I got a call from a mate/customer of mine recently asking if we could do a quick repair on the kite. I said, “Sure, what’s the matter, what are we talking about, a two-inch tear from a naked cotter pin?” “Well, no.” There was a rather sheepish pause, so I asked, “So what you go fishing with it? Ya wanna help me out here? We have a lot on, and I need to give the guys some idea of what we are talking about.” “Well it’s a long story but it needs a lot of work. It wrapped around the forestay and, well, it was flogging for a while…quite a while.” “OK, is it a cup of coffee long story or a three-beer story?” “Well, probably two cups of coffee…” (Sometimes I feel I would be better off being a dentist, so often do I need to pull teeth…). I posed a time, day and coffee shop, my mate agreed and we went from there.

Well, if you have ever done a safety at sea seminar, likely you will have seen Rich du Moulin or someone equally experienced discuss the wearing of and good procedure for using, one’s safety harness. One detail likely to be remarked on is to hook up your tether to the weather jackline. Why? Well, because if you are going to fall off, likely you will go over the lee rail and if the tether is to weather, likely you will max out the two-meter length of tether before actually going over the fence. This theory works, unless you happen to be up on the bow trying to deal with a kite wrapped around the forestay and the furled jib and are standing up on the pointy end of the foredeck, in 25 knots of wind and a gnarly seaway. And you fall off the boat.

“Whoa! Hang on, what was that last bit, you FELL OFF THE BOAT? How did you do that, you bonehead?” Well, I was told it was a long story, but here is the Reader’s Digest version.

Said mate was sailing alone and the breeze had built a tad faster than was forecast. Sailing along in a medium breeze and nice waves saw our hero on deck steering and enjoying some surfing down what my Californian Transpac mates refer to as Ramps, aka the long Pacific swells. Well, the East Coast version is short, choppy, wind over tide, gnarly seas. As we know can happen, while the breeze was sneaking up the Beaufort scale, rather un-noticed due to the fun being had, my mate got crossed up at the bottom of a wave and spun out. The kite of course started flogging and when he got the boat under the kite again, the kite, now sucked in behind the mainsail, blew forward and proceeded to get wrapped around the forestay.

“Bugger” was uttered, I was told, followed by the usual sailor’s selection of time honored, descriptive Anglo-Saxon words, many from Chaucer. Autopilot on, he hooked the long tether to the jackline and made his way forward, on the weather side. Did I mention it was about Zero Dark Thirty? But when else do such adventures really happen?

Once on the bow, he started to try and drag the kite down over the jib. This went on for a while with basically no success. Humm…flog, flog, flog. The boat was blowing along across the wind with the main and flogging spinnaker, making 5 or 6 knots with the main luffing too. More pulling on the sail, lubricated by some more Chaucer’isms. No joy. Ease kite halyard a few feet and try pulling again. No go. Scratch head. Repeat for some time. Stand up, on the bow and grasp sock lines and try and pull sock down. As reported to me, “The next thing I knew I was over the leeward lifelines, roughly near the shrouds, with the tether bar tight and me washing along the side of the boat.” Pause while we slurp coffee. A few beats, I ask: “Hang on, you went off the boat, over the fence, into the water?” A pause, then a sheepish – very sheepish – nod and a very, very quiet, “Yup.” A few beats from me, then, “Oh, I see.”

“Well what happened? How did you fall off?” “Dunno actually. One moment I was on the boat pulling on the sock lines, then I was in the water.” “Ah, OK, and so how did you get back aboard?” “Well, I was near the shrouds, the tether was tight so I could not go anywhere. I remember wrapping an arm around the stanchion. I have the bruises to prove it. (Bruise demo provided via long sleeve shirt sleeve being pulled up.” “Oh.” “And I remember grabbing the shrouds and the vang line. Trying to haul yourself up by the shrouds is pretty hard because they are thin relatively and, well, I know my fingers are hurting. Actually, all of me is hurting. I must have got a knee on the gunnel and pulled myself aboard from there, somehow…I really do not remember anything.”

“Shock?” I pose with a very large question mark dripping off the end of that word. “Well maybe, but I dunno really. I don’t remember any massive OMGs. I nearly died, though I do remember sitting down for a few minutes catching my breath, but I still needed to get the kite down.” Ah, right, kite was still trying to rip various parts of the boat to bits.

A few more questions, and quiet answers on lesser details, if such an adventure can have lesser details. Questions and answers punctuated by long slurps of coffee and accompanied by contemplation of the scene. Some number of miles off the coast, dark, windy, crummy vis to boot (did I mention the visibility was crummy?), gnarly sea, alone, kite off its leash, chewing on the rolled-up jib, and finding oneself in the drink, literally at the end of one’s tether. Some additional philosophical musings then, from me, “So what did you learn from THIS little adventure?” “Well, a couple of things really.” “Do tell.”

“Don’t get mesmerized by the fun, the distraction of surfing downwind hell for leather. PAY ATTENTION, really. Missing the increasing wind speed was just flat out dumb.” I think to self, “Self, sound familiar?” I muse on some situations where I have been just a whisker too blasé and have, only through the watchful eye of the Gods of dummies, squinting at me muttering to each other, “Oh, not him again,” missed getting into deep you know what in short order.

We discuss the issue, one of my favorites, of handling a spinnaker sock, the control lines in particular. I enquire what was the disposition of the control lines how are they secured or dealt with when the sleeve is up. Operators of at least the ATN socks know there is always extra line that needs to be dealt with when the sail is flying. “I have them through two blocks, one on either side of the boat,” my mate said. “How do you determine which is up and which is down?” I asked. “I pull on one and if it comes, then I have the down line.” I present my preferred set up for spinnaker sleeve control lines. I offer this detail here.

Have two somethings: snatch blocks, carabiners, or perhaps feed two low-friction rings onto the control line. Place one on each side of the boat at a location that spreads the control lines by thee to five feet. The goal is to have the control lines separated, so it is immediately obvious which is the up-side, and which is the down-side. Make sure you always put the lines on the same side of the boat, so that in the event you need to go to the bow to pull the sock down, in a hurry, you need not spend ten minutes squinting up at top of the mast into the sun, or darkness, trying to sort the up from down. If the “blocks” are placed in a way that allows you to sit on deck and maybe even wrap your legs around something, like the mast, even better. THE benefit to this is that it allows you to put your hands in the roughly same place all the time. Like tailing on a winch, your hands always return to roughly the same place. Contrast this technique with the common practice of standing up on the bow, trying to keep yourself braced, in the middle of the foredeck yet, and trying to grasp the next piece of down line as the sock and the sail gyrates about.

As for falling off the boat, or rather NOT FALLING off the boat, consider:

a) Keep your situational awareness breaker turned on, especially at night, sailing downwind, and especially when having fun surfing downwind.

b) Contemplate my comments above, regarding the handling of spinnakers and socks, the bulk of which are actually employed by my coffee partner.

c) If there is any minute fracture in your planning, preparation or execution, the sea WILL find it.

Wear yer harness. Frankly I prefer them to PFDs. If my mate had just fallen off, un-tethered to the boat, he might well still be there, or down current. ■

Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.