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Man Overboard

It is with some apprehension that I commence this article for I will surely get a right bollocking over my role in the events that follow but, I say, ‘publish and be damned’. If this story can save one life it will be worth any embarrassment to myself and will have served its purpose.

So, what happened on that fateful January day? Coffee at our favourite café (thank you Diva) and then the agonising decision how to fill in the rest of the day. Hadn’t been sailing over Christmas as none of us wanted to lose our precious anchoring spots this time of year. ‘Gone in 60 seconds’, as they say, however most of the real workers had gone home or elsewhere and just the old hardies and retirees were left, me included.

I suggested to my new neighbour Big John, we go for a sail and strangely, he said “yes, haven’t been for a while”. Great day, nice wind, not much swell outside, boat newly anti-fouled and clean as; let’s do it. A bit too casual, cock-a-hoop maybe, didn’t really think about preparation too much, we’d just go outside the seaway for 30 minutes and come straight back, simple. Didn’t need much of a briefing, he was a man of the sea with his own boat and (although not a sail boat) he had handled a sheet or two before. So the briefest of briefings; where the lifejackets were and the operation of the engine thrust lever.

Why bother with anything more, let’s go, I’m excited, breeze is up and pointing the right enough way so up with the main and out into the channel and pull on the furled genoa. There really are fewer pleasures for a sailor when you feel the power of the wind start to propel you through the water and in particular, a trimaran which while in her late 30’s, is as spritely as when she was first wet.

As a nod to correct protocol I called the Seaway Tower and after changing frequency supplied all relevant details. Out we went into the big blue with a sea state a bit steeper than I had factored on but nothing of concern today, just pure fun to be out under Queensland sun, the cool ocean breeze soothing my Christmas tortured soul. Then he said it! “You know if you fall off this I can’t sail it”? “Yes”, I said thinking how impertinent. Now normally, regardless of regulation to the contrary, I always have a self-inflating life jacket on and insist that all else on board wear one as well. It is a requirement in NSW seaways which I think QLD should also adopt. Wearing one through the Seaway you tend to leave them on as a matter of course. Today, I didn’t. Why? I can’t tell you!… Am I telegraphing this already?

So, there we were slipping along at 8 knots or so and before long about 2 nautical miles off. “We’re going to lose that” John said, indicating the fender rolling around on the port trampoline, with some water coming through the Pirelli mesh, due to the sea state. After a small cognitive groan I stepped out on said trampoline to retrieve it and safely deposited the offending item in the cockpit.

Now here’s where it gets a little bit hazy but I remember that a bit of bucking, pitching and lurching went on under my feet which sat me unceremoniously on my bum. John was on the helm and said he heard quite a thud as I probably hit the rear crossbeam. All I remember after that was rolling quite gracefully backwards then being surrounded by salt water.

Hmm… while thinking to myself instantly that this is ‘not a good look’, I was confident that things would be OK. John would work it all out, get the boat turned around and come back to pick me up… Really?

Shortly after that, I had come to another conclusion, that it was a trimaran, doing at least 8 knots in a 2.5 metre sea with some waves white-capping, John was on his own, trying to stop the boat, get the engine started (did I show him that drill? NO) and as far as keeping an eye on yours truly, fat chance!

That is a big ask of any sailor and I wondered even if I myself would have been up to it knowing the boat as well as I do and I wasn’t happy with my response. I could see the boat had stopped and I could see my sail as it was way above the sea but I knew that John could not see me. I immediately removed my yellow shorts and began to wave them above my head as I tread water. Who was I kidding?

Surviving on the surface as possible shark bait…

Then it came to me that this could be a long haul and with no life jacket I should start conserving energy right now. I knew Big John would be superb on the radio after many years with our friends in the constabulary and obtaining a quite lofty rank, and he was. He made the appropriate calls to Seaway Tower and got a search and rescue underway. Somehow he traced the line to the furler and managed to get the genoa in; half the battle. He also managed to fire up the Lombardini diesel and, with the main still up, joined the search. At the 17 minute mark, he was joined by the Police in their 2 power cats; MV A L Greaves and MV D A Shean. VMR also attended and the search for yours truly was commenced.

Me, I was treating this a bit like a really hard day at the office and I knew that these good people would do a fantastic job, doing what they do, and it was my job for the day to still be on the surface when they found me. Was I kidding myself? It didn’t matter, I needed all the optimism I could muster. I NEEDED to be very pragmatic if I was going to make it and I forced myself to remain calm. I called in all my training as a pilot and remembered the adage dealing with crisis, ‘force yourself not to panic’. Easier said than done, but doable. I was also going to need all those meditation skills I had been taught and indeed had taught myself for some years as a counsellor.

Oh, and guilt; I had a very clear thought of, ‘if at all possible’? I would have to return in some way (spirit medium sprang to mind) to apologise to John for leaving him with such a hideous predicament, anticipating what he must have been now going through.

Did I think about sharks? Is the Pope a catholic? I did indeed very early in the piece take a look underneath me down into the black depths and decided that if I didn’t put that right out of my head it would do me in quicker than treading water! I had vaguely heard around the traps that the Mullet and Jewfish were running up the coast accompanied of course by many hungry Bull sharks. Cheery news I thought. How come my memory fails me so often but at a time like this seems quite faultless? I was also glad that I didn’t clip on the rear wire rope lines as I calculated later I would probably have cut the back of my neck whilst falling through them and provided a neat blood trail to yours truly again. This thought prompting a quick but memorable shudder, knowing that sharks can smell blood for miles and can travel quite a lot quicker through water than my good self.

How to stay afloat for as long as you can…

My decision, made fairly early, was to try to float and although I am crap at floating, I had to really focus on achieving that aim and remain there until I either sank or was rescued. They say a pessimist is a well-informed optimist so I waxed and waned between the inevitability of my demise, or the relief of being plucked from the sea by some dedicated ‘Down the Wire’ man out of a helicopter; if I was still floating? I watch all those rescue shows and it gave me some confidence in the gang that do this stuff. God bless them.

However, time was marching on and the salt water kept blasting up my nostrils, mouth and eyes so I had to keep my eyes firmly shut apart from the occasional peak around every now and then. I had one hand above my head to stop my scrawny legs from sinking and managed to get one hand over my nose to pinch it closed and cover my mouth which was virtually constantly awash with sea water. A life jacket would have been good! I had to keep my lungs fully inflated to stay afloat and it was difficult trying to snatch every new quick breath on the odd occasion when my mouth wasn’t covered with water. In a way, I believe this helped me pass the time as I had to concentrate so hard on this activity. The salt water by this time had become like a super corrosive acid and was offensive to every sense I had, even the odour.

I vomited several times in quick succession probably from sea sickness and I remember thinking to myself, ‘oh great, a burly trail right back to little me once more’, but at this stage, I figured that a shark may have been a merciful and swift conclusion, after all, I was truly out of my depth. I had seriously thought about letting go a few times; it was terribly hard work but it’s amazing how one’s survival instinct kicks in (and sometimes, out) I did strangely remember from my friend Phil, the funeral director and seafaring doyen, explaining that once you go under you don’t come up for about 3 or 4 days and I had a strange vision of myself in that 4 day state, then steeled my resolve to remain on the surface. Talk about vanity! Still, whatever it takes! I had no idea where I was any longer and didn’t particularly care. At this point I just had to survive as best I could; time seemed irrelevant and I was aware how tenuous my grasp on life had now become. I knew the odds were stacked against me so it almost became one breath at a time then review my status. Do I go on or give up? Very serious questions, very often!

The Cavalry arrives… but the question remains

Somewhere about the 90 minute mark I remember hearing a helicopter, a big helicopter and actually caught sight of it flying along the beach, then sighted him again flying past me about 1 nautical mile away to my south, so I knew they were on the case but I just wondered how long I could keep this up. I was terribly tired and very cold. I’d been through the shivering stage and now my legs were jerking and cramping so my immediate future began to look quite bleak. At one stage I even saw my own yacht sail past but still about 1 nautical mile away. With my resolve draining now quite rapidly I assumed the floating posture once more and heard propellers through the water, faint but there. I hold a PADI Rescue diver Cert. but had not used it for many years. You know the sound of propellers but how far away might they be? I looked around and saw nothing so resigned to my fate I put my head down in the water again and wow, they were louder. I picked my head up and there on the crest of a wave was this big, ugly aluminium police catamaran.

A prettier sight I have never seen, the MV D A Shean, with Sgt. Bruce Kolkka at the helm who had apparently spotted my grey hairy head in the water out of the corner of his eye. He later said in a TV interview that he thought I was a seagull but we won’t go there.

He manoeuvred over to me and a boat hook was offered which I grabbed with the last bit of strength I could muster and the S/Cs Jayson Hartfiel and Christian Dunn dragged my shivering carcass aboard. I think I said I was bloody glad to see them and it was pretty much the last thing I was able to say for a while. I had traded normal speech for the groan and the expletive!

Just as an interesting side bar, Sgt Kolkka, I discovered later, has been very active with the Surf Lifesaving movement on the coast and I’m sure his local knowledge of currents and drift rates were what ultimately saved my bacon and for that dedication I am truly grateful. I had drifted almost 3 nautical miles in that 2 hour period! It’s only when you end up in these drastic circumstances that you truly appreciate what an asset to our community these blokes are!(and Gals)

The corpulent lady has not yet finished her aria…

Not over by a long shot, I seriously thought I was actually going to die right there and then on the police boat. I felt absolutely awful and thought angrily about the irony of lasting so long in the bloody water then carking it just after being rescued! I felt terrible and I can’t even begin to describe that feeling. I was just sure I was going to die. It was as if I couldn’t hang on to life for one more minute; maybe the effects of shock? I think my core body temperature was way down and I was pretty spent energy wise although my BSL (blood sugar level) in the ambulance was good (which is amazing considering I have diabetes type II); go figure as the say in the USA. A very quick ride back to the Southport Water Police Base and into the waiting ambulance.

The smooth ride of the cat made this trip so much easier and I shudder to think what it would have been like in anything that was banging its way through the quite choppy swell. Very good choice of vessel, from a patient’s point of view. Thank God nobody was giving me a roasting and I thank the police in particular for that because I think my fragile state would not have coped. Ooh, maybe they did and I just didn’t hear it? No, they didn’t and they were glad it ended well for me, so thank you gentlemen. They did say later that they only find about 1 in 20 without a life jacket, lucky me! Stupid me?

A short stay in hospital and I was released at about 9pm. (I fell in about 1pm and was pulled out at about 3pm). Small mercy was that I didn’t have to pay the outrageous parking fees at the new hospital but I don’t recommend falling off your boat to avoid this cost. When John had brought my boat in with the aid of VMR, my friend Terry came over to see what had happened at which stage neither was aware that I had in fact been found. John must have felt terrible at this point but the VMR lads gave them the news that I was indeed safe. They both came in to the hospital and brought my phone and wallet (which I had thankfully taken out of my pocket before I fell in-[ you can only take so many phones swimming and trust me, I’ve done my share])

My mate, the funeral director was good enough to give me a lift home and even let me ride in the front (think that through). The lads at the local anchorage came and picked me up where I ended up on Big John’s boat with Terry and had a cup of tea, a biscuit and a good natured bollocking. This informal debrief was invaluable so thanks to them both. John managed to get my boat back on the pick with the help of VMR Southport (thanks gang). Channel 10 covered the story on their news on Monday night so I hope the life jacket message came through in this story.


The upshot of all this is, I will never go through any seaway or to sea without a lifejacket again. Even slightly longer trips in the dinghy will be a life jacket occasion; I vowed never to tread water again. I will conduct a thorough briefing on all aspects of MOB drills with all passengers including the starting and operation of the engine. I will campaign wherever possible to fall in with NSW and make compulsory the wearing of life-vests through the Seaway and I will happily tell my story to anyone who will listen that they may increase their chances of survival at sea (with a life jacket), even if it’s only a quick trip out and back. You just don’t know. A danbuoy is a good idea if you’re short-handed because if you leave one poor bugger on the boat they’re far too busy to be keeping you pinpointed while stopping the boat etc; and in the most moderate swell you disappear from sight remarkably quickly. You will literally become the maritime equivalent of a needle in a haystack. The fact that I was found is a miracle, all things considered. 
I may also have to rename my boat from ‘Jack B Nimble’ to Jack maybe not so nimble?

PS. I did go out a week later with some friends and I was the only one of 4 wearing; you guessed it???

Pre-Sail Briefing

A list I prepared earlier but had not finished; clearly, I did not heed my own advice, but while this is specific to my boat, it may be handy for someone just starting out or in need of a refresher?

• Exercise extreme caution moving around the decks, avoiding lines and other fittings that may trip you (don’t be frightened to crawl).

• Always keep one hand for the boat; that is, always hold onto something fixed as you move about.

• There are spare life jackets behind the fridge and in the port ama (float). On this boat, life jackets MUST always be worn during seaway and bar crossings and when at sea. They are to be worn at all times by any child under 12, by law.

• If someone falls overboard immediately alert the skipper and/or helmsman and continue to point at the person in the water. Throw them a life preserver ring located aft (red) or danbouy, if carried, and maybe a Grab Bag with flares.

• If the boat suffers an incident of any sort, even a capsize(very rare), stay with the boat, it will not sink and you stand a better chance of early rescue by remaining with the vessel. Advise them to remain out of the water if at all possible to avoid hypothermia.

• If for any reason sails begin to luff or thrash about, keep out of the way of any sheet lines that may be whipping about on the deck area. Lie face down if you are on a trampoline.

• Always be aware of the BOOM (indicate) as this may sweep across the rear cockpit at high speed and without warning. Keep your head down in this area.

• Observe the position and operation of the three fire-extinguishers in the cabin.

• Observe the position of the EPIRB and a brief explanation of its operation and when to deploy.

• Explain engine starting procedure and operation of the thrust lever.

• Observe the ‘Grab Bag’ and explain what it contains; flares etc.

• Explain how to stop the boat from sailing by pointing into wind; disconnecting auto pilot or bungees as required.

• Brief explanation of radio position, operation and channel 16 for Pan or Mayday calls, 73 for Tower.

Before Sailing.

Sunblock ON. Water at hand. Take responsibility for your own self-care regarding this.

All hatches closed and secured. Trailing line ready aft. Dinghy pulled close when manoeuvring.

Horseshoe life ring positioned aft. Check fuel and reserves. Safety lines up. Life jackets ON.

Instruments ON. Compass fitted. iPad nav connected and operating. Charts/ Beacon to Beacon at hand.


One final big thanks to all the services involved, this truly is the lucky country. Terry and John who will remain life-long friends and all the other well-wishers, Donna and Kay who helped with the story and above all I sincerely hope the ‘Wear a Life Vest’ message resonates out there. I’ve already had cruising friends saying they have ramped up their own safety procedures after hearing my story. I am aware also that the people we take sailing are not going to retain much of the information in a briefing. We spend a good deal of our lives suffering information overload as it is. Most folks just want to enjoy themselves with a day on the water. If they were looking for more excitement they would have gone bungie jumping. So stay safe, stay in a jacket and try to stay on-board.

Article Source: https://EzineArticles.com/expert/Jack_Lester/2218271

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