Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper

MAN OVERBOARD!!! There can be no more penetrating cry heard aboard a boat. Thus drills, techniques and equipment for recovering a M.O.B. are at the forefront of any seminar on offshore sailing. We are all admonished to wear life jackets when afloat, but a life jacket does not help us stay on the boat.

I was ruminating on this as I drove home after presenting a Safety at Sea seminar at West Marine in Stamford, CT. I was struck by the notion that all the discussion about M.O.B revolves around what to do after someone has gone into the drink. There is precious little on how to stop going in the drink in the first place. Reflect on things that might cause someone to “fall overboard,” I came up with the following list.

1. An appreciation of the environment in which you are sailing. This includes the size of the sea, the frequency of the waves, the kind of wave pattern of the wind waves on top of the ground swell, cross swells, and the boat’s movement including pitch, roll and yaw.

2. Is the boat under autopilot?

3. Age and relative fitness of the person

4. Their experience in waves and wind

5. The degree of integrity of the lifelines

6. The course relative to the wind, reaching or dead downwind

7. Is a preventer rigged?

8. What the person is doing, or going to do, and with what degree of urgency?

Since staying on the boat is obviously such a large subject and embraces all sorts of things, I comment only briefly on these eight.

1. This is what I believe the military refer to as Situational Awareness – in other words, being aware, conscious of and actively thinking about how the boat is moving. We often hear remarks from people about still swaying when landed ashore after a day on the boat. That’s the beginning of “sea legs” – the body’s natural (I assume) attempt to calibrate one’s mental gyro to the conditions. Our sea legs get “better” the longer we are at sea.

2. Who (or what) is steering? Humans have ability to see and understand the implications of how an approaching wave may affect the boat and crew. As useful as they are, autopilots, including windvanes, do not. So absent a human driver, a boat may sail merrily over a larger or “out of train” wave, resulting in a different, sudden unanticipated out-of-rhythm movement.

3. Age and relative fitness does play a role in this discussion. Sufficient strength and an ability to hold onto something solid if the boat jerks under you is part of staying on board. I discovered last week at my yearly physical that our mental gyro does in fact start to degrade as we age. I had been noticing slight off-balance moments lately when I do a three axis move: (standing up, moving forward and turning slightly, all at once). My physician said this is normal and can be slowed down by balancing exercises.

4. Experience: Like anything else, the more we do something the better we are at it. If you never sail in difficult conditions, when the time comes and you must, it will be all the more intimidating. Practice sailing in 25 knots and bouncy waves. Take it easy and study what happens. We practice all sorts of things: running, our golf swing, reading contracts, cooking…Practice sailing in harder conditions. Push the comfort zone a bit.

5. The integrity of lifelines: Think about how much wear and tear lifelines get when climbing onto the boat from the dinghy, the dock, the water or launch. Inspect how much wiggle there is in the stanchion base and from the stanchions as they fit into the base. Consider too the corrosion occurring under the lovely white plastic with which lifelines are often coated. Racing rules prohibit coated lifelines these days, so that any corrosion can be seen. Consider how much reliance we put in lifelines being sound as we move around the boat.

6. When sailing downwind, displacement boats are inclined to roll and wallow. Learn to steer downwind at an angle that keeps the boat stable. This is actually a good reason to use a cruising kite. The faster a boat is going, the more stable it can be.

7. An easy upgrade is to rig a preventer on the boom. A preventer will restrain the boom in the event of its wanting to change sides in a hurry with no warning. Anyone standing in the firing line of the boom is going to have a headache at least…and possibly much worse.

8. Where are you going on the boat and with what urgency? Whether you’re just strolling to the bow or hurrying to affect a quick fix caused by a bad tack or a failure of some sort, there are a zillion reasons why we move around the boat.

Experience, understanding, and appreciation of the dynamics involved all help us sail. And if all else fails, do as I do and wear a harness. That way, you are pretty much assured of staying on the boat, or at least attached to it.

Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the US 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, teenage son, dog, two cats and several, mainly small, boats.

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