Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Savannah Cup and why we wear life jackets.

This past weekend we raced from Charleston to Savannah in the Charleston Ocean Racing Savannah Cup. The race was both fun and challenging and we were enjoying some great competition. Over the course of the weekend we experienced a wide variety of conditions ranging from dead calm (we actually drifted around in circles) to 25 knot winds and waves around 5-6 feet as we approached Charleston harbor in the pre-dawn hours. We were a crew of five; two Sea Scouts, one younger co-worker and two of us older guys; all are good to strong swimmers.

My life jacket rules are as follows; when on deck a PFD will be worn AT ALL TIMES when underway. I sometimes relax that rule for adults in the cockpit on calm days in protected waters. PFDs may be taken off when in the cabin. Jacklines are run whenever we go outside the harbor. A tether will be worn while offshore and clipped on at night and in rough conditions. The standard is fairly strictly enforced, to the occasional frustration of some of my teenage crew members.

Several times during the race I commented to the crew on the importance of using a tether when we looked off the stern of the boat into the darkness of the white-caps and six foot seas. With the boat sailing at 8-9 knots someone falling from the boat would be gone in seconds. I also spot checked the crew's tether's to ensure that they were properly connected through both of the harness rings not just one side of the vest.

As we were approaching the dock after nearly forty hours of straight sailing we were looking forward to breakfast once we were tied up. The winds were about 12 knots from the North East, there was an ebb current running about 1.5 knots. We had furled the sails, placed fenders and everyone was in their docking positions.

About 150 feet from the marina entrance one of our crewmen lost consciousness and toppled off of the boat into the water. For a brief moment I couldn't believe what I was seeing,  I saw the crewman fall from the boat and yelled Man Overboard! The crew responded smoothly one watching the man overboard (MOB) while another got the boat hook. At first we tried to instruct the MOB to swim to the nearby dock but quickly realized he was unresponsive. We executed our man-overboard  drill; since we were motoring the approach was much less complicated than if we'd been under sail. Once we re-connected with the MOB a crewman hooked his vest strap with the boat-hook and positioned him at the transom near the ladder for recovery. Two of our crew used his tether and harness to slide him up the sloped transom and into the cockpit. Once aboard we treated our MOB for shock, he was conscious but confused. As we returned to our dock the crewman regained awareness putting a happy ending on the too exciting experience.

What we did right:
  • All crew were wearing their PFDs; his PFD absolutely saved this young sailors life.
  • The built in harness in offshore inflatable PFDs makes a huge difference in when trying to recover a MOB
  • Enough of the crew members had discussed or practiced MOB procedures to efficiently recover the MOB.
What we need to fix:
  • Use two legged tethers so that you can be continuously tethered as you move about the boat.
  • The captain needs to be aware of any relevant medical conditions of his crew. 
  • We need to actually practice MOB recovery more often including during poor conditions.
  • Be more consistent and thorough in the pre-sail briefing of MOB procedures.
What we learned:
  • The first (very brief) thought of most of the crew was disbelief that someone had actually gone overboard.
  • Inflatable PFDs work great if they are well maintained and properly worn (most of the crew commented that they'd always wondered about that).
  • The hardest part of the recovery can be getting the person back on the boat.
  • PFD crotch straps matter; we observed that inflatable PFDs ride up around the persons face if they are unconscious.
  • Good health and swimming ability are no substitute for a PFD.
  • God is good; prayers for a safe event were answered in many ways during the weekend. There were many more ways this could have turned out much worse.

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