Two weekends ago, I went overboard.
“Was he cute?” one friend joked.
As often as I can I sail. Unless I’m out of town or there’s something big on the calendar, I race on Wednesday nights. Hosted by the California Yacht Club, the Wednesday night beer can races are taken seriously by some but are mostly all in good fun. The boats gather outside the break wall, shoot across an imaginary line in the water, tack upwind to a buoy called a mark, then round the mark while putting up the spinnaker sail for the trip downwind. After guest racing on a Wednesday night, I was asked to join the crew of a Martin 242 during a full weekend of racing: three races on Saturday and two on Sunday. (Essentially two days of repeating Wednesday’s mini-race in various multiples – one race required us to round the mark three times.)
It was during one of these races, while rounding the downwind mark, that I reached out to move the mainsail across the cockpit and, before I knew what was happening, was swept up and off the boat by the mainsheet. If this sounds like gibberish, let me rephrase: I grabbed a line that I shouldn’t have grabbed at a time when I shouldn’t have grabbed it. I had no clue it would be so powerful as to lift me up and propel me over the side.
It happened in an instant. During that instant, a number of thoughts went through my mind: 1. Don’t let go or you’ll land on your back on the side of the boat and it will hurt… and you’ll probably still fall overboard; and 2. You’re slowing down the boat.
Fortunately, the captain swung the stern out and the main (with me attached) came back toward the boat. At which point I grabbed onto the rear stanchion, the metal railing around the cockpit. My water-filled shoes and drenched pants added extra weight. Getting onboard again seemed an impossible task. The captain tried to help me, steering with one arm while he pulled on me with the other. Though I knew I had to get on the boat again quickly so we could get back in the race, part of me wanted to do this myself. I wanted to know what it would be like to have to haul myself on deck if this ever were to happen to me without someone to pull me.
On the front of the boat my friend Cici was stowing the spinnaker sail, assisted by Archie, a hulk of a guy who had been flying the spinnaker. “Archie, help her!” hollered the captain. He turned around, saw me, grabbed me, and pulled me into the boat like I was a 5 lb. sack of potatoes. Cici turned around. She saw I was soaked. “What happened?” she asked.
Needless to say, we did not win that day. On Sunday we were close to winning a race but collided with another boat, another mishap that set us back. Still, we had a lot of fun.
I have not told many people this, but falling overboard was, in a way, exhilarating.
I don’t remember the water temperature. I didn’t have time to think about it. It also never entered my mind that I might have let go of the ropes, that I might have been left floating there, without a life jacket. In some sense I was hyper-aware of the seriousness of the situation: after all, I did not let go. But in another sense, because I was lucky, I remember it as an adrenalin rush.
I haven’t been sailing for that long. Almost five years. But I scoff at stories of people falling overboard. I shake my head when I hear about people who died because they weren’t tied on to the boat.
When I started working on tall ships back in 2010, safety briefings were taken seriously. We rehearsed drills until I thought I could say them in my sleep. Which was, of course, the point. When someone goes overboard there is very little time to think and act.
In hushed voices, sailors tell the story of a young woman who was washed off a tall ship in a storm. It was the middle of the night. She had not been tied off. A fellow sailor said he heard her voice for a full hour after she went in the water. They never found her.
On a happier note, while out kayaking the other day, a friend told me this story about a man who went overboard and used his boots to stay afloat. Yes, sometimes when the worst happens, you might survive anyway by the skin of your teeth. (Or by the soles of your shoes.)
There are many reports like these of boats washing up onshore without their captains. The lesson here is one of the most commonly heard boating mantras: stay with the boat.
I recently made the decision to sail around the world. Not today, but in a few years. I’m giving myself time to find the right boat, outfit her, plan the trip and prepare. But no matter how much preparation I’ll have, no matter how many books I read to learn from other’s mistakes, I know that the biggest liability will be.
The more comfortable I get, the more casual sailing becomes. I recently made another novice mistake… following right on the heels of going overboard, I ran a boat aground.
A month or so ago I returned from Sweden having totally missed this story about a young couple who had to abandon their boat at sea. Apparently, people were calling into talk shows to lambast this couple for setting out to sea with their kids. But having listened to their story, I don’t think they undertook the voyage casually. It sounded to me like they did everything right. A family sets off on a boat and for some reason we assume they are endangering their children’s lives more than if they took them on a cross-country road trip. (Though families do this all the time, and we know the odds of having an accident in a car are higher than going down in a sailboat.)
Sure, when I sail around the world there will be risks. But there are risks every day, in walking across the street. In driving across town. In flying across the country. (Heck, entering a high school seems far riskier these days than going to sea.) But I think the trick is to keep the risks in mind, and prepare as much as possible for them, but not to take them so seriously that they keep you from doing what you love… or loving what you do.