S/V Oaxaca, skippered and navigated by CCA Members Michael Moradzadeh and Liz Baylis, experienced a MOB emergency in the 2019 California Offshore Week. The person, a highly experienced and well-known professional sailor, was recovered safely.
Their story is below. A bit of irony for Michael: he is a member of the US Sailing and CCA Safety committees, and is in the process of completing a US Sailing report on a MOB drowning in Monterey. Safety first, folks.
During the 2019 Coastal Cup (Monterey to Santa Barbara), the Santa Cruz 50 Oaxaca experienced a person overboard emergency, well offshore, at night, in medium-heavy winds (about 25 knots). The crew was safely recovered. Here is an account written by the skipper/owner, Michael Moradzadeh. This was the first time, in 35k miles, we had lost anyone overboard, and the first time the crew member, in over 200k miles, had fallen overboard.
At midnight, Michael (skipper, writing this) and Molly came on watch. Already on watch were Dee, David, Harry, and Brett. Winds had been in the mid-20s and the boat had been moving between 10 and 20 knots downwind.
Michael took a seat on the leeward forward seat to orient himself. Molly moved farther aft.
Dee was trimming. She had been bracing her foot against the leeward seat but moved it when the new crew came out.
As Brett, at the wheel, began to describe the sailing situation, which had been rather windy and lumpy, the boat rounded up sharply. Dee lost her balance and flew past Michael, over the lifelines, and into the water. (Timestamp from the computer log 23:52:15)
Multiple shouts of “Man Overboard” went out. Michael went to the rail expecting to see Dee on her tether, but she had not been clipped in. Fortunately, she had maintained a strong grip on the spinnaker sheet and was trailing, about 20 feet, behind the boat.
Quick action by Brett at the helm brought the boat into the wind, slowing it to about two knots immediately and then to a complete stop, within the minute.
Molly and someone had moved to the back of the boat to haul Dee to the transom by the line she was holding. Her life jacket had inflated, light illuminated, and Rescue1 device had activated, sending AIS and DSC signals to the boat as designed.
Harry and another crew made their way to the foredeck to drop the spinnaker. Harry called down to Liz to make a Mayday call, and she did so, also setting a MOB mark on the chartplotter, then donning her gear to come on deck.
Michael moved to the back of the boat, pressing the binnacle MOB button, and got into position to help the crew at the back of the boat
The crew at the back of the boat were holding Dee. Molly rotated Dee around so that her face was not getting washed by the waves. Dee was alert, even joking a bit, and able to hold on to the boat.
At 5’ 10” and with an athlete’s build, fully-clad Dee was difficult to lift out of the water. Eventually three crew, with hands on her, were able to lift her, awkwardly, over the top lifeline. Harry or Patrick had been unable to open the rear lifelines, as they were taut and taped closed for safety. Various crew were leaning on the lines to get Dee aboard, and this interfered with getting the gates open. The placement of the port liferaft may have also interfered with the opening of the gate.
Communication among the various parts of the boat was poor. While each area of the boat did the right thing (drop spinnaker, make calls, retrieve PIW), actions might have been less harried if the front parts of the boat had been aware that we had our hands on Dee almost immediately and we were working to retrieve, rather than merely find, her.
A moment of strong alarm for Liz. Once Dee was aboard, we counted crew to see that we were all aboard: “One, two, three, four…” Liz came up during this and thought we were doing CPR. The alarm was brief, but severe.
In retrospect, I should have stepped back from the immediate retrieval effort, perhaps to make room for younger and stronger crew, and performed the role of coordinating actions on the boat.
Dee was brought aboard, entirely uninjured, and in great spirits. Liz canceled the Mayday call. Oaxaca proceeded under main alone for a period, which was difficult to handle in that weather. (Timestamp 00:02:08) Eventually, we put up a headsail getting our speed to about ten knots, and an hour after the event, we returned to full race mode (01:06:00).
Dee was back on deck within an hour of the incident, having paused only to put on dry clothing.
We had a spare inflatable life jacket on board for Dee, too.
- Clip in. This was the rule of the boat, and likely would have ended the incident without leaving the boat or at least without requiring reliance on the spinnaker sheet.
- Lifejacket inspection. Michael inspected all life jackets. Dee’s was new, and she had brought a Rescue1 unit, which Michael programmed and installed.
- Spinnaker MOB is hard. Without dropping the spinnaker, boat control is severely limited. An MOB protocol needs to account for this, as a pure “quick stop” will not work and may take down the mast.
- Spinnaker Drop. An unscheduled drop may not work, and ours was complicated by tension on the sheet and a “lazy” sheet not free to run. Measures to keep the kite always ready to drop should be taken. Dee suggests a method used in other races where they keep the lazy sheet on the leeward side to be ready for a takedown.
- Skipper needs to step back and perform command role, or, If overboard, chain of command should clearly identify person responsible for decisions, communication, and coordination.
- Spare life jacket is a great idea, rather than needing to repack.
Here is Dee's Account of the same event:
I am, as a professional sailor, a strong advocate for safety at sea and I know when I join teams, we talk through the worst case scenarios, procedures and actions. We identify locations of safety equipment and talk about the rules for the yacht we are sailing.
It is then common practice to perform a Man Overboard. In all honesty, our practice of such a maneuver is in a very controlled environment, but, by the very fact it is being practiced allows the crew to go through the process, understand what their role is, and how to deal with it.
The rule on the boat I was sailing was to wear a lifejacket when on deck and always clip on with your tether at night. At the time of the incident, I was not clipped on with my tether. I was wearing my Spinlock Vito Deckvest with a tether attached around my waist. In my lifejacket was an Ocean Signal MOB1 AIS unit that we had registered with the vessel before the start of the race.
The night was dark, with no moon and low cloud cover. The water was approximately 13 degrees Celsius (55°F) and winds were gusting up to 30 knots. Boat speed was averaging between 16 to 22 knots and we were sailing downwind with the A4 spinnaker and a full mainsail, all pretty good for a Santa Cruz 50.
I was wearing my boots, a base layer, foul weather trousers, and a mid-layer jacket. The sea state was messy. There were some big waves, we were accelerating on the surf of some of them, but sometimes they would catch us at a different angle and roll us the wrong way.
I was trimming the spinnaker. The sheet went from the primary winch round a winch handle as a turning sheave to the weather side where I sat with my feet in the cockpit and my bottom on the combing of the high side. Being sat in the cockpit gave me a feeling of security.
It had been a bit rock and roll in motion and we had four people on watch. Four people down below off watch and navigator out of the watch system, sat at the chart table.
It was approaching midnight and we were in the process of a watch change with two people from the deck changing with two people from below. The extra people were sat in the cockpit and the navigator had just come to the companion way hatch as the incident took place.
We had a wave that knocked us into a big windward roll; I remember reaching out to the lifelines behind me to brace myself. As we came out of that windward roll, we started to heel the opposite way and the boat began to broach.
I was easing the spinnaker as smoothly as possible to avoid an override and to help the helm gain control and ensure they could bear away again. As the boat continued to heel, I remember not having anywhere to place my foot to leeward to brace myself. It was then that I felt myself falling.
I assumed I would land on the leeward side deck with my back against the lifelines. Instead I had cleared the lifelines and the next thing I knew I was viewing the boat and all the action from about 20 feet away in the water.
It felt as if this was an out of body experience and happening in slow motion. I could see the main flogging and the spinnaker flapping and people looking to drop the front sail to get the boat under control. The noise from the sails flapping and from the water around me prevented me hearing any voices.
I wanted to shout out to let them know where I was and that I was okay, but I was being pulled through the water by the spinnaker sheet that I was still holding onto. Periodically my head would be pulled under the water and I realized that I was ingesting some sea water and that I needed to make sure I took breaths when possible so I could keep my mouth shut when under water.
I then was able to take in my surroundings. My Spinlock Vito Deckvest had inflated and was keeping me buoyant; it was just the speed of the boat pulling me as I held onto the spinnaker sheet that was pulling me under the surface of the water.
It was at this time I realized this must be the moment people choose to stop holding on, to let go and float and wait for the boat to return.
In my mind, I had no such thoughts. We were racing, I had caused an incident by being in the water and the quicker I could get back, the quicker we could be on our way. I was embarrassed for being in the water. I was annoyed with myself and frustrated that I was the cause of concern and panic for the rest of the crew.
I knew I had to try and get back to the boat myself. I considered pulling myself along the spinnaker sheet and realized that it was not possible. The boat had slowed down but it was still too much force to pull against and then I would risk losing my grip.
So, I decided to try and kick for the aft quarter of the yacht. At the same time I was flailing my legs around to try and move in the water, the crew onboard were dropping the spinnaker and driving the boat head to wind to slow down. This action facilitated my movement towards the back of the boat.
I was able to grab the aft stanchion of the pushpit and I saw a familiar face of one of the crew. A firm hold was put on me and I was asked if I was okay. We rotated so I had my back to the boat to allow my face to be away from any water, and both of us retained our firm holds.
I reassured the crew member I was uninjured, and I was keen to get back on the boat. It was a surprise to me how incapacitated you become in the water with an inflated lifejacket. I had really restricted vision due to the inflated bladder of the lifejacket. I was heavy due to my boots and clothes full of water, and a little out of breath from the shock of my surprise swim.
The reality is at this stage you just need to be patient. You are the casualty and you need to remain calm and compliant with any instructions you are given. There is very little you can do to help yourself without assistance from the crew onboard.
Once the spinnaker was secured down the forward hatch the crew came aft and recovered me from the water. I could sense the relief from those around me and this heightened my embarrassment.
Once sat on the aft deck, I could deflate my lifejacket to allow me more maneuverability and finally turn my AIS beacon off. This was strobing really brightly, obscuring my night vision and also causing a lot of noise on our DSC VHF that my unit had been programmed to. All exactly as you want it to.
I went below, the boat started sailing again and I changed out of my wet clothes. Looking at the electronic chart, I was recovered in four minutes. We recovered the spinnaker with no damage and only a halyard out of the mast that would need to be re-led. I was back up on deck by 0100hrs to finish the final hour of my watch.
I was surprised how calm I felt, but I had always been attached to the boat and was confident that I would be recovered back onboard. For the crew, they were busy getting the boat and sails under control and many of them were unaware of the proximity of my location.
It took a little while for us to re-hoist appropriate sails to get racing again. I was acutely aware that while I was on deck, no-one really spoke of the incident, but once I went off watch I could hear everyone talking through what happened. I knew then it was important that this was discussed.
The fault lay purely with me for not being clipped on by my tether, but when things go wrong it happens quickly. I praise the crew for their actions and the speed of recovery, and when debriefed we were able to look at what can be improved.
Fueled by adrenaline, I was not cold or hurt. Three hours later when I next came on deck for a sail change, I was cold, and I was aching all over. A hot cup of tea and some pain killers and life was good again. We finished the race at 0730hrs, and I was grateful to be able to wash and dry my kit and nurse my aches and pains before starting the next race two days later.