided to practice sailing off the anchor and were able to carry it off without any issues. The first part of this trip started off with some pretty good sailing and the next morning Russell caught a big wahoo which was definitely a highlight of the trip!!
Throughout the day, the winds died and we were motor sailing with the main and stay sail and having to tack back and forth fighting a current to try to make any headway in the Mayaguana Passage. Around 1 am Russell woke me up because the winds and seas had picked up and he had decided to take down the main sail.
I was at the helm and had slowed our forward speed while he went up on deck to take down the sail. That’s when IT happened. I heard a yell and he was gone. He was overboard. This has to be one of the top five concerns for any sailor, to either go over or to lose a person overboard especially in the dark and in eight to ten foot seas.
Thankfully, because he was clipped in, he was able to get back onto the boat without injury.
This was such a big event we wrote about it from each of our perspectives – see “Overboard” below.
After this, we were finally able to motor through the pass, around Devils Point and enter through the reefs to Mayaguana. We dropped anchor in the protected bay at Abrahams Settlement grateful to be alive, well and together.
11:00 PM (5/31/19) My watch was to begin at midnight, but Janice awoke me early as we were approaching the Plana Cays and needed to tack to starboard. I wanted to be on watch for this maneuver and to pilot us through the pass knowing that the wind, waves, and current would be against us and it would be a rough ride. We tacked the boat to starboard and headed on a northeast course which would carry us back out to sea but also give the boat a better angle through the pass. Soon Janice was fast asleep on the aft deck on the bean bag, I didn’t awake her and went on deck and raised the “baby sail” (Staysail) to get a bit more boat speed from the wind. The ride was a bit more comfortable on this heading which put the wind and seas a bit behind us and about six miles out I tacked back toward the Mayaguana Passage, but as I got closer to the pass the wind picked up beyond 20 kts with very rough sea conditions. The winds and current were pushing us onto the rock shoals east of the island, so I again decide to tack back out to sea to gain even more distance and angle for this now quite challenging pass.
1:00 AM (6/1/19) I decided to pull down the main sail and only leave up the Staysail feeling that the main may be contributing to slowing our speed through the pass and I felt that the Staysail is better at clawing its way to windward. This time I woke Janice up for the sail change, she took the helm and we slowed the boat speed down a bit, and I set the autopilot to hold the boat at an angle slightly off the wind. I felt this would let the sail down and allow me to bundle it up and tie it to the boom. I remember Janice asking me if I needed a light as this was one of the darkest nights that I had seen. No moon and cloudy skies made the sea and sky seem together as one. I told her no light, my eyes had adjusted to the dark and I didn’t want the glare.
I clipped the lanyard to my harness and clipped the other end to one of the jacklines that we have run along the sides of the forward deck. This flat webbing safety line is designed to keep you tied to the boat only, not to prevent a “Man Overboard” situation.
I went up front, climbed up onto the deck box as I have done many times before, however this time it was really rough. I untied the halyard from the cleat and started pulling down on the sail, it wasn’t coming so I used my right hand to pull up on one end of the line and my left hand to pull down the sail. The sail was now slowly coming down, but the wind was whipping the now loose sail in all directions with a deafening loud popping and rustling sound and the boat was bashing into the waves with water now rushing over the foredeck.
Then it happened! The boat went up, I went up higher, the boat jumped sideways, and I was in the water, no longer on the boat. The water was a shock, it happened in an instant, I screamed something like “Help, Shit, Janice” all in one word. I knew that I had to get her attention over all the noise of the wind, loose popping sails, waves, and the engine.
I was still holding the loose end of the halyard when I hit the water however it pulled the sail back up the mast the now approximately ten feet that I fell. I knew that I only had one chance to get back on that boat, one chance to claw, scratch, and climb up that six foot wall of a boat and over the railing to safety or be dragged until I either drowned or the snap shackle holding me attached popped loose and I would be lost at sea over 6,000 ft of water.
One chance was all that I had in me, if I didn’t make it one the first attempt, I was sure that I would be weaker on the second, third, and eventually my last try.
I’m not sure how it happened, maybe the boat came down into a trough, or a wave hit us on the side, but I was able to pull myself up just enough to get a foothold on a small ledge (rub rail) on the side of the boat and then I was able to crawl up and over the railing.
I did it, I knew that I had defied the odds, I sat there for a moment then got up to head back to the cockpit. Janice did hear me and was working towards stopping the boat and getting the boat ladder from the coach roof to assist me.
When I got it together and rested a bit I returned up on deck and finished getting the sail down and lashed to the boom. We tacked back towards the Mayaguana Passage and this time we made it through. Just as dawn was approaching, we got close enough to Mayaguana Island to hug the coast for a smooth hour or so till we rounded Devil’s Point on the Northeast corner of the Island and headed into our anchorage.
From the viewpoint of the person left on board
When Russell woke me up and told me he needed to take down the main I was concerned. The seas were really kicking up and the boat was pitching badly. I remember asking him if he could just take down the staysail and loosen the main but he felt it really needed to come down. I throttled back so our forward speed was only about 3.5 knots and watched him clip in before going forward.
It was very dark and once the main sail started coming down it was flapping around and blocking what little view I had of him. I knew he was in trouble when I heard him yell but I wasn’t sure if he had fallen onto the deck or had actually gone over. I was clipped onto the captain’s seat with our six foot tether which only allowed me to go to the side but not forward. I remember standing there yelling his name but realizing he was gone.
I ran back and throttled down completely to try and stop our forward speed. My mind was running in circles. Where is the spotlight? Is he still attached to the boat? Am I dragging him, drowning him? How the hell can I get him back aboard. Can I drop the dinghy so he can climb into it? I’m just going to start going in bigger and bigger circles until I find him. I don’t think I ever allowed myself to think I wouldn’t find him.
Because we no longer had any forward speed the auto pilot was beeping and flashing an alarm which just added one more layer to the confusion. I chose to ignore it.
I went back to the side and was yelling his name again when I saw his body come up over the side. All he said was “I’m here” then “just give me a minute”. I can’t explain the helplessness I felt when I couldn’t see him or the relief I felt when I saw he was back aboard. There are just no words but I still get emotional just trying to write this.
Of course, the seas were still tossing us around and the main was flapping and slapping so neither one of us really had time right then to relax. I had to get us moving again and back on course and he had to finish dealing with the sails. When he finally came back to the cockpit we both just sat there side by side in a state of shock for a few minutes.
We sat down and discussed what happened, what we had done correctly and what we could do better.
The number one main thing that saved him was the fact that he was tethered to the boat. Secondly, he woke me up before going forward. Without those two factors, he would have gone into the water and the boat would have kept going, leaving him in its wake without me realizing it until I woke up sometime later, having no idea where he fell off.
The third thing was the type of life jacket he was wearing. When we were purchasing our offshore life vests, we debated whether to buy the auto inflating or manual vests. Auto inflating is just that, it inflates when it hits water. That’s a lifesaver if you’re unconscious but can restrict movement if you are awake and trying to get back aboard. The manual ones have a pull cord to activate. We ultimately decided on getting the manual vests. If he had been wearing an auto inflating vest, he probably would not have been able to climb back aboard without help.
There were also a few things we felt we could have done better. Number one was changing his tether point so it is too short for him to go overboard but still allow him to maneuver around the entire deck. The answer is that now when he goes forward to raise or lower the main sail is to add a second tether that he will clip to a point closer to the center of the boat. Additionally, we will now keep the spotlight in the cockpit on overnight passages so it’s within reach instead of having to go down into the boat if it’s needed.
The cruising life is not without danger, but neither is driving down the interstate at home. We try to discuss and plan for situations and when things arise, we try to learn and use what we learned to become better and safer sailors. The other option would be to go home. We choose to avoid the interstate and keep sailing!