I normally write an article the beginning of each new year about being prepared when going sailing however this time I am supplying this article by my friend Laura of Seattle. Laura is a world class sailor and is always prepared. This article should be very convincing to anyone that reads it on why we need to be prepare before going sailing and even more so when the water is cold.
Stuff happens. Being prepared gave this story a happy ending.
By Laura Sullivan
Where do I begin? Peter Nelson and I have been training for the upcoming Hobie 16 Worlds which are being held at Jervis Bay, Australia on January 31st - February 15th, 2014. Our day of training was planned for practicing getting off the start line and ended up with me having to be rescued. How plans change when stuff happens.
Our process is to check the weather reports for 20 knots of breeze, and hopefully waves and current. Those are the conditions we feel we need to train for to compete in Australia. Thursday looked like the perfect day – with 10- 20 knots from the South at West Point Buoy in Seattle, WA, where it tends to be gusty, and some wild waves.
Since we are practicing in winter here in Puget Sound, with far fewer boats on the water, and in tougher conditions, it brings more risk. You’re more likely to separate from the boat, in high wind, big waves, and current. It only takes a second to land in the water and separate from the boat. The big wind, waves, and current push a capsized boat away faster than most people can swim, because of that we decided to carry a marine radio.
Before I left the driveway to pick Peter up and go launch the boat, I checked the marine radio to make sure it was in working order. I set it on channel 16, and locked it onto the channel, so it couldn’t accidentally be changed by mistake. Knowing if you are in a winter emergency, you probably will have very cold hands that aren’t working well, and you don’t want the added stress of figuring out how to use an unfamiliar radio and change it to channel 16 – the marine “all hail” channel – which is monitored by the Coast Guard.
Our training location which we selected for the day was outside of Shilshole marina, Seattle, WA. This is also a highly-trafficked area given its proximity to both the marina and the Ballard locks.
During our straight line sailing warm up practice, what we were finding was a significant rudder cavitation problem as well as some lee helm which showed up with a vengeance in 20+ knots of breeze.
We were out on the wire, double- trapped, and the rudders were cavitating. We were trying to figure it out what was causing the problem. Weight distribution? A rudder set-up issue? And how to quickly solve the issue when it occurred.
Ahead of us was what we call a hamburger buoy – a large round, layered mooring buoy for freighters that looks a lot like a hamburger. It’s located at the entrance to the Ballard Locks. It was on a reaching angle to our sailing, so we pretended it was the offset mark which we would be working with at the Worlds. I came in off the wire, and traveled the main and jib out for the reach - waiting for Peter to come in off the wire and head down wind. I was focusing on the bows and sheeting the main and jib travelers. In a nano-second I was thrown from the boat when she lurched unexpectedly to leeward. The next thing I knew I was in the water being drug by the boat, holding onto the jib sheet. A big wave swept over me, and ripped the jib sheet from my hand. I was now floating all by my lonesome (Shucks).
I looked up to see the boat sailing away with Peter looking back at me. No big deal. I knew he’d turn the boat around, and pick me up. Instead, the boat flipped over backwards when he turned upwind single-handing it. (Double-shucks, big problem).
I began swimming to Peter and making some progress. I was encouraged. The next time I looked up from swimming, he was being blown away faster than I could swim. At that point in time, I floated in the water for a few seconds – knowing he’s getting farther and farther away each second I delay my swimming. I realized reaching Peter and the boat was no longer an option. (Deep breath – and discouragement).
It felt as if the water was pushing me –ever so slightly - in the opposite direction – which should mean the flood was on. Because it was so subtle, I looked closely at the water in the bay, the waves were building. Why was that important? It meant that my best chance for getting anywhere was to swim with the flood and not against it. For me, it was a tough decision to swim away from Peter and the boat – my lifeline - and head back to the hamburger buoy.
For Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, it might not have been a big deal to swim to the buoy. However, he wears a skimpy, Speedo, in a heated swimming pool and I was wearing a layer of thermal gear, full double-thickness fleece liner, dry suit, harness, and life jacket, balaclava, thermal gloves, a knife and a whistle in comparison. (UGH!! Not fun.).
I yelled to Peter to “Get the radio and make the call!” and then I turned and started swimming in the opposite direction. That’s a tough decision to make because now I was on my own. No time for a pity party. I need to start swimming now - inch by inch.
I swam for awhile and checked to see if I was making progress. Yes I was making progress – I was encouraged. I was 1/3 of the way there. Seagulls were flying over the top of me – circling as if I’m some sort of food source.
Inch by inch – I swam some more. More progress. Inch by inch I swam some more. NO PROGRESS!!! I was taken by surprise –and figured there had to be an eddy there that was trying to prevent me from getting to MY buoy. I decided to totally concentrate on my best swimming ever, and hoped the eddy wasn’t a big one. I swam – checked my progress. YES! I was making progress once again. I only had 1/3 of the way left to go.
As I approached the buoy, I realized there was a new current affecting me. It was pushing me away from land, away from the buoy and out to the bay. This current had to be from the outflow of the Ballard Locks. (I talk to myself a lot in these situations!). I said “I’ve come this far, and I’m not going to let THAT happen!” I was close enough and wanted to get all this laborious swimming over with, so I put all my focus into my swimming.
Yippee! I made it! I was now hanging onto the buoy which has a huge rope of wire anchoring it. The top of the buoy was about 5’ above my head. “How do those sea lions jump up there!”
I tried to climb up half-heartedly- testing my strength. I decided to wait a couple of minutes before the real climb would begin. I looked over my shoulder and saw blue flashing lights which never looked so good!
The Seattle Police Harbor Patrol has arrived!!! Their timing was impeccable as I had just torn a hole in my drysuit on the wire rope anchoring the buoy and was taking on water really fast. The Seattle Police Harbor Patrol hauled my fish like carcass onboard. They ushered me inside the cabin for warmth and safety. The EMTs were all over the radio asking repeatedly how I was. Was I cold? Was I shivering? I was fine – now soaking wet inside since my dry suit was torn. Luckily, that happened during the rescue and not during the swim. They gathered up the lines onboard and off we went to take care of Peter’s situation.
With the Hobie 16 floating on its side, the trampoline had considerable windage, pushing Peter and the boat further North with each breath and puff of wind. Peter was standing on the hull awaiting our arrival.
The Seattle Police Harbor Patrol wanted to bring him onboard, however, Peter wouldn’t leave the boat, so the Harbor Patrol threw him a line where they righted the boat. We stood watching over him, as he gathered the sails, righting line and tiller and got the boat in order to sail. Peter single- handed the boat back to Shilshole while we followed closely.
Peter and I figured I had been swimming in the frigid waters for over 30 minutes. Without the proper sailing gear, I could have died in 5-10 minutes.
Why does this story have a happy ending? We were prepared and reduced our risks.
We made a conscious decision to mitigate our risks by sailing in a high visibility area – Seattle, near the marina and the locks. There are other high wind, big waves and current areas to sail. However, they’re not in a highly populated area and we’d have less chance of getting help if needed.
Capsizing is usually no big deal. I’ve capsized in less than 5 knots (fooling around), and in 37 knots. The results at those speeds are slightly different, however, almost always the same. Getting the boat righted and back sailing is a step by step process. We train to push the limits, we train to handle the limits and know what’s going to happen. If it happens, it happens pretty much the same every time.
We mitigated our risks by sailing.