By Greg Gilmartin
I still remember one of the first sayings I learned when I tried out sailboat racing. “One hand for you, one hand for the boat!” Couple that with a legendary comedy bit where the punch line was God asking Noah, “How long can you tread water?” These sayings are still with me and through nearly fifty years of setting sails, running races, and watching some of the very best sailors, I still believe that no one can walk on water. Sailing god or not! So, imagine my surprise when I watched a skipper jump off his boat moments after starting a race.
It was Labor Day weekend and the 66th Fishers Island Yacht Club ‘Round Island Race. Sixty-eight boats were swarming around the starting line ready for a 15-mile circumnavigation on a beautifully sunny day. As the Principal Race Officer, I was on the signal boat coordinating the starting sequences with my crew of Elby, Hutch, and Hatsie. We were all focused on the rhythmic beeps of our automatic timer, the “Mikey Box,” counting down eleven classes in five-minute start sequences.
Class Three was off, and we were about to hoist “Prep” for Class Four when yelling from across the starting line grabbed my attention. I saw a J/27 had taken the pin end on the reaching start and were 100 yards into their race when the helmsman began pointing and shouting at his crew.
“You have to do that! God damn it, pick that up! You have to do it! Now!” He was pointing and screaming toward the three others on board. Now, this was a non-spinnaker class, and they were fetching the first mark about a mile away. No complicated maneuvers that I could perceive were required. The main and jib were drawing in the 8-knot breeze and the current was with them in a flood. Eezee peezee!
Then, as I watched, the shouting ended with an exclamation and the helmsman jumped off the boat! He immediately confirmed the adage I mentioned earlier. No matter how good you think you are, you can’t walk on water. And he was in it, with a splash. He started swimming away while his boat sailed on, the crew not moving, likely as shocked as I was. I looked for some action on board. The usual you would expect when a sailor goes overboard: Someone pointing and shouting, “Man Overboard!” Someone jumping to the unattended helm. Maybe someone going to the radio and calling, “Man Overboard” to alert the other boats around. Throwing a life jacket toward the departed helmsman!
Nothing. I sit here wondering if maybe the crew was just happy to see him go!
Our focus on the RC turned to the man in the water, even as the Mikey Box beeped its way through the Class Four countdown. He was about 100 yards away and swimming toward us right in front of the start line. We were anchored and the nearest salvation. My mind ran a dozen questions including: Should we abandon the sequence? What is his intention? Why did he jump in the water? Is he coming after us because of some RC foulup?
Then it became apparent that the flooding current providing boats a boost toward the first mark was taking him away from us. He realized that as well, and seemingly doubled his efforts at swimming. Slowly, painfully, he made his way toward our boat. We later learned he was in the Navy and thought himself a strong swimmer.
“Are you alright?” I shouted, realizing how dumb that sounded. He clearly wasn’t. He left his boat intentionally!
“Yes!” he returned my shout, likely taking on a mouthful of water as his struggles continued. “I’m just pissed!”
Hutch grabbed a line and tossed it to our jumper, now swimmer, as he got closer. Elby showed up with a life ring on a long line and tossed that into the water as well. I called on the radio to our mark boat hanging by the pin at the other end of the start line.
“Frank this is Signal. Get here as quickly as you can!” I announced on the fleet channel. The Mark Boat, with Frank and Mark on board, accelerated quickly to 20 knots and closed the 150-yard distance in seconds. Meanwhile, our jumper swimmer had grabbed the life ring and was dragged to the stern platform.
Frank, a lifetime sailor who has also seen a lot, but never someone walking on water, expected to find one of us old guys on the signal boat having a heart attack. Instead, he arrived on the scene and saw the oldest guy on board, Elby, hauling in some millennial who had found his limit on how long he could tread water.
Exhausted, the young man was hauled onto the signal boat and deposited on a bench. His yelling and shouting demeanor of just a few moments ago had turned into quiet repose as he sat totally spent from his swim and paddle performance.
“Hi, I’m Greg. What’s your name?” I asked as a way of welcoming him to our humble craft. I offered him my hand and he shook it.
“I’m Joe,” he said between gulps for air.
“Joe, what the hell was that all about?” I’m paraphrasing here and might have used stronger language in expressing anger that he almost disrupted our starting sequence, forced us to save his life, as well as relief that he was, in fact, alive and able to do the “one hand for you, one hand for the boat” thing. Relief always starts with fear of some sort, and who needs that, even as the feeling of relief is a relatively pleasant one, if not sought after. Especially during a sailboat race starting sequence!
“I can’t do everything myself! When they don’t know anything, you know, I have to do it all myself!” Joe was adamant, but he said it with an empty look in his eyes, as if he didn’t feel so strongly about the travails of a skipper right at that moment. Possibly, it was dawning on him how foolish, or should I say, stupid, his actions were?
“Sit right here for a moment. We are going to put you on that boat and take you to shore.” I pointed to Frank and Mark who had pulled alongside. Then I turned to Hatsie and Hutch as Mikey continued to beep the countdown for Class Four. “Thirty seconds to Class Four Whiskey down and Class Five up!” I shouted without missing a beat.
The Watch Hill 15s started on time, neat and orderly. Quietly, with only water rushing under their hulls and wind swishing through the sails. No one left their boat. Class Five moved into the start area, a group of Nonsuchess maneuvering for position.
After a couple minutes, Joe spoke up again. “I could just sit here with you guys, can’t I?” I shook my head and pointed again at the mark boat. We helped Joe onto the gunwale of the signal boat and he prepared to step across to join Frank and Mark. But not before Frank gave him one of his steely-eyed looks across the narrow gap between boats and admonished him with the same question we all had.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Again, I’m paraphrasing. “Get on here and you’re heading to land!” He gestured as if commanding a bad, wet puppy to get off the new couch.
Joe jumped onto the mark boat, they rode off, and we could see Joe sitting peacefully in back, still exhausted. And still seething underneath, apparently. “Jumping off that boat was a bad idea!” Frank admonished him as they sped into the marina. “I disagree,” Joe retorted. Meanwhile, the remaining crew on the J/27 included the owner, plus a co-worker of our jumper Joe, a young woman friend of Joe’s, and Joe’s 50-pound Labrador. Yes, a dog. The three humans took control of the boat. The dog watched. The owner, new to sailboat racing, focused on getting the boat safely back to the Fishers Island Yacht Club docks, assuming Jumping Joe would be picked up by other boats in the start area. He promises to work on his man overboard recovery procedures.
The question remains, why did helmsman Joe become Jumper Joe? The owner of the J/27 suggested tempers flared just after the start and shortly after a near fouling situation with another boat in another class from the previous starting sequence. In that situation, no protest flag was flown but there was the usual attendant shouting. “You’re in the way!” or something similar.
It appears the testosterone may have lingered, and soon the two co-workers verbally went after each other on the J/27, the disagreement intensified, Joe jumped, and that ended that particular argument.
In the end, it was nothing more than a distraction that did not end up as a tragic headline. I learned a few things. First, nothing will surprise me anymore. I thought earlier in the season, when I watched two Nonsuches battle each other, forcing each other OCS, and then colliding while trying to clear themselves, was the unique highlight of a long racing season. We’ve been hit numerous times on the committee boat by starting and finishing boats. We’re used to it by now! We’ve watched several competitors travel over the well-known Horseshoe Reef in our region, four hitting it and three missing it. They all pale in the face of Jumping Joe.
Final thoughts. Practice your man overboard procedure at least once a year. Please advise the RC if you find yourself losing a sailor overboard, accidental, or intentional. Keep a life ring close to the RC starting crew. Take this sailboat racing stuff seriously, and believe this simple fact: No matter how good you think you are, or how well you can dial up an argument, you cannot walk on water! Especially wearing boat shoes! ■
Greg Gilmartin is a writer, TV producer, director and videographer, and a certified US Sailing Regional Race Officer. His excellent sailing-themed novels, Crew, Spy Island, and Can’t Sail In Jail! are available at fine bookstores in the Mystic/Westerly area and at greggilmartin.com.